If you like your non French-speaking films to be subtitled, a soundtrack that doesn’t feature the crackling of sweet wrappers and popcor...

Utopia Saint-Siméon: tortured saints, sardine cans and art house movies

If you like your non French-speaking films to be subtitled, a soundtrack that doesn’t feature the crackling of sweet wrappers and popcorn, resolutely 2-dimensional pictures and audiences that remain diligently seated until the end of the credits, the Utopia Saint-Siméon cinema, on Place Camille Jullian, is possibly your kind of cinema. And it happens to be in a converted church, as well as being the place where the sardine can opener was invented. Time to rewind a few years perhaps?

Back to the fifteenth century in fact, and the founding of this church in the vicinity of a sanctuary that housed relics of the Syrian Saint Simeon Stylites (or Symeon the Stylite), recognised in one unofficial listing as number six in the top ten of “Truly Badass Saints”. This enviable status is mainly due to the 37 years he spent doing penance and praying at the top of a stone column until his death aged 69 around AD 459.

Simeon was the son of poor parents and had retired into a monastery early in life. He went on to find various creative ways of tormenting himself and for his life’s work was elevated to sainthood. He would starve himself until unconscious, wore a girdle that bit into his flesh so that it drew blood, spent a full summer living in a hole with only his head protruding from the ground, or would simply stand upright for as long as his body would allow.

It was at the age of 32 that he came up with his trademark idea of being exposed to the elements at the top of a column, which stood on the boundary of Syria and Cilicia and ultimately extended to 18 metres above the ground. Monks used ladders to supply food and drink to the flat summit, which was about one metre in diameter (so Simeon could stand, kneel or sit, but never lie down). Needless to say, the feat was a constant crowd-puller as well as possibly proving inspirational for the producers of modern-day extreme game shows. Meanwhile, it is unclear how his relics ended up in Bordeaux…

All of which brings us back to the church which bore his name, which led a relatively event-free existence until the time of the French Revolution. It is at this stage that the building became a “salpêtrière” (a saltpeter storage depot). Later still, the now-former church was transformed into a boarding establishment by two ex-naval officers: l’École Navale des Mousses. The institution aimed to educate and train youths and set them on the path to becoming sailors. To get them into the “swing” of things, they slept in hammocks as they would on a boat!

In 1863, the École relocated to a docked boat and the premises were taken over by Charles Teyssonneau, who set up a factory that produced tinned food. While there, Teyssonneau, originally from Gujan-Mestras on the Bassin d’Arcachon, invented an ingenious key-like device to open sardine cans, and which went on to be used the world over for many decades thereafter. In late-1870s newspaper adverts (as pictured right), Teyssonneau's sons and heirs promoted not only the foodstuffs on offer but also this revolutionary means to "easily open welded cans" ("ouverture facile des boîtes soudées"), informing users they would no longer need to revert to using their knives ("suppression du couteau") thanks to this worldwide-patented invention ("invention brevetée en tous pays").

The building later became a bicycle shop and subsequently a garage before being turned, come 1999, into the art house cinema we know today.

The cinema is part of the Utopia network of independent art house cinemas in France. As well as Bordeaux, the Utopia label can be seen in Avignon (Utopia’s first, opened in 1976), Montpellier, Saint-Ouen l’Aumône/Pontoise in the suburbs of Paris, Toulouse and nearby Tournefeuille. The network publishes a free monthly magazine with authoritative reviews of every film being screened at Utopia cinemas, and which forms essential pre-movie reading.

The Bordeaux cinema boasts five screens, two of which are in the main building and three that can be reached via a small outdoor courtyard. Those in the main building (screens 4 and 5) are the “prestige” venues with ample seating and good viewing conditions. The screens are equally big in the more compact courtyard rooms, so when sat in the front rows it does admittedly feel a little like you are watching the film on the ceiling. There is an eclectic choice of movies to sample, as well as regular “events” such as debates, meet-and-greets with people involved with a given film, and special screenings for children.

In the entrance lobby, a café-restaurant offers beverages and food to cinema-goers and upwardly-mobile passers-by alike. The last time I was there, a young studious gentleman sat next to us, opened a fat doorstopper of a book and started underlining things in strategic places. He was the height of academia cool.

Throughout the venue, the legacy of the building is tangible, and the walls, beams and décor look much the same way as they must have done centuries ago. In its current form, it is a singular example of a place which is of interest both for what it is and the services it provides. As such, it is a unique asset to the cultural landscape of Bordeaux… and long may it continue!


  1. Very interesting post, the Utopia Cinema at Place Camille Jullian is really a special place. Also, so many good looking people at its cafe!!

  2. Indeed, it's a fascinating place with a great atmosphere. And yes, now I come to think of it, there is an unusually high ratio of attractive people at any given time at the Utopia!

  3. There's a great poem by the indomidable lord Tennyson about Simeon the Stylite where he basically mocks him for his obsession with becoming a saint and for devoting all his time and suffering to such a pointless task rather than doing real saintly things, like helping the poor or sick. It's simply called "St Simeon Stylites." Personally, I have a feeling most of Ol' Simeon's exploits are grossly exaggerated. How could he possibly sleep without laying down or falling off?