Hollywood Comes to Southwest France

Terracotta roofs of Saint-Antonin by the Aveyron
Terracotta roofs of Saint-Antonin by the Aveyron

Some places just lend themselves to being film sets. Picturesque, atmospheric, even scary, they have a certain je ne sais quoi that other locations seem to lack. Or that the camera can enhance beyond their everyday familiarity. Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val beneath the brooding gorges of the River Aveyron is such a place. In summer its winding streets are refreshingly cool and quaint; in winter it can be a bit misty and murky down by the river.  

The town is no stranger to the silver screen. In 2001, it was chosen as the setting for part of the film Charlotte Gray, based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks and starring Cate Blanchett. For a few weeks, the film company took over. It changed all the modern shopfronts to their 1940s equivalents – and then changed them all back afterwards. And it recruited extras from the local population. I have to admit, I have never seen that film and I understand it was not an immediate success at the box office. As a result, the film company remodelled and shortened it.

Quiet alley on an October day 2012
Quiet alley on an October day 2012

This time, a film company – DreamWorks – is commandeering the town for several weeks in September. The unlikely-sounding pairing of Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey (plus Juliet Blake) are jointly producing The Hundred-Foot Journey, based on a novel by Richard C. Morais. The star is our own Helen Mirren of The Queen fame. Swede Lasse Hallström (Chocolat) will direct the film.

The story concerns two rival restaurants in a French town, one a Michelin-starred establishment, the other an Indian restaurant run by émigrés from Southall. This sounds equally unlikely, but then anything goes in fiction.

The choice of Saint-Antonin, though, seems a little perverse. I believe the novel itself is set in an Alpine location. Saint-Antonin is certainly not Alpine. I wondered if they were planning to convert the local residences into mountain chalets and import tons of carbon dioxide snow. But perhaps they’ll take the easier route and alter the storyline to fit the location, one of Hollywood’s specialities.

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val - not an Alpine setting
Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val – not an Alpine setting

Here’s the rub. I missed the extras’ casting session (they wanted 800), thus dashing my chances of making my big break on celluloid. I heard a rather nice story about the session but I have no idea if it’s true. Hopefuls had to present themselves bearing ‘une ou deux photos récentes en pied ou portrait’, i.e. full-length or mug shot. One person misread this and turned up with several photographs of their feet.

The town will effectively be closed for several weeks during the filming. Of course, it’s good news for local hotels, B&Bs and restaurants. The subsequent publicity will also be beneficial for the town. But I wonder what the locals will make of it.

NB post written in 2013.

Market hall at Saint-Antonin
Market hall at Saint-Antonin

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

20 comments

  1. Well, the dozens of identikit trendy young gaffers or whatever they’re called are haunting the village like zombies; there are huge white van/trucks parked everywhere, spewing out cables; a vast marquee feeds the zombies at midday. The last movie partially shot here was a dreadful perversion of an excellent book by Sebastian Faulkes – there is little likelihood that this will be any better. Its storyline is completely unbelievable, not to say inappropriate.
    The municipality insisted that the name of the village appear on a surtitle, so in two years’ time house-prices here will rise dramatically (they multiplied by ten in Notting Hill, thus casting the less well-off into the outer darkness of satellite towns and, indeed, onto the strreets), so I will sell my charming tiny half-timbered dwelling and move to somewhere much, much less desirable to the zombies who watch American rather than Iranian films.

    Incidentally, the cinema here in the village (where I have seen Iranian, Argentinan, Mauretanian, Finnish, Scottish and, of course, good French films) is showing more and more American drivel, interspersed with dire French comedies. The zombies have taken over culture, and re-branded it as Entertainment.

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    • I must say I’m glad I don’t live in Saint-Antonin. I sympathise with your plight. I didn’t see Charlotte Gray but understand it didn’t do well at the box office. But then very few films of novels really hit the spot. And, as you say, it has an effect on house prices – good for some, of course, but clearly not for others.

      We don’t go to the cinema very much, mainly because what they screen doesn’t appeal. To be fair, they sometimes show good stuff but I find the programme less and less appealing.

