Deauville and the Pays D’Auge, Part II

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In the second part of his sojourn in Normandy, the ever-debonair Harry Chapman trades his spurs for brogues and trots up the red carpet at the celebrated Deauville American Film Festival…

The best way of appreciating the contrast between the two towns and their respective charms, is by boat. The morning we went out the Channel rose and fell like the breast of a slumbering leviathan and the light was as soft and shy as a schoolgirl’s smile. We cruised past the sleepy terraces of Trouville first with its functional little beach before turning and gliding past the immensely broad sands of Deauville’s beach with its scores of multicoloured parasols now folded at the ending of the season, and beyond, the famous wood boardwalk – the Promenade des Planches. Behind this were the confident hulks of the casino and big hotels, and further along, the remaining seaside villas.

And what of the American Film Festival of which I had heard so much and which I was eager to experience in the raw? We were there for the opening weekend (the thing ran for a week) with all the attendant energy and expectation of that initial splash, with the uncertainty, and had tickets for the gala red-carpet opening ceremony together with Woody Allen’s latest opus, Magic in the Moonlight, followed by the gala dinner, and on the second night the screening of Lasse Hallström’s new movie, The One Hundred Foot Journey.

Deauville HarryIt had been a while since I was in Cannes although I knew that festival well, but in the intervening years I had been to many smaller festivals with my own films. Inevitably my tastes had changed. My thirst for parties and glamour had faded as my hunger for films of quality increased (perhaps in direct proportion to my fading youth and my own increased commitment to the art of film making). I had been to enough festivals and was wise enough to know that a film fetsival is rarely wholly one thing or the other, but like film making itself, is usually the unsteady coupling between commerce and art. But who could claim to be completely allergic to glamour? Here was a chance at last to dust of the vintage dinner jacket, spats and midnight blue Lock and Co homburg.

In Deauville’s case the coupling was between Lucien Barrière, owner of the mighty Barrière franchise of hotels and casinos and the town’s two big hotels, and Lionel Chouchon and Andre Halimi. The latter gentlemen were entrepreneurial film lovers, the former saw it as a way of prolonging the summer season and bringing more business to his doors.

Glamour, alas, is rarely as glamorous as it appears in the movies, particularly when observed up-close and unedited. Even as God-touched ticket holders, the way into Deauvilles’s version of the Palais was segregated. Those of us whom I assumed didn’t have the caché of celebrity, were required to shuffle along like shackled convicts in a queue which stretched literally round the block. To the right lay the red carpet proper, as red as the drops of blood spilled in order to get a film made, and as broad as an aircrat runway. This was where the true celebrities and stars glided by at leisurely intervals. Most of these consisted of  silver haired old roués with their perma-tanned mini-skirted paramours exuding practiced concupiscence. I didn’t have a clue who any of them were.

Barriers separated us from these beings, as they did on the other side from the phalanxes of paparazzi, their zoom lenses held phallically aloft. Behind us, separated from this inner cage by an even bigger barrier and a row of gendarmes, milled the general public – the great unwashed – who we smugly congratulated  ourselves on as being of inferior status to ourselves and even imagined might be wondering who we were in the well-heeled second line.

The main draw of the festival was the actress Jessica Chastain who was receiving a tribute, something like a lifetime achievement award, despite being only thirty seven (although given Hollywood’s treatment of it leading ladies, facing the end of her career even as it takes off). As an étoile de l’étoile she was not even expected to walk but instead was driven up the red carpet in a limo. She was let out half way along, emerging in a sort of pink tutu which only she could make look elegant. An unholy ruckus erupted. Banks of cameras flashed, people clamoured, yelled and shouted out to her to pose for selfies with them. To her credit she obliged, playing this less desirable role of the film star. But her face, primped and strained, looked like a startled deer’s. How far all this seemed from the actual art of acting.

Deauville red carpet

After this we were led into one of the biggest auditoriums I had ever seen. Here the über celebrities and lesser mortals were made to mingle on adjoining seats and were difficult to tell apart. It was a little after seven and I settled back in readiness to be entertained.

There followed the most interminable series of speeches I have ever had to sit through. Most of the speakers were local French dignitaries – mayors, assorted bigwigs and so forth – who were required to thank this person and that, and themselves, in ever decreasing circles of interest. This was a cultural event and I remembered that the French take their culture very seriously. For once, having a faulty grasp of the language was an advantage and I sat in a grim and glassy-eyed state as the words fell about me.

