Nobody writes songs about January in Paris. It's cold and bleak, and the impenetrable rain clouds make 8 a.m. as dark as midnight. It's perfect weather for going to the movies, which is what I do.

But I also go to the movies in Paris in April, May and June, when the weather is as seductive and beguiling as Bardot in her prime. I've gone right from the airport to this city's theaters after sampling half a hundred films in 10 days at the exhausting Cannes Film Festival. A saner person would have run in the opposite direction, but Nicholas Ray's legendary 1956 "Bigger Than Life," a cautionary tale about the perils of cortisone, was playing in May on the big screen, and I could not resist.

Neither addicted to film nor blind to this city's inexhaustible charms, I go to the movies in Paris in all weathers and all seasons because it is, by a wide margin, the best place in the world to watch film. Los Angeles, London, even New York pale when it comes to the sheer number and variety of choices — about 300 titles, three times the best top U.S. cities can manage, and many of them in English. Paris' riches include a peerless selection of American films from Hollywood's golden age, playing every week of the year. After all, this was the first city to show films publicly (a plaque at 14 Boulevard des Capucines celebrates that Dec. 28, 1895, event), and it is loath to give up its preeminence.

Only in Paris is it possible to experience this cornucopia of films and have the pleasure of seeing them in the real-world hurly-burly of commercial exhibition. Theater owners here are willing to invest in new prints of obscure works (such as the sparkling version of Jacques Tourneur's barely known 1951 female pirate movie, "Anne of the Indies," which I saw on my trip in early January), and audiences are willing to patronize them. If you love film, it is exciting to be in a city that walks the walk, that matches your passion stride for stride.

Paris' zeal for cinema is such that even new films from other countries end up screening here before being shown in New York and Los Angeles. If my early January trip had been a week later, I could have seen Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda" more than two months ahead of its U.S. opening. And I could have caught "Howl's Moving Castle," the new film by Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away"), half a year before its American premiere. Instead I settled for an enchanting exhibition of Miyazaki's delicately colored sketches and drawings held in the drop-dead Louis XV marble-and-gold-leaf splendor of the Musée de la Monnaie. Nothing in Paris is too good for the art of film.


Defined by film

Paris' position as the preeminent moviegoing city is not an accident; it flows from France's belief in and commitment to the art of film. This is a country that believes, more strongly and self-consciously than even America, that film is part of its heritage, its actual cultural identity.

Determined to preserve cinema's importance in society, the government prohibits TV broadcasters from showing films on Wednesday and Saturday nights, traditional French moviegoing evenings.

If you are a French speaker or even just a subtitle reader, the variety of international film, both old and new, that is open to you here is boggling. During a recent five days I spent in Paris, some of the choices included the Bollywood epic "Devdas"; Wong Kar-Wai's "2046"; Ingmar Bergman's latest, "Saraband"; the animated "The Triplets of Belleville"; Federico Fellini's "Casanova"; and Cannes favorite "Whisky," the only Uruguayan film many people have ever seen.

That doesn't include Paris' various retrospective tributes to old masters Sergei Eisenstein, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Yasujiro Ozu and such moderns as Japan's Hirokazu Kore-eda and Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien. And the august Cinémathèque Française, which pioneered the repertory concept as far back as 1936, was showing 50 Korean films at the Palais de Chaillot branch and a look at the final films of dozens of great directors at its Grands Boulevards theater.

Aside from the Cinémathèque's two branches, Paris has as wide a diversity of movie theaters as it has films. Two are so unusual that I make a point of just walking by and admiring them, though they show mostly French or French-subtitled fare. One is the Panthéon at 13 Rue Victor-Cousin in the 5th arrondissement. Built in 1907, it is the oldest movie house in Paris, the first to show films in English, and it still has a remarkable stylized facade that features the outline of a venerable projector.

Then there is La Pagode. Looming forbiddingly over 57 Rue de Babylone in the 7th arrondissement like a Japanese Addams Family house, La Pagode, with its brooding side garden and stone lions, may be the most atmospheric movie theater in the world. It was built by a French architect but with many decorative elements that came from Japan. It started life in 1895 as a ballroom for one of the wealthy owners of the nearby Bon Marché department store and became a cinema in 1931. Now, even with a leaky tile roof covered with a huge tarpaulin, it still commands our respect.

Parisians enjoy watching a foreign film in its original language with French subtitles. That means you can see major first-run Hollywood films (choices my week included "Ocean's Twelve" and "Lemony Snicket") in English, which can be a more intensely and exclusively French experience than eating in a trendy restaurant, where your neighbors may well be fellow American tourists. You can observe cultural differences that play themselves out in ways large and small: different types of candy, the complete lack of chatter and those small wonders, French commercials.

Commercials at movies are such an established tradition that the time they begin (séance) is noted separately in film listings. They are often elegant mini-films, and part of the fun for non-French speakers is guessing what's being advertised.

When I went to the MK2 Bibliothèque, Paris' hottest new theater complex, to see Pixar's "The Incredibles" (wonderfully retitled "Les Indestructibles"), I saw a superb spot with Asian actors and a soi-disant Wong Kar-Wai feel that inexplicably turned out to be an ad for Lacoste shirts.

This $30-million branch of the 44-theater MK2 chain, in a long, sleek glass-and-steel building in the shadow of France's controversial François Mitterrand National Library, is not only one of the best places to see new films, but it's also a cultural mini-city.

Starting with trademark passion-red two-person love seats as standard issue, the MK2 and its 14 auditoriums are as comfortable and current as theaters get. It even has electronic billboards that tell you how much time remains until a film ends and starts again and how many seats remain unsold in a given theater. Seeing a film here makes you feel as though you're not just going to a movie but participating in an elegant, sophisticated event.

The Bibliothèque has several eating spaces — cafes, Chez Jules et Jim restaurant — and, more impressive, three first-class cultural emporiums. The bookstore is well stocked with a strong cinema section, a classical-music boutique features CDs from the French label Harmonia Mundi and a 5,000-title DVD store that boasts, for example, "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" action figures and 16 John Ford titles, including "Mary of Scotland." Any of these shops would be worth a visit; to have them all together in the lobby of a classy theater is a dream come true.