Content Warning: Everything you’d assume was in an article about Cinema L’Amour (sex, pornography, and general profanity).
There are three respectable ways to react when passing by Cinema L’Amour. The first is to keep your eyes conspicuously locked ahead, making a point of not looking at the images of nearly nude ladies in your periphery. The second, for those more comfortable with the theatre’s presence, is to take a quick glance at what’s playing, just to see. The third is to look ahead but to turn your eyes at others walking past, because even more fun than seeing what’s playing is keeping track of who’s looking. This Plateau institution is situated on Duluth and St. Laurent, by Segal’s, Dispatch, and, humorously, the Museum of Jewish Montreal. Every time you get your groceries, every time you get your artsy morning coffee and avocado toast, you walk by. If you live in the Plateau, chances are that you walk by this theatre at least twice a day. And you’ve probably never gone inside.
One would think that in the year 2019, the theatrical pornography experience would be thoroughly extinct, especially given the existence of the Internet. Even with the presumably lower demand, tickets at Cinema L’Amour are cheaper than the Scotiabank Theatre’s — just $12.00, with a seniors’ discount of 75 cents. A bang for your buck… or twelve bucks for a bang. Further confounding is the information found on their snazzy website, which states that the theatre is constantly offering free entry: for couples on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays; for trans people on “Wow! Wednesdays”; and for women on “Fun, Freaky Fridays.” In an era where folks won’t even leave their house to see a blockbuster, how many will leave their house for Hollywood X-Posed – Part 2? One rainy Tuesday afternoon, we decided to find out for ourselves.
A Supreme Clientele
“Everything that happens at Cinema L’Amour is real. Genuine.” These were among the first words that the owner of the cinema, who asked to be referred to in this article as “Steve L’Amour,” told us, after first assuming that we were only in the theatre to buy t-shirts. His words were underscored by a screening of Friends With Benefits — no, not the 2011 romantic comedy — which was playing beyond a set of doors a few feet away from the front desk. Ecstatic moans in the distance punctuated Mr. L’Amour’s lamentation of the cinema’s media coverage.
“People mock the theatre,” he told us, citing an article written by a major Montreal publication that he argued was not so much an objective look at the theatre as it was a journalist trying to push some pre-existing idea of what a porn cinema might look (and smell) like.
But there’s no putrid stench, no fluids on the seats (though Steve does acknowledge that certain corners of the theatre get “more activity” than others); you aren’t slipping on anything as you walk down the aisles. It’s a regal, 105-year-old venue, with plush red furniture and curtains, ornamental ceilings, and a horse-shoe balcony. The only thing he suggests is bringing your own sheet if you plan on using the private rooms, which are small booths with a window to watch the screening and a couch on which to fuck. They replace the theatre-owned sheets once a day.
A bang for your buck… or twelve bucks for a bang.
Mister L’Amour assured us of the kindness and courteousness of his clientele, especially when it comes to the venue’s cleanliness: “Nobody has ever had an incident with anything on their seats.” Those who regularly buy tickets to this cinema of love are the ones who prefer it “old school”: older, straight, cis, white men, a few of whom shuffle in and out of the theatre during our interview, unperturbed by the presence of two student journalists holding notebooks.
Unexpectedly, the programming is mostly English-language productions, but that’s not because it’s mostly Anglos that come to the theatre — it’s because Monsieur L’Amour thinks that “Québécois porn is terrible.” When asked whether a certain genre of porn performs better, Steve said that few people truly care about the genre, and fewer care whether the film is “really good.” He says that couples of all kinds come into the theatre, and that they’re very accepting of all sexual orientations and gender identities, but the programming sticks rigidly to mainstream heterosexual porn offerings. The limited range is alienating to a new generation of viewers, but his regulars don’t care. “I’d love to show more gay porn,” insisted L’Amour, “but it’s more extreme than regular porn.” The clientele tends to complain if LGBT+ porn is screened. Unless, of course, it’s two women.
“Upstairs we only allow couples,” Steve says of the VIP section, which is comprised of several red booths in the balcony. This is a space where, according to Mr. L’Amour, “secret rendez-vous happen.” Roughly fifty couples come every week, and unlike his steady clientele buying ordinary tickets, it’s a different fifty couples every week. Half of the cinematic experience, as salacious as it sounds, is hearing a couple fuck loudly on the couch behind you while you’re watching a couple fuck loudly on the screen in front of you. “I think we’re all voyeurs. [Some clients] love that it’s a taboo environment; they love that other people are here.” He tells us a story about a woman who nearly drowned out the sound of the movie with the sound of screams and spanking.
People go to the theatre to watch and be watched.
