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Vintage Location: Filmmakers Flock To France’s Bordeaux

A top tourist destination for the wine and rolling landscapes of the surrounding countryside, Bordeaux also attracts its fair share of international film and television producers, who are drawn by the French city’s special mix of modern and medieval. Amon

Streets of Bordeaux, France (mescon)
Streets of Bordeaux, France (mescon)
Frank Niedercorn

BORDEAUX — Horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches, about 200 extras wearing 19th century costumes and an army of 65 technicians mill about near Bordeaux's Grosse Cloche and Cailhau doors, relics of the city's fortified walls.

It's summer in southern France, and American movie producers are in Bordeaux to film a Paramount adaptation of the fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel" by the brothers Grimm. Most of the scenes were shot in Germany, but some scenes needed to be shot in a location that could better represent Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Bordeaux, it turns out, was the perfect choice.

This is not the city's first foray into the film business. In 1993, French filmmaker Patrice Chéreau chose Bordeaux to shoot his fourth movie, "La Reine Margot" (Queen Margaret). The film's famous St. Bartholomew Day massacre scene was filmed in Saint Michel and Saint Pierre, the city's oldest districts, whose narrow, winding streets and medieval buildings are perfectly reminiscent of 16th century Paris, where the real massacre occurred.

A timeless city

As the "Hansel and Gretel" crew discovered, Bordeaux can do a pretty good 18th century impression as well, especially along the banks of La Garonne or the Cours de l'Intendance thoroughfare, whose swelled facades feature all the architectural nuances of the era.

Director Jean-Christophe "Pitof" Comar shot many scenes from his 2000 film "Vidocq" along the La Garonne, as did Milos Forman for his 1989 movie "Valmont." "Bordeaux's architectural diversity makes you think of old Paris and its Haussmannien buildings," says Yane Lahaye, a member of a cultural association called the ECLA that collaborates with the audiovisual industry.

But Bordeaux can call also put on a modern face, thanks to its relatively recent tram system and improved facades. Director Josée Dayan chose the city to shoot his contemporary-set movie "Nos Retrouvailles' (Reencounter), starring Charles Berling and Fanny Ardant.

While the city's scenery seems to be the main attraction, subsidies and good working conditions also help attract film directors. Things here are less hectic than in Paris – less crowded, with fewer traffic jams. The municipal government is generous when it comes to issuing filming permits. Bordeaux is also full of qualified film technicians, who are sometimes willing to work for less than their Parisian counterparts.

Television producers have discovered Bordeaux as well. Undoubtedly less glamorous than big screen productions, television shows like "Section de Recherche" (Research Section) – a police drama aired on the private channel TF1 – are nevertheless a welcome source of revenue for the city. According to ECLA, such shows put about 13 euros into the local economy for every one euro invested by the city council.

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