For the past six years, I have always lived within a few blocks of Cinema L’Amour. With its blurred out vagina close-ups and block-letter advertisements for “Sluts 2,” the notorious porn theatre has always intrigued me, like a tit-clad reminder that there is an entire sexual underbelly of Montreal that I have yet to experience. The history of this city is a history of vice, and in order to fully understand that, I felt like I had to partake. On every trip to the grocery store, I’d see that poster, a bare-chested couple holding hands while riding horses with a banner that reads “Free for couples on Tuesday.” I knew I couldn’t leave this city without going in, and really what else is going on on a Tuesday night. Boyfriend and I had been talking about going for a while, and after months of pretending we would, we finally worked up the nerve to actually do it.
Immediately upon walking through the front door, you can hear moans and grunts echoing through the front hall from the theatre’s surround sound. We arrived about ten minutes in to the 9 o’clock showing of “Sexual Gymnastics,” having thankfully just missed “Fresh Outta High School.” The man seated behind the counter had an unnerving grin and a face that suggested he’d seen the bottom of a few bottles in his day. Throwing me for a loop, he cheerfully asked “What can I do for you?” as if there were any of number of reasons we might have ventured into a porn theatre on a Tuesday night. Thankfully, boyfriend came out with a casual “We just thought we’d check things out” before I was able to clumsily sputter something along the lines of “P-p-porn in public please!” Buddy told us about the couples section he has available, we agreed that that would be nice, and then he led us off in the direction of the moaning.
First off, the theatre itself is beautiful. It’s a large, vaudeville-style showroom complete with ornate details and balcony seating. Originally called the “Le Globe,” it was built in 1914 and showed a combination of live theatre and Yiddish cinema before being turned into a porn cinema in the 60s. Still maintaining most of its original architecture, it feels more like a place you would come to see the opera rather than a big-screen Hollywood gang-bang. Give it a good wash and a coat of paint, and you’d have a stage set for Shakespeare.
Our man led us to a row of seats at the back of the theatre, each individually sectioned off with velvet rope. He unhooked one and gestured for us to sit down, assuring us that “Nobody crosses this line…unless you invite them.” Then, in the jovial manner of a tour guide explaining the attractions of a city he said, “You can do anything you want in here except smoke cigarettes!” before walking away chuckling to himself suggestively. A woman on the screen was receiving oral sex while doing a handstand, and ten strangers’ faces all turned to look at us.
I put my hand on boyfriend’s leg and we both tried to relax, but it was pretty hard to ignore the slow, shuffling movements of everyone else in the theatre. Within 5 seconds of us sitting down, every man in the theatre – previously scattered around the room – stood up and made their way to the back to position themselves immediately behind us. Some sat a row back, and some of them didn’t sit at all, electing to lean against the wall just beside us, not crossing our velvet barrier but likely hoping for an invite. Some would sit behind us for a while before getting up to sit directly in front of us and peer around to see what, if anything, we were doing. Others would stand at one side of us, casually stroll to the back, then suddenly reappear at our other side a few minutes later. As hard as I was trying not to look at them, they were trying not to let me notice they were looking at us. This went on for the entire time we were there, like a bizarre, sexual rendition of musical chairs that we had unwittingly agreed to play.
I had wanted to go to the Cinema L’Amour partly because it is a Montreal cultural landmark of sorts, but partly also because I wanted to see if I’d like it. Voyeurism (in its consensual form) and its happy counterpart of exhibitionism are both sexual practices that had always sort of intrigued me, but never to the point that I’d bothered to try them out. Cinema L’Amour seemed to be a good opportunity to test the waters, a sort of “Exhibitionism for Beginners” approach. But for every moment that I started to get a bit excited (Full disclosure: I dig trashy porno), the knowledge that I was being watched did more to extinguish that fire rather than stoke it. Every time boyfriend looked at me or moved his hand on my leg, ten other faces turned and looked as well. After about 20 minutes, we decided our adventure was over.
To be clear, I am never one to judge somebody for their sexual preferences. Sexuality is complex and deeply personal, and if watching trashy porno on a cinema screen with eight strangers is what it takes to get your rocks off, all the power to you. The fact that a place like this can exist for the people who want or need it should be seen as a positive element of a society, not its downfall. This is not to judge, degrade or humiliate those men for their choices, only to definitively state once and for all that my personal preferences just don’t align with theirs. As it turns out, being quietly gazed at at by an expectant group of strangers in a darkened theatre is not my erotic cup of tea.
We walked out pretty quickly and gave a quick nod and “thanks” to the man behind the desk, who didn’t look the least bit surprised that we weren’t staying for the whole film. On the walk home, we were laughing about the whole experience, glad we’d finally done it but glad also to be out of there. In some ways I was a little disappointed that my trip into the city’s grittier side had been so anti-climactic, but consoled myself in the end with the knowledge that at least pornhub is still based out of Montreal.