There’s something deliciously naughty about the exhibitionist factor; people go to the theatre to watch and be watched. Sure, you could find Mandingo Massacre 14 and So Young So Sexy 7 on the internet if you looked hard enough, but isn’t it a more pleasant experience to go down the boulevard, talk to the friendly, non-judgmental usher, maybe pick up some groceries while you’re out, and then head to the theatre for a little performance? What drives this cinema of love is a combination of familiarity and curiosity; those people who’ve been there hundreds of times and those people who walked by and always wondered…
What these couples do while in Cinema L’Amour is none of Steve’s business. “What’s permitted? Everything I don’t see,” Mister L’Amour says bluntly (it should be noted that he only makes it to the theatre once or twice a week). His concern about the establishment’s lack of alcohol license is eclipsed by the liability that would come with one: if the theatre provided drink, it would also be responsible for whatever occurred in the VIP rooms under the influence of said drink. So the cinema remains dry on paper, probably at the expense of attracting more customers.
Histoires Du Cinéma L’Amour
Still, whispers of nefariousness are, according to Steve, unfounded. They’re also bad for business. He describes an incident in which the police entered the establishment intending to simply give it a once-over. This naturally cleared the place out, with more than a few clients believing the police presence to signal a raid. Some panicked and started running, so the cops started chasing; and a chaotic game of cat and mouse ensued. Another incident in which a former mayor of the Plateau publicly disparaged Cinema L’Amour as a money-laundering operation bothered Steve so much that he gave the guy a phone call. The constant suspicion seems to be powered by bewilderment that a business of this nature could soldier on for so long.
For all the sexy shenanigans that go down at Cinema L’Amour, we’re struck most by the tristesse of its current narrative: that of a struggling Montreal institution trying to fit in with a new generation that it has only partially engaged. “It’s not the same business as it was,” Steve confides. And what a “was” this business had! What other porn theatres have a “history” tab on their website, detailing the singular annals weathered by this theatre, which the website (playing coy, needlessly) calls “the oldest movie hall of its kind”? Opened in 1913, first called The Globe, it was the premiere movie hall for Yiddish cinema in the 20s and early 30s. In 1932 it was renamed “The Hollywood” and continued as a normal movie house. In 1969 (nice) the theatre pivoted to its current niche, renaming itself The Pussycat. It reached its final form, Cinema L’Amour, in 1981 when it was bought by Steve’s father. That’s right, Cinema L’Amour is a family business.
That’s right, Cinema L’Amour is a family business.
Steve spoke fondly of the pre-Internet era: “Big business was back in the 70s and 80s when the only place you could see hardcore [pornography] was in the theatre.” But in its 50th year as a porn venue, Mr. L’Amour didn’t seem especially optimistic about the continued existence of the cinema: “Will the theatre exist in ten years?” he asked. “I really don’t know.” A landlord by trade, L’Amour explained that the reason for the theatre’s continued survival is that he owns the building and several others around. “If I had to pay the usual rent for this place, I’d be closed by now.”
A Hardcore Reality
The land developers and real estate moguls buying up Plateau properties threaten small businesses of all kinds on the boulevard. Cinema L’Amour is particularly at risk, though, given its history of serving an old-school clientele that, itself, is being pushed away to cheaper places. Recalling a tweet that comically rejected “business dudes” proposing to turn the property into a “Starbbuck” [sic], we’re prompted to ask whether many people come by hoping to purchase the cinema. Steve L’Amour shrugs — not really. If they want to buy the building, they have to buy the business. But that doesn’t mean the place isn’t up for grabs. “Everything’s for sale for a price,” he concedes. The future of this neighbourhood business is murky — but having been around for so long, the history of Cinema L’Amour is, in a sense, the history of the Jewish quarter itself.
Big businessmen and politicians get dropped off three blocks away, and they walk to the theatre.
The sobering reality? Most are too shy to check the joint out. “Big businessmen and politicians get dropped off three blocks away,” Steve tells us, “and they walk to the theatre. Or they ask for the back door.” Even regular folks inquire about a back door — no, not that back door, settle down now — and that sort of skittishness doesn’t translate into steady profit. If people are too embarrassed to even look at the theatre, they wouldn’t dare come in to watch Sex With My Younger Sister 2.
“Nothing that we do drives business,” L’Amour goes on, for whom the theatre is clearly a labour of love. “What drives business? Human interaction.” Cinema L’Amour is a place that thrives on connection: between lovers, between strangers, between regulars and newcomers, and between neighbourhood folk who never go inside but find a familiar comfort in its bright red-and-yellow sign. What would we do without this majestic porn theatre, that still announces itself so defiantly and unapologetically all these years later, on one of the city’s most culturally dynamic streets? It’s a bright piece of Montreal’s colourful fabric. As its 50th year edges on, let’s hope it stays erect for years to come.