Unlocking the Mystery of Paris' Most Secret Underground Society

Illustration for article titled Unlocking the Mystery of Paris' Most Secret Underground Society

Part I: Entrances
On August 23, 2004, they discovered a cinema 60 feet beneath Paris.


The sun was shining on the Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower gleamed across the Seine, and deep belowground, police came across a sign. The officers were on a training mission, exploring the 4.3 miles of catacombs that twist beneath the 16th arrondissement. The former quarries are centuries-old, illegal to enter, and the sign at the mouth of the tunnel read, "No public entry." Police are not the public; they entered. Their headlamps flashed against the limestone walls and then suddenly the officers were surrounded. Invisible dogs snarled and barked from all sides. The men's hearts hammered. They froze in their tracks. They cooed canine comforts into the dark.

In time, the officers' lights found the P.A. system. They found the stereo, with guard-dog yowls burned onto a CD. They found 3,000 square feet of subterranean galleries, strung with lights, wired for phones, live with pirated electricity. The officers uncovered a bar, lounge, workshop, dining corner and small screening area. The cinema's seats had been carved into the stone itself, with room for 20 people to sit in the cool and chomp on popcorn.

On the floor of one cavern, officers discovered an ominous metal container. The object was fat, festooned with wires. The police called in the bomb squad, they evacuated the surface, they asked themselves: What have we found?

They had found a couscous maker.

A few days after the couscoussière incident, officers returned to the scene. This time they brought agents from Électricité de France. But they were too late. Already someone had undone the galleries' wiring, disappeared with the equipment, vanished with the booze. What had so recently been a private cinema, a secret hide-out, was now just an empty quarry. The cinema's makers had left a note. "Ne cherchez pas," they wrote. "Don't search."

Don't search? For what? For whom? While the Agence France Presse reported a possible "extreme right-wing" connection, the BBC speculated on a full-fledged "underground movement." All of Paris dreamed of its subterranean screening society.

However the people responsible for the cinema under the Trocadéro, a place they dubbed the Arènes de Chaillot, are not quite any of these things. "We are the counterpoint to an era where everything is slow and complicated," they explain. This group also balances the aspect of today that is instant and shameless, hysterically tweeting. They are patient, serious, and keep their secrets.


After the cinema episode, it would be two years until the city would see their work again.

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