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Riviera cinema

12/05/2010

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

Today the world-famous film festival opens in Cannes.  Our near-neighbour’s annual success in adopting an entire industry and drawing to itself the focus of all interested eyes – even if only for a week or so – plus the factor of the prestige associated with the Cannes Festival awards all add up to an impressive event. So overshadowed are we that it is all too easy to forget that Nice itself has a very strong historic connection with the cinema. Up in St Augustin, Nice, les Studios Riviera look modest and mundane enough. They’ve been operating since 2000,  when a consortium bought and developed a neglected industrial site. But the history of the place goes back much further. And in between its decline and more recent revival this place hosted the production of many celebrated, some timeless films. These included Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) and François Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine (‘Day for Night’, 1973).  In those days, the studios were known as les Studios de la Victorine, and their glory years began after the first World War.
Originally a handsome Belle Epoque villa belonging to a member of the illustrious Masséna family occupied the land. After the villa was razed, the seven-hectare plot made available was purchased in 1921 by entrepreneur Serge Sandberg who with his partner Louis Nalpas built the Studios de la Victorine.  Dublin-born American film director Rex Ingram took over the Studios from 1924 until 1927 and invested in upgrading the facilities. Their legacy was a thriving concern, which continued to flourish for decades.

Following France’s defeat in 1940 and the subsequent partition of the country, la Victorine became a focus for all the displaced French directors, scenarists, actors and technical staff who made it their own. These included actors such as Gérard Philippe, who made his film début at the Studios in 1943, and directors such as Carné and Marc Allégret.  Peacetime brought prosperity, and the marvellous Michael Powell worked there, as did Luis Bunuel, Roger Vadim and Jacques Tati.  The ravishing Grace Kelly, starring with Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, met her future husband while filming here. Other stars ranged fromPeter Ustinov to Bardot, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Gina Lollobrigida, Alain Delon, Jeanne Moreau and Robert de Niro working their magic there.  Gérard Depardieu also treated the Studios to his almost musically nuanced speech and resounding presence.

François Truffaut directing Jacqueline Bisset in 'La Nuit Américaine'

But the la Victorine’s decline was ushered in by the nouvelle vague – ironically a cinematic stylistic movement originating in France – whose emphasis on real locations, on shooting outside, meant that large-scale studios were decreasingly required by the domestic film industry. One of the last truly classic films made there was Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine which, as it was a film about making a film, deployed the artificial Studio environment to the full. (An additional irony: Truffaut was himself a founder member of the nouvelle vague.)  As computer-generated special effects burgeoned in the intervening years, the Studios de la Victorine became a cinematic white elephant. Used mainly for advertising or video clips and now re-christened the Studios Riviera by new owners, the Studios de la Victorine changed with the times rather than dying out entirely. These days students can attend lectures there on film history and criticism, so the Studios’ rich history is revived repeatedly as each class arrives to learn more about the language of the septième art.  And a medium often dismissed as ephemeral shows itself more durable than could possibly have been imagined by the pioneers presiding over their newly-built film studios in Nice nearly 90 years ago.

[All pix sourced via Commons Wiki. Click to enlarge.]

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