The best film locations in France

Movie buff Samantha David gets ready for her close-up with a tour of iconic cinema backdrops the length and breadth of France

24 July 2019
Sommières, Gard, the jaw-droppingly beautiful location for Claude Berri’s much-loved films Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources
By Samantha David

So many beautiful films have been shot in France, it is almost as if the entire country is a film set. Paris – obviously – is particularly beloved by film directors while the French Riviera comes a close second.

But smaller, lesser-known towns and villages have also been chosen as film locations, and tracking them down is a great way of getting off the beaten path.

Many scenes in Claude Berri’s much-loved Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (both made in 1986) were shot in Sommières, Gard, halfway between Nîmes and Montpellier, and the town is definitely worth a visit.

Use the car park on the west side of the river Vidourle and walk over the footbridge into the medieval centre – admiring the Roman bridge to your right – and you will understand the attraction; the beautiful cobbled streets, ancient stone buildings and colonnaded market place are just begging to be filmed. No wonder the writer Lawrence Durrell lived in Sommières from 1966 to 1990.

The Saturday morning street market is bustling, and throughout the summer there is a full programme of events and attractions. There is an annual Medieval Fête every June, and all summer there are regular ‘courses Camarguaises’ in the Roman arena (one of the only ones with partial shade from the trees).

In July and August the evening market, which starts at 6pm, is a wonderful chance to explore; the esplanade beside the river is taken over by a giant vide grenier on August 18th; and at the end of October the town buzzes with the Foire de la Saint Michel.

If you are an Ab Fab fan, look carefully again at the tepidly-received Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie and you’ll see the scenes shot at the ‘Palais Bulles’ in Théoule-sur-Mer, near Cannes.

An extraordinary collection of interconnected terracotta igloos tumbling down the cliff-side, it was designed by Hungarian architect Antti Lovag for a French industrialist, and constructed between 1975 and 1989.

It is most famous for having been bought in 1991 by Pierre Cardin as a holiday home. The massive property includes reception rooms and lounges, swimming pools, waterfalls and 10 private suites. It also boasts an amphitheatre.

The house is not open to the public but it can be hired for private events. In theory, that means anyone can hire it if they have the cash, but the management declined to tell Connexion the rates.

When the house was put up for sale in 2017, the asking price was reputed to be €350million, so the day-rate is probably not going to be cheap...
Still, as well as some of the scenes in Ab Fab being shot there this is also where Spice Girl Emma Bunton shot the pictures for her 2004 album Free Me.
Looking at the website of this most surreal and unique house is free, at least.

Gemma Bovery started life as a Guardian cartoon drawn by Posy Simmonds, before being published as a strip cartoon book in 1990, and then finally becoming a film directed by Anne Fontaine and starring Gemma Arterton in 2014. Very loosely based on Gustave’s Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, it is a black comedy set in Normandy, where much of it was shot.

Rouen features, as does the fabulous cathedral there – which would be worth visiting even if it hadn’t been in a film.

The protagonists’ homes were shot in Auberville-la-Manuel (Seine-Maritime), and the Château d’Arnouville in Ermenouville (Seine-Maritime) stood in for Bressigny Castle.

The best locations to track down, however, are in Lyons-la-Forêt (Eure) where the bakery and street market scenes were filmed.

The 17th- and 18th-century architecture is so photogenic that it is one of the ‘Plus Beaux Villages de France’.

An interesting footnote is that scenes from two other, more faithful, versions of Madame Bovary were also shot there in 1934 (directed by Jean Renoir) and in 1991 (directed by Claude Chabrol).

True film buffs might therefore want to watch all three films before visiting in order to recognise the various buildings and streets from the silver screen.
Check out the fountain in Place Benserade: it was built as part of the set for Chabrol’s shoot and then left as a souvenir. Buy bread for a picnic at the boulangerie, and you will be in the place where some of Gemma Bovery was shot.

Only 100km outside Paris, Lyons-la-Forêt is a favourite weekend destination for Parisians.

Despite having a permanent population of only 800, it is blessed with three hotels (one of which is 4*), a Michelin-starred restaurant, and a luxury spa. If you happen to be in the region on Thursday and Friday August 15-16, the nearby Abbaye de Mortemer is organising a grand Fête Médiévale including jousting, hand-to-hand combat, music and dancing, and the loan of medieval costumes.

