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Cannes 2009

The Red Shoes restoration

15 May 2009

Saturday dawned... and we were still asleep - it had been a long night. Andy had left to go back to Nice and thence to Manchester. Natacha & I gradually stirred. Still feeling excited from the amazing time we'd had the night before we made our way into town and to the main festival site.

The evening before, dressed in our finest, the paparazzi had been queuing up to take our photos. Now we could pass through the crowd like any other visitor to the festival - which is all we were. But although we were at the world's most influential and prestigious film festival, as well as one of the oldest - we didn't plan to see any more films. We had other plans. We did call in to one of the photographic agencies to see what they'd made of us the previous evening. That's the wonder of digital photography, they take hundred of photos of each group of people. Maybe one or two are special enough to buy and they charge a lot for them. Strangely none of them seem to offer any sort of online or electronic version of the photos they take. We had to buy prints, and then scan them back into the computer.

We headed for the railway station, picking up some brunch along the way, and got the train through Nice to Beaulieu-sur-Mer. A nice little town on the coast towards Monaco and the Italian border. But no, we weren't going towards Monte Carlo in the footsteps of the Lermontov ballet from The Red Shoes, we were heading towards Saint Jean Cap Ferrat and La Voile d'Or hotel there that Michael Powell used to own.

When Michael was young, his father had won this hotel in a card game. It makes me wonder, if the other chap bet the hotel, what did Mr Powell bet?

It was because of this hotel and the time that young Micky spent there that he had a greater appreciation of, and knowledge about people from outside Britain. He was growing up in a time which was at the tail end of the British Empire. The British ruled much of the world, although much of the world objected, and the attitude of most British people was that the rest of the world was there to serve them. Britain was the centre of the world and it didn't matter much what went on elsewhere, as long as it didn't disturb life at home. This was summed up by the classic (if apocryphal) newspaper headline "Fog in Channel - Continent Isolated".

When Micky got the film bug his father set him up with a job at a nearby film studio, run by Rex Ingram in Nice. It was there that he began to learn all the skills that he would bring to bear on his films through the rest of his life. It was the hotel and his knowledge of people from other countries that gave him his world view which contrasted and merged so beautifully with Emeric Pressburger's view as the outsider looking in. So the hotel was important in the making of Michael Powell.

Voile d'Or from the gardens
Later on, after his father had died, Micky took over the running of the hotel. Or, more accurately, his wife Frankie ran it while Micky entertained friends there. There are photos and home movie clips of many of The Archers meeting and enjoying themselves on the terrace there. So, a short taxi ride from Beaulieu and here we were, bring dropped off at Micky's hotel.

This is hallowed ground to people like us. This is where The Archers relaxed and where they planned some of their great films. And here we were, raising a glass as a toast to all those wonderful people.

The terrace

Lady of leisure

The terrace

Looking along the terrace

It's a tough job ...

... but sombody's got to do it

The Archers return to La Voile d'Or

View out over the harbour ...

... and up towards the hills

There are two sea-water pools, one artificially heated, and the path leads you through the sauna down to the private beach. Yes, of course we had to dip our toes in the water.

Let's check out the beach

What a lovely place

You can swim or go boating ...

... or just relax in the sun

No, really, we must go
That was lovely, a wonderful place, but we had other places to visit that day, so it was time to leave.

We took another cab back towards Nice. Between Saint Jean Cap Ferrat and Nice we find the delightful area of Villefranche-sur-Mer. Up in the hills behind the "sur mer" part of the town are some of the most expensive villas on the Côte d'Azur - which makes them some of the most expensive in the world. And we were heading for the best of the bunch! The Villa Leopolda was recently offered for sale at 500 million Euro (US $674m : GB £440m in May 2009). It was built in 1902 by King Leopold II of Belgium and takes its name from him. Previous owners include the owners of Fiat, industrialists, financiers, philanthropists, oh, and someone called Bill Gates but I don't know what he does for a living.

So why did we want to go there? In The Red Shoes, Vicky gets a note from Lermontov inviting her to his villa. To quote from the Fashion Finds site run by PaPAS member and friend, Gina Pia Cooper:

"She chose Jacques' grandest creation. The peacock blue of the gown rivalled the hue of the sea."
The Red Shoes, The Classic Story
by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Before everything else, there is The Dress. The gown of an iridescent blue with a hint of green, of many tiers, made from a very lightweight pleated fabric that floats like clouds. Perhaps it is a fine silk. The bodice is asymmetrical, pleated. One side of the bodice is strapless, the other has a two or so inch wide shoulder strap. Then there is the cloak, made of "eau de nil," also a very light material. The cloak has a scalloped rolled collar, and the back is intricately pleated, so that it drapes and glides behind. A luscious touch: the many tulle petticoats under the gown; one or two of the layers are lilac--the only other color. Perfection down to the last detail.

