Shot on the Riviera: The Victorine and a Hub for French Film
Ever since the heyday of the Victorine Studios, the south of France has been a hub for French film. Lanie Goodman reports on one hundred years of movies from the Riviera…
Two years ago, on a hot summer morning, down at my local market on the leafy village square, I accidentally walked into a film set. Well, not exactly. The cameras weren’t rolling, so I was saved the humiliation of spoiling the shot. But who wouldn’t have been curious? Instead of the usual colourful array of fresh fruit and vegetables there were makeshift booths displaying all sorts of extraordinary antique books. I was so intrigued that I marched right over to the booksellers, oblivious that the resplendent Julia Stiles, star of the hit TV series Riviera, was standing to my right. Nor did I notice director Neil Jordan (The Borgias, The Crying Game) squinting into the monitor and mopping his brow.
Another time, on my way to work, I walked past the set of Brice 3 (sequel of the French surfer spoof Brice de Nice) where comic actor Jean Dujardin, decked out in Brice’s screaming yellow T-shirt and silly long blond wig – you couldn’t miss him – was chatting with a group of local old-timers on a bench.
There’s nothing unusual about spotting film crews shooting anything from commercials and music clips to shorts and feature films in the south of France these days. The area officially defined as PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) has become the number two region for film locations (after Paris and the Île-de-France), with 5,000 days of shooting in 2017. And there are very good reasons why the audio-visual industry here is booming.
If we take Riviera as an example, the advantages of filming a TV series in the PACA region are glaringly obvious. Shot in 300 different locations, the 140-day shoot experienced only three days marred by grey, drizzly skies.
“The sunshine is definitely a factor,” says Stéphanie Gac, director of the Commission du Film Alpes-Maritimes Côte d’Azur. “When you’re shooting exteriors, the most stressful factor is the weather. When it comes to cinema, it’s always much easier to create rain than sun.”
And you can add to that the sheer diversity of natural décor, another plus that has been continually exploited ever since the birth of the Victorine Studios in Nice nearly a century ago.
“We have the sea, creeks, red rocks, pebbles, sand, and the mountains covered with snow or wildflowers, and countryside with forests of pine and oak. There are all kinds of private villas for locations – Baroque castles, seafront, contemporary, mountain farmhouses and sheepfolds,” Gac continues. “It’s fairly easy to set up an entire production without venturing very far.”
This was the case for Woody Allen’s 1920s caper Magic in the Moonlight, whose team scoured the palm-fringed coast and the woodsy backcountry for locations with authentic années folles charm. Shot in the summer of 2013, the director and cast – Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden and Colin Firth – swanned around in swanky hotels and private mansions where the wealthy glam set once partied, including the Hôtel Belles Rives on the Cap d’Antibes (formerly Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s rented summer villa in 1926) and Eilenroc, a restored Belle-Époque villa with luxuriant gardens where American magnate Louis D. Beaumont and his wife Hélène hosted champagne-soaked fêtes. Among other locations was a secluded vineyard in the Var, the hotel Château Saint-Martin – an elegant old-world castle hidden away on a hilltop in Vence – and Nice’s landmark seafront pink and white wedding cake palace, Hôtel Le Negresco, where dozens of films have been shot since the 1950s.
“The Côte d’Azur is incredibly well-equipped with qualified local professionals,” Gac explains. A group called La Base TAF provides a pool of cinema industry people that includes technicians, artists and extras (figurants). “Not only does having on-site crews cut production costs, there’s also quite a bit of municipal financial support from Nice, Cannes and elsewhere – €620 million in total – to encourage filmmakers to come here for the natural beauty instead of going to places like Croatia.”
Among recent feature films shot in Nice was the compelling 2017 family drama Espèces Menacées (Endangered Species) by writer and director Gilles Bourdos, whose 2012 film Renoir was nominated for an Oscar. Born and raised in Nice, the 55-year-old filmmaker currently lives in New York, but says he is often inspired by scenes from his childhood.
