You’d think that, in the 12½ years I’ve been writing this blog, I would always have a camera with me. Normally I do, but just when it mattered, I left my phone on the kitchen table. So I almost missed Villefranche-de-Rouergue’s temporary transformation into a film set. All was not lost, but only by a whisker.
Stand-in for Saint-Malo
I mentioned a few weeks ago that Villefranche, our nearest town of any size, was a chosen location for Netflix’s adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See. The story is set partly in Saint-Malo in Brittany during World War II.
Clearly, landlocked Villefranche is nowhere near the sea, but Allied bombing and fires set by the Germans almost completely destroyed Saint-Malo after the Normandy landings in 1944. Saint-Malo was rebuilt after the war, but presumably the filmmakers felt that the cobbled streets and tall buildings of Villefranche could stand in for the town as it was at the time.
The realities of filming
Netflix recruited hundreds of local extras (a friend claims he was turned down for looking “too well fed” for WWII) and sent in the set creators to transform the shop and café fronts.
Filming took place for about three weeks, ending on Wednesday with the arrival of the Americans in Saint-Malo, complete with Sherman tank and jeeps.
I saw a photo showing three extras dressed as U.S. soldiers sitting on a step between takes. One of them was looking incongruously at his mobile phone. All three looked thoroughly bored (and no doubt very hot), but I imagine filming is rather like war: long periods of tedious inactivity punctuated by bursts of frenzied activity.
Dismantling the sets
Since it has just been too hot to do it before, my plan was to take photos yesterday, once filming had ended but before they took down the sets. After a frantic search in my bag and a stiflingly hot walk back to the car to check the phone wasn’t there, we resigned ourselves to having lunch, and I resolved to go back today.
They don’t waste any time dismantling the sets. This morning in Villefranche, people in white vans zipped around everywhere while others up ladders removed the temporary shop signage.
The “debris” from bomb damage was stored in the square at the back of the Collégiale (cathedral). A grab lorry was picking up bucketfuls of it for disposal.
You can see some shots of the filming itself here, including the burning carousel.
I would like to know what Villefranche actually looked like during World War II. Google searches simply bring up shots of the Netflix filming, so I will have to do some more research.
Hopefully, the filming has brought much-needed injections of interest to the town and cash to the local economy, which will continue once the mini-series is screened. The centre of Villefranche has been in decline for a couple of decades as out-of-town superstores have sprung up – some of those are now struggling, too. Walking around today, I was glad to see some new shops have opened.
A town made for wandering around
It was good just to wander around the town, for which I don’t often find the opportunity. Villefranche is a lovely old bastide by the River Aveyron, dominated by a gigantic 13th-century cathedral. Streets and alleys in a typical bastide grid pattern surround the large central square.
Villefranche has one of the biggest and best markets in the region, every Thursday morning. This is the only time when the town is really busy. It’s certainly worth a visit if you are in the area.
I’ve posted several times about Villefranche, but I’ll leave you with a few fresh photos I took today with the ubiquitous white van men featured. It is still my ambition to climb the clocher of the Collégiale with its impressive carillon. From the top there is a terrific panoramic view of the rooftops and layout of the town and of the surrounding countryside. And I will make sure I have my phone/camera. Watch this space.
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