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  2. I always think the Aveyron landscape has a misty, filmic quality to it. Perhaps the film-makers are saving on lens Vaseline!

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    • Yes, you’re right, although that’s more in the middle and eastern part of that département, towards the Aubrac. The light’s rather sharper around Saint-Antonin in Tarn-et-Garonne – except that the weather has not been good for the past few days so it probably is a bit misty for filming down there.

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    • The place is effectively closed for a couple of weeks, as I understand it, so it will be a bit disruptive for the inhabitants while filming goes on. At least I don’t live there, so it doesn’t affect me! And hopefully it will have longer-term benefits.

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  3. Film companies taking over villages can be a mixed blessing. Normal life comes to a complete halt and flocks of technicians go about their mysterious business. That it all comes together to make film is a bit of a miracle. Quite often film companies will tart up tatty-looking buildings, which is great for the owners. Let’s hope St. Antonin gets a bit of a facelift in the process – not that I’m suggesting it needs it, of course.

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    • Fortunately, it won’t affect us personally since Saint-Antonin is some way away. I imagine that the natives might find the filming quite intrusive and I don’t know how much of the place they are planning to change. Overall, though, it will contribute to the local economy, which has to be welcomed. Mind you, the weather is going to be a bit variable during the first part of the filming: of course, everyone assumes that the sun always shines in southern France!

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  4. We watched the Woody Allen movie Sweet and Lowdown solely because part of it was shot in my hometown (all the boardwalk scenes along the water in case you have seen it). It’ s got Sean Penn who plays a crazy guitarist–didn’t really like the movie but I remember when the crew came and changed the look of the boardwalk, it was so much fun to watch!

    I’m not surprised Oprah Winfrey is involved–she loves underdog stories! She is herself a self-made woman and I’m sure she identifies with the restaurant runs by immigrants. She is considered a minority after all in the States.

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    • I haven’t seen that film but it must have been fun to see it shot in your own town.

      I thought Oprah and Spielberg just seemed a slightly unlikely combination but I suppose all sorts of different people get together to produce films. I take your point about the minority issue. The storyline of this particular film is a bit unlikely, though. There are very few Indian restaurants in France, especially in the provinces. I’ll be very interested to see it when it finally comes out.

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      • True, you see few Indian restaurants outside of Paris. But the author who wrote the story must have gotten his inspiration from somewhere! Maybe the reason he wrote it is because he knew just how unlikely it seemed. Sometimes the most unlikely it seems it could happen, the better the story!

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        • Indeed, and in fiction anything goes. Someone said that in fiction, ‘If you want someone to fly, they can fly.’ And perhaps the unexpected is more interesting than the expected in fiction.

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  5. I saw Charlotte Grey in New York. Not very good but it was also filmed in La Panonie near Rocamadour and at Dongay, a farm near Rignac, my village. Some locals were in the film, and I remember exclaiming “Tiens, c’est Andre LaMotte!” at one point.

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    • I can imagine that Rocamadour and the surrounding countryside would make a good film set. Someone told me, although I have yet to verify it, that parts of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were filmed in that area. It’s strange seeing people you know in a film!

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  6. Is that where Doreen lives? I loved Charlotte Grey, both book and film, and will look out for this one. Is it a comedy? What a shame you missed the casting session!

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    • Yes, in fact I got the story about the photos of the feet from her. I don’t think it’s a comedy; sounds a bit more like an exploration of family loyalties and rivalries. I expect I would have been cast as some old crone, anyway, so I’m not too heartbroken!

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  7. What a shame, you missed your chance at 15 minutes of fame!
    I saw the film, Charlotte Gray and enjoyed it. I read the book as well, which was better but then novels rarely translate well to screen without a lot of plot-changing and enormous cuts from the story. Hopefully you’ll be able to go down there and get Helen Mirren’s autograph!

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    • I haven’t read the book, either. It’s on my list. As you say, novels rarely improve with translation to the big screen. I expect my chances of getting anywhere near Helen Mirren for an autograph are roughly equivalent to those of a snowball in hell!

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