Wearing this dress is a beautiful young woman. Her skin is alabaster, her hair a rich auburn, thick and lustrous, she is blue-eyed, with perfect fine features. She looks like a fairy princess. On her head she wears a little crown, not a tiara, but a crown, made of crystal, clear, but at the points there is an echo of the azure blue of the dress and cape. She also wears a necklace, a choker with pearly beads hanging from it. She is a vision.

She leaves her hotel in Monte Carlo and steps into a gorgeous black and white car--chauffeur in front, she in the back, out in the open air. She travels along the coast of the Riviera toward Nice, along a road with magnificent villas hidden up in the hills above. The Moyenne Corniche. A glorious landscape on a beautiful day.

She is going to meet a man who has recently entered her life. She knows who he is, but not his intentions. He is a mysterious person. He is the alluringly cruel impresario of a ballet company. Older than the young woman, he is handsome, elegant, worldly, seductive. He has summoned her to his villa, but has given her no reason. As she ascends the many steps that lead up and up and up, she is rising literally, and her future and fate rise before her as well.

The steps have been overgrown with very tall weeds; the garden has been unattended for some time. Her cloak catches on the tops of the tall weeds, and it bobs and ripples as if borne by invisible fairies.

The young woman finally reaches the portico of the villa. The man brusquely asks her to come inside. She enters a room furnished with elegant antiques and a baby grand piano. There is a huge, lush arrangement of pink roses in a vase. Three other men await her. The young woman is surprised, but there is no time to react, because her host is speaking to her. He is offering her something wonderful, something other than she had expected to receive. He is offering her the lead role in a new ballet. She is to become his prima ballerina. And the ballet is The Red Shoes.

The magic begins. The gown is a herald of the magic that promises glory, but never hints at what comes after.

But first, there was The Dress.

That staircase that Vicky ascends, is the southern entrance to the Villa Leopolda. The cab driver told us that we wouldn't be able to stop there, the road is very narrow with a lot of twists and turns. He also didn't want to attract the attention of the heavy security that patrols the area. But he agreed to drive slowly past as we took photos out of the window - twice, on the way up and again on the way down.

The main staircase runs through an avenue of trees with stone urns on either side. That comes down to the iron gates (which now have a solid panel on them so even if we had stopped there we wouldn't be able to see through it). Just outside the gates are two more flights of steps to the left and the right so the whole staircase is like an inverted T. It's just that outer staircase that you can see in the photos below.

In the film, Vicky is dropped by the steps to the left. She ascends that short flight and then turns left through the big iron gates and up the main staircase.

So here we are, on the way up

and on the way back down again

The cab driver was a bit concerned by now and was throwing the cab around the corners quite fast, much to the disquiet of Natacha. So we were quite relieved when he dropped us off safely back at Beaulieu station and we could have a rest and then get the train back into Cannes.

What a day! We were tired, but we were elated. To have been to the hotel where Micky, Emeric and The Archers had relaxed and planned their post-war movies. To have seen, however briefly, the "Fairy Princess staircase". And of course, we were still buzzing with the excitement of the previous night. We were nicely entertained by a group of schoolgirls messing about on the train on the way home. They realised I was British so there were a few comments made and I gave them a few English phrases to play with.

And so we arrived back in Cannes. One more look at the craziness that is the film festival and a visit to a few more of the photographic agencies. Out of the hundreds of photos they took of us the previous evening there were maybe 5 or 6 that were worth having. Back to the apartment for a wash and brush up then out to a lovely little restaurant just up the road in the old part of town. La Sousta on the rue du Pré. Nothing much at first sight. Two rooms inside the building and a terrace outside during the summer. That's where we sat so that we could watch the street life. It's got a bit of a Spanish style to it, they're not far from the border. They do Tapas at the bar. But the restaurant itself is just good French cooking offering whatever's fresh in the market that day.

I had a lovely duck with figs. That was followed by a classic tarte tartain. I can't remember what I had for starters. I must have been distracted by my charming companion :)

Aha, that was it, she's just reminded me. We shared a carpaccio de cabillaud (cod) with cucumber - delicious

And so all such adventures must come to an end. One final night and then up early (or fairly early) for me to get the train back home. Natacha had another day in Cannes but now we're both back home with just our memories, and a few photos and other reminders of a wonderful few days.

One last thing, I changed trains in Paris. The TGV arrives in the Gare de Lyon and the Eurostar leaves from the Gare du Nord. It was at the Gare de Lyon that they filmed the scene where Irina (Ludmilla Tchérina) leaves the ballet Lermontov as they head down to Monte Carlo. So I grabbed a few photos of the station there to complete the set.

I would like to saw a big thank you to all the people who made this possible. To Thelma and Marty and all their people for doing the restoration and organising the screening and related events. To the family and friends of The Archers who attended and made it such a wonderful event. And a big hug and lots of kisses to my charming companion on this and other P&P adventures - to The Lovely Natacha.

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