It was nine thirty when the curtains finally rolled back and the opening night movie began. Set in the 1920s, Magic in the Moonlight follows the fortunes of the magician Stanley Crawford (and engagingly crusty and dyspeptic Colin Firth) who, on a bet, sets out to unmask the beautiful young clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) all the while being set up himself. Whilst it touches on questions of belief and the rational, it is played broadly for laughs. With its Riviera setting, sumptuous costumes and spirited playing from it ensemble cast, the film passed a diverting couple of hours. But as is often the case with late period Allen, it felt a little light, insubstantial, as though the great man had short changed us in the manner of Firth’s grumpy prestidigitator. As enjoyable as it was at the time, it passed swiftly from the mind on exit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next night’s movie was The Hundred Foot Journey directed by the Swedish Hollywood emigré Lasse Hallström. Helmsman of such films as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Hallström’s oeuvre might best be described as “feel good family drama with an inflection of comedy.” Helen Mirren, one of the film’s stars, was on hand to provide the required glamour, looking astonishing for her sixty nine years.

Despite my criticisms, there is enough cinematic meat in the festival to satisfy the more serious cinéaste as well as fluff to wet the whistle of the star spotter. If big Hollywood films were thick on the ground, so too were the independents and documentaries, including films by Greg Araki, Abel Ferrara and Steve James, and a screening of the current surprise hit, Whiplash. There were screenings all through the day and the night if such was your inclination. In addition there were tributes, not just to Jessica Chastain but to a varied bunch including Will Ferrell, producer Brian Grazer, James Cameron, Ray Liotta, action director John McTiernan and recently deceased stars Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams. My guess is that if American films are your bag, there would be something to spike your interest here.

And what of the horse, that noble ungulate, that prince of quadrupeds with which I emabarked on this little sally? Despite it being film festival time, his presence is felt more tangibly, more muskily, than perhaps anything else in the area. People own a horse much as one might own a dog or a cat back in the UK, as a matter of course, not out of prestige, but from love, pasturing them in their own field or in one of their neighbour’s. Deauville is twinned with both Lexington, Kentucky and County Kildare in Ireland, all renowned breeder of thoroughbreds. Studs abound, of a local and international level. We visited the Equestrian Centre and I was astonished at the high techery (although perhaps I shouldn’t have been), at the massive indoor riding arena and special micro-grained sand which is raked over every few moments, and at the spotless stables, better appointed than many a hotel I’ve stayed at, with their sleek, haughty occupants.

The thing that most impressed and was unexpected in a number of ways, was the polo. I have often wondered about this game which seems to demand such a high level of skill in rider and horse alike, but in the UK such social fluffery seems to attend it and ugly demonstrations of wealth, that I have been a little put off. I needn’t have worried. Like most things equine in the province, polo came with a distincly democratic flavour. For starters, it was cheap or free to get in, as it was for most equestrian events, even though what we were seeing was part of the World Equestrian Games. Then there was the fact that the stands were only three or four chairs high and fully mobile – a far cry from the monolithic slab at Ascot. Sure there was champagne being served – buckets of the stuff in fact –  and men in plum coloured trousers and women with long blonde ponytails, but this wasn’t the preserve of the champagne set. Most people attended polo and racing events here as those back home might go to a club football or rugby match.

Deauville Polo

The first thing that struck me was how vast the playing field was – easily three or four times the size of a regular football pitch, if not more. When the teams had the ball on the far side they were really quite miniature. It was when the ball was hit to the side of the spectators – and the horses could cover the ground in an instant- that the game really thrilled. There was a great thundering of hooves which set your pulse racing. Sticks were raised and the ball was sent hurtling down the line. The horses – small explosive ponies – would change direction in mid movement and then would be after it at full gallop, their rippling shanks shining with sweat, small puffs of dust popping from the ground at every hoof fall.

This is the closest we get in the modern West to medieval warfare, in its use of weapons (albeit to hit a ball) and in its sheer skill of horsemanship. I thought of the Norman knights who, in the eleventh century, were renowned as the best riders in Europe, who swept all opposition before them. Was it coincidence that after a thousand years, the horse still plays such a key role in Norman society? I like to think not.

I liked Normandy. I liked that it was a little like England – French too, of course, and most of all its own distinct, vigorous character. I liked its rich hearty cuisine, its cider and its Calvados. I liked the cutivated wildness of the landscape, the clearness of the coastal waters with the shards of razor clam strewn over the sand. I liked the translusence of the late summer light. I liked my rambunctious drives in a 2CV. I liked the way my perceptions were challenged. I liked the way the crowd at the polo wandered over the pitch in the breaks and stamped back the divots in solidarity with the players. I liked Deauville with its singular history and little snobberies.

Yes, I will return to Normandy, and if I get a chance to make a film in America, who knows, perhaps it might even be as a guest of the Festival du Cinéma Américain.

The 41st Festival du Cinéma Américain takes place in Deauville from the 4th – 13th September 2015. For more information, visit www.festival-deauville.com.

Flybe fly between London Southend-Caen Carpiquet (under an hour’s drive to Deauville) and have also recently announced 3 new routes from Bournemouth, Exeter and Birmingham to Deauville-Normandie. For more information, visit www.flybe.com.

For alternative routes to Normandy, including ferry and train information, and for further information on the region, visit www.normandie-tourisme.fr.

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