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Located on Saint Laurent Boulevard in Montreal, the Cinéma L’Amour is among the most glamorous remaining pornographic theaters in the world. When it first opened in 1914 it was Le Globe, and almost only screened Yiddish films. Over the century, it transformed and adapted, continually catering to new audiences. It was turned into an adult cinema in ’69 (nice), and in ’81 it became Cinéma L’Amour. In the shadow of Mount Royal’s cross and a stone’s throw from the famous Schwartz’s Deli, the theater opens at 11 most mornings, and caters predominantly to a crowd of older regulars. But in recent years, as part of a broader trend toward “porno-chic,” the cinema has become a local marker of cool. Its iconic red, yellow, and black sign, with its ribbony font, is now featured on lucrative merchandise. That perceived coolness lies at the heart of the theater’s improbable survival into the current day, and hearkens back to a different age of porn.
Venues like this occupy a special place in the popular consciousness. Both before and since the so-called Golden Age of Porn, these theaters have been liminal landscapes of public sexual displays. It was where people (mostly men) would go to watch and occasionally be watched. Cinéma L’Amour makes no effort to hide this; its online FAQ is littered with the teasing phrase “Everything is allowed if it is done with respect and discretion.” In many cases, the films themselves are an afterthought, an instigation for real-world encounters.
At their peak in the 1970s, mainstream audiences flocked to these theaters to watch films like Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973). Writing for the New York Times in 1973, Ralph Blumenthal coined the term “porn chic” to describe this new wave. Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie (1969) became the first erotic film depicting explicit sex to receive a wide theatrical release in the United States. There was a brief veneer of worldliness associated with attending a theatrical porn showing, part of a new wave of relaxed cultural mores. The New York Times cited a veritable list of icons who reportedly went to see Deep Throat, including “Johnny Carson, Mike Nichols, Sandy Dennis, Ben Gazzara and Jack Nicholson.” Such press coverage claimed that this new breed of porno was of a higher caliber than what people usually thought of the form, but in retrospect, the real allure was its association with that “lower” porn. It didn’t matter how good Deep Throat was; what mattered was that it was cool to be seen watching it.
Flash-forward to the 21st century, and few of these theaters have survived. The COVID-19 pandemic has only bolstered the competition offered by online porn, and new health measures have threatened much of the intimacy of Cinéma L’Amour. Patrons can no longer interact, and for most of the past six months, Montreal has had a curfew limiting evening screenings.
Cinéma L’Amour has done what it can to stay relevant. It’s tried to make its programming more inclusive, reaching out beyond the demands of the white, cis, heteronormative gaze. (Without entirely abandoning it; after all, such men remain the primary clientele.) As a side hustle, they sell original vintage posters which young influencers happily buy to decorate their high-ceilinged apartments. Almost overnight, it seemed, the city was plastered with posters in the cinema’s signature red and black beckoning Viens (French for “come”), and they quickly became popular backdrops for Instagram posts. The cinema has also become a common set for music videos looking for a bit of glamour combined with seediness. This willingness to adapt and exploit a hip crowd that mostly grew up with internet porn is one way the theater remains relevant against all odds.
In Montreal, a certain amount of grit has always been hip (hence Vice and Grimes), and the city has long embraced its sexier side. The Cinéma L’Amour maintains an aura of taboo that’s missing from most other vectors for pornography. Wearing the merch doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a patron, but it signals a certain laissez-faire coolness that people first discovered during the Golden Age of Porn. The theater is a perpetual underdog, an unexpected survivor in an era of corporatized pornography.