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Brussels' new cinema destination Palace opens today

21:59 27/02/2018
After a massive renovation, the former Pathé Palace reopens with the promise of an "open-minded approach to cinema" catering for the city's multilingual and multicultural audience

Downtown Brussels has a major new cultural venue from today with the rebirth of the Pathé Palace, now just called Palace - a long-gestating project of Belgium's Francophone community.

In 1913, pioneer film distributor Charles Pathé commissioned prominent Art Nouveau architect Paul Hamesse to create a multi-purpose entertainment complex based on Italian-style theatres in an old auction house on the Boulevard Anspach, just a few steps from the Bourse.

Hamesse designed the biggest cinema in the city with its 2,500 seats, three entrance facades on three different streets and elaborate interior design details. In the 1920s and 1950s, transformations were carried out and in the 1970s the cinema closed and the space became car parks and an appliance showroom.

In order to restore the coherent quality of Hamesse’s original building, architect Alain Richard chose to "create space" around existing elements, to introduce natural light into the heart of the complex, and to maintain and restore the Foyer Hamesse, an exceptional architectural gem (the foyer as well as the three facades are landmarked since 1997).

But the renovations carried out on Palace are intended to give this historic cinema a contemporary feel, so Richard's design is not based on a faithful reconstruction of the past, but on integrating the original construction into his plans for new spaces. There are now four screening rooms ranging from 72 to 373 seats. To emphasise the different periods of the building's past, the architect's design has drawn attention to these historical layers, prompting a dialogue between the various eras, echoing the building's entire history.

Belgian director and member of the board Luc Dardenne explains how this new life for the building came about: "It was a project to restore the building and create an arthouse cinema to promote Belgian and European art house films. It all started in 2003. Together with a team of professionals in the field of cinematic production and distribution, we established a plan for a cinema complex. Our aim was to have a cinema complex where the films we screened would generate artistic, cultural and social debate.

"It was to have four screening rooms and a flexible schedule that would enable us to show arthouse films in a well-appointed setting, and would also be well provided with restaurant services. From the start, we defined three lines of development: a schedule showing commercial films suggested by the distributors; an educational centre that would cater particularly for pupils attending the local multicultural schools and lastly, a cultural space for exchange and discovery, where members of the public and artists could meet through discussion groups, lectures and masterclasses given by technicians, actors, actresses, musicians, scriptwriters and filmmakers.

"We were also keen to ensure that our cinema should be completely bilingual and should offer a choice to Dutch-speaking spectators, especially since Flemish cultural actors have a strong presence in this part of the city."

The intent is to cater to everyone, from film buffs to professionals, along with visitors whose occasional trips to the cinema will include dinner and a movie, and maybe a drink after. And they want to break some stereotypes about arthouse movies. There will also be documentaries, shorts, family fare and special events. For instance, Palace will be one of the venues for the new Brussels International Film Festival (BRIFF) in June.

"There’s a tendency to think that arthouse cinema inevitably has a limited reach, but we don’t see it that way," says Dardenne. "For example Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings can also be considered arthouse. These films display very exacting artistic standards and the public they’ve attracted are proof that arthouse cinema shouldn’t be confused with 'difficult films meant for an enlightened few'.

"We have to do away with these rigid categories. Palace will have an open-minded approach to the cinema, it won't be wedded to a school of thought. It's a place that will offer entertainment and intellectual stimulation, based on the cinema - a place for learning, discovery and enjoyment."

Director general Olivier Rey adds: "The cinema must remain a special experience. Our aim is to provide a complete service. We offer an evening experience, of course, but there’ll also be regular gatherings at all hours of the day, special midday screenings when locals can watch a movie during their lunch break, family brunches at the weekend, community and school sessions."

The opening event on 28 February will be the screening of Hannah in the presence of the movie’s lead Charlotte Rampling, a role for which she won the Volpi Cup at the Mostra in Venice. She will be accompanied by the film’s Belgian crew. The film will start its regular run at Palace on 14 March.

Written by Richard Harris