“I travel a lot and have the temperament of a nomad,” Bourdos says. “But I always return to my source, to the Mediterranean. When I was 15 and lived in the housing project suburbs of Nice, a friend from high school happened to take me to see an exhibition by Yves Klein. I was completely captivated by the colour – that pure blue – and those paintings always stayed in my mind as a major influence throughout my cinematic career.”
In contrast to the ever-glamorous clichés of the Côte d’Azur, depicted in recent movies such as the 2017 sequel Fifty Shades Darker, Bourdos presents a grittier side of the Riviera in Endangered Species. After a (catastrophic) wedding night at Hôtel Le Negresco, the euphoria of a working-class couple (Vincent Rottiers and Alice Isaaz) quickly spirals into domestic violence and affects everyone around them.
Similarly, L’Atelier (The Workshop, 2017), set in the seaside town of La Ciotat, is a moving social drama directed by Laurent Cantet, winner of the Cannes Festival’s Palme d’Or for Entre les murs (The Class). Presented in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes last May, the film recounts the story of Antoine, a rebellious teen who attends a summer writing workshop in which a group of youngsters have been selected to write a crime thriller with the help of their instructor, Olivia (Marina Foïs), a famous novelist.
“I used to go to La Ciotat frequently when I was a student,” Cantet says. “And I was always fascinated by the town’s shipyard, that was both magnificent and nostalgic, since it no longer is what it used to be. I wanted to portray today’s working-class adolescents, who live in the moment, and are confronted with the violence of our society.”
The sensual Mediterranean backdrop – stark white limestone rocks and a limpid turquoise sea – also contributes to the unspoken attraction between teacher and pupil. The script, co-written by acclaimed screenwriter Robin Campillo (120 Battements par minute) never once alludes to La Ciotat’s glorious past: home of the oldest cinema, where the Lumière brothers conducted their first experiments with film.
REVIVING THE VICTORINE
To add further to the recent effervescence, last November, the city of Nice reacquired the management of the mythic cinema studios La Victorine, which had been run by Paris-based company Euro Media Télévision since 1999.
“We’re hoping to relaunch the Victorine Studios in an even more dynamic way,” says Guillaume Poulet, head of Cinémathèque de Nice, and the man in charge of the city’s film shoots. With 10 stages, 6,000 square metres of shooting space (there’s even a swimming pool with a shooting porthole, specially built for Elizabeth Taylor, who never used it), and a total overhaul of the equipment, there are high hopes to attract even more international projects.
Once known as France’s “Little Hollywood”, the story of La Victorine dates back to 1919, when Turkish-born filmmaker Louis Nalpas arrived on the Côte d’Azur and began to film The Sultan of Love. After Pathé Studios backed out in the middle of the shoot, he and his business partner, Serge Sandberg, bought an immense plot of rural land in Nice’s Saint-Augustin neighbourhood. However, after making 50 silent films, Nalpas was forced to sell up when Sandberg’s poor management plunged them into debt.
Then, in 1925, along came the flamboyant Irish-American director Rex Ingram, who had turned hitherto unknown silent movie actor Rudolph Valentino into an overnight sensation with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and subsequently transformed the Victorine into a sophisticated, fully-equipped lm studio. Despite the high upkeep, devastating fires, constantly changing owners, and World War II, the studios somehow survived.
Among the most celebrated films shot at the Victorine is Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, with exteriors at the iconic Carlton Hotel in Cannes. The 1950s also marked Brigitte Bardot’s explosive debut in And God Created Woman by Roger Vadim, and Jean Cocteau’s celebrated Testament of Orpheus.
By the 1960s and 1970s, the strong presence of French directors at the Victorine established Nice as a film hub, attracting all the major French directors: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, René Clément, Alain Resnais, and Claude Lelouch. The Victorine has also welcomed a staggering number of international actors including Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Anthony Quinn, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Douglas, Paul Newman, John Travolta, Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro.
“Looking back, 2017 was a quite a good year,” Stéphanie Gac concludes. “There were 14 feature films and three TV series shot in the PACA region, including the first season of Ransom, which aired in the USA, Canada and France.”
Meanwhile, due to the enormous success of Riviera, director Neil Jordan and his crew are back in town preparing for season two, which will shoot until October of this year.
From France Today magazine
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