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Au Lapin Agile – the most mysterious cabaret of them all. Tucked discreetly away on a small Montmartre street, it gives away no clues – besides the ambiguous painting of a rabbit on its façade – as to what lies within.
Visitors expecting a low-key version of the Moulin Rouge will be in for a huge surprise – au contraire, this is absolutely nothing like modern cabaret. This is not blockbuster style tourist entertainment either, sugar-coated for international audiences – instead it is a step back in time to authentic vintage culture in Paris, yet without a single can-can in sight. Spectators are crammed, albeit happily, into a village house. There are no diamond-encrusted costumes or scantily clad women, and for most visitors, down-to-earth cherry wine takes the place of expensive champagne.
Plus, unlike the imagery conjured up by the cabaret’s name – translating literally to “agile rabbit” – there are no bunny girls in the house. In fact, a closer look at the artwork on the side of the building will reveal the cartoon rabbit leaping frantically from a saucepan with every bit as much agility as one might expect from an animal fearing it is destined for a dinner plate. Yet, even so, Au Lapin Agile is no mere ode to nimbleness – it is also a wordplay on the original painter Andre Gill’s name. The picture was commissioned on request of the then lady of the house, Madame Sals, who was apparently renowned for her rabbit stews!
For Montmartre’s bohemian crowd to simply be meeting at the ‘place of the rabbit painting’ represented a huge improvement on the drama of the earlier years. Back in the 1800s, after the club owner’s son was murdered by a violent gang, it had gained the moniker of ‘Cabaret Des Assassins’. Yet over time, the connotations of murder and danger were replaced by a more innocent ode to Gill’s 1875 painting, one of the first major ones of the Belle Epoque era.
More famous paintings followed too, thanks to an arty clientele that included the likes of Modigliani and Picasso. The latter’s 1905 self-portrait depicting himself as a harlequin at the club once proudly graced its walls, although the original – worth more than $40 million at last sale – has since been moved to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today, the cabaret’s walls are still lined with paintings, which comprise a visual history for guests.
Yet art aside, what can a visitor expect of the cabaret as it approaches the 160th anniversary of its inception? Spirited piano solos, accordionists, and renditions of classic songs and poetry – dating back as early as the 15th century – abound. When many think of Montmartre’s vintage cabaret scene, they might picture Parisians drowning their wartime sorrows with copious amounts of wine from the local vineyards, before indulging in the escapism of some cheeky striptease. Yet this venue – while attended by the same bohemian crowd – always presented itself as different from its competitors. It was about an audience all chanting their favorite songs in unison and reveling in the buzz of community spirit.
Today, the owners still proudly regard themselves as the “conservatoires” of yesteryear’s songs. The experience is best appreciated if you understand some French, as that is the sole language of the entertainment, although it’s not a necessity for absorbing the cultural feel. Lyrics for some songs are also downloadable beforehand in the ‘Paroles’ section of the website.
So, to visit or not to visit? Do you like folk music, poetry and Edith Piaf? Are you looking for an authentic re-enactment of vintage Montmartre life, delivered in a relaxed and unpretentious environment – and could ‘nostalgie‘ be your middle name? If so, Au Lapin Agile is worth the entrance fee.
If you’re after a touristic topless revue or Las Vegas with a Parisian flavor, then you’ll prefer to join the visitors flocking to the famous red windmill. On the other hand, if taking part in a rendition of the likes of ‘Alouette’ – that traditional ditty about cheerily plucking the feathers off a noisy bird – appeals, then Au Lapin Agile might be the cabaret for you.
It is often overlooked by cabaret seekers as it is not aesthetically attention grabbing or ostentatiously glamorous, but there is genuine authenticity in this low-key club, and a host of history that the average traveler normally hears little about. For a taste of a genuine retro subculture which is less a performance and more a gathering of like-minded locals reliving the good old days through the medium of music and song, then this is the place to make your reservations.
Tuesday to Sunday, 9pm-1am
Cash payments only
Lead photo credit : The Agile Rabbit by the French painter Raphaël Toussaint. 1987. Painted by Raphaël Toussaint. Image CC BY-SA 4.0