There will also be a market, refreshments and food stalls.

If you need a break from all that mead and medieval mayhem, the nearby Château de Vascoeuil is hosting an exhibition of contemporary art and sculptures including works by Dalí and Vasarely, which runs until October 20.

Lasse Hallström is no stranger to shooting feature films in France. His hugely popular Chocolat (2000) starring Alfred Molina, Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Judy Dench was shot in various locations. The scenes in the village, shop, church and mayor’s home were shot in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain (Côte-d’Or) roughly halfway between Auxerre and Dijon.

The fortified medieval village is another one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, making it a great place to visit.

Sadly there is no chocolaterie but there is a factory making boiled aniseed sweets (‘Les Anis de Flavigny’), which is right at the entrance to the town. Just behind it, explore the pre-Roman Crypte Carolingienne and then check out the Eglise Saint-Genest and the handicraft boutiques selling pottery, tin-ware, candy, woven textiles, blown glass, etc.

There is also a good selection of restaurants. Take your camera because the entire village is picture-perfect, especially in early summer when the wisteria is out.

Hallström also shot some of his 2014 film The 100-foot Journey, which stars Helen Mirren, in France.

The village scenes were filmed in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val (Tarn-et-Garonne) which is also where the story was set.

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val has a well-preserved medieval centre and was also used as a location by Gillian Armstrong when she made her 2001 film Charlotte Gray, starring Cate Blanchett.

Sunday morning is a good time to visit, when the street market sprawls through the cobbled streets with stalls selling clothes, meat, spices, and leather goods as well as fruit and vegetables.

In the afternoon, after lunch in one of the town’s restaurants, it is worth taking a wander in order to appreciate the architecture more fully (look out for ‘La Maison Romane’).

Otherwise, a trip to the small Grotte du Bosc is a great way to cool off, or visit the Jardin de Quercy in nearby Varen, which in fact contains several themed gardens including a white garden, a yellow garden, an Indian garden with automated water features, and an Andalusian garden on a steep terraced slope.

Angoulême was chosen earlier this year as a location by The Grand Budapest Hotel director Wes Anderson for his new movie, The French Dispatch.

Although the plot is shrouded in secrecy, residents grew accustomed to hearing explosions and the rattle of gunfire in the streets, so it’s safe to say the film is one to watch out for when released in 2020.

If that does not persuade you, the cast list is jaw-dropping: Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Elisabeth Moss, Timothée Chalamet, Saoirse Ronan, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Rupert Friend, Henry Winkler, and Frances McDormand are just some of the stars.

While you wait for the film, Angoulême has much to offer, whether you visit for the day, the weekend or longer.

Do not miss the lively Friday market, which is a great place to buy local produce and right in the centre is a personal favourite restaurant, a Moroccan place called Le Chergui, which has fab decor, friendly service, and exceptionally good home-cooked tagine.

The Chinese restaurant on the same street is also a worth a visit.

The city is devoted to cartoons and animation. It hosts the appropriately named Angoulême International Comics Festival every January, and is home to more than 40 animation and video game studios, which account for at least half of France’s overall annual animated production.

Don’t forget to look up as you wander round the historic centre, because there are numerous wall paintings and trompe l’oeil works around the city.

The tourist office actually runs murs peints guided tours of the best of them. Check out the statue of Hergé, the creator of Tintin in Place Marengo.

Late August, the Festival of Francophone Films is the perfect excuse to visit, but if engineering rather than art is your thing, wait until September 13, 14, and 15 when the Circuit des Ramparts race takes over the town.

This is less of a race than a vintage car rally, but the grids are nevertheless packed with drivers hopeful of nursing their machines around the course. This year is the 80th anniversary of the event, so it will be packed with extra surprises.

French takes on a train

If you have ever been on a TGV, you have probably already spent quite a lot of time on a film location... Clint Eastwood’s 2018 feature, The 15.17 to Paris, was set on one, and scenes were shot in Arras station as well, while Lawrence Kasdan’s French Kiss (1995) starring Meg Ryan was set on a TGV from Paris down to the French Riviera with a romantic interlude on the way, in Provence.

Meanwhile, an acclaimed short film, starring Jane Birkin, La Femme et le TGV (2016) (above) was about a woman who waved to a TGV driver from her window every day and when the line was abandoned, set out to find her man.

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