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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[…] a). Although the novel is set mainly in Saint-Malo, Villefranche-de-Rouergue was felt to have retained more authentic decor. Many shop fronts were transformed to 1940s style […]
Fascinating post, Vanessa, and yes filming is very tedious and boring. My preference has always been to work on stage, much more scary but always doing sonething. Will look out for the series.
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I was sorry not to have seen any of the filming, but it would probably have been very busy and more difficult to take photos. Supposedly, the series will be screened in 2023.
I’ve been looking around for a reasonably-sized town in France to move to. Initially Villefranche looked like an attractive possibility, however in various places on the web, commenters have suggested it’s rundown and somewhat dead. I’d be curious to hear what folks who live in or near the town think about it. It sounds like it needs a regeneration plan.
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Thank you for your comment (I wrote the post). I’ve lived 25 km from Villefranche for 25 years, and it’s the nearest town of any size to us.
Without knowing you or your background, it depends on what you are looking for by moving to France, so I can only speak in generalities. It’s important to bear in mind that summer and winter in rural France are two different countries, wherever you live in France. There’s often quite a lot going on in the summer, but people get back to their everyday lives in September, and the range of activities diminishes accordingly.
I don’t want to do Villefranche down. It’s a very pleasant place with a range of services: decent hospital, three supermarkets, schools, excellent market, etc. However, in our 25 years here, it has had mixed fortunes. There is some evidence that it might be on the up: new shops opening in the centre of town, some decent restaurants, and the Netflix show will increase interest in it (although that will manifest itself mostly in the summer when tourists visit). It has an English library that runs literary events, although Covid curtailed those, as it did most things.
There are a number of Anglophones who live in the general area of Villefranche, but I don’t know any Anglophones who actually live in the town. You may regard with horror the idea of mixing with other Anglophones (which I assume you are), but again it depends on what you want. I wouldn’t want to live in a small French town, but that’s a personal choice, since I prefer the countryside.
You might want to look at other towns in the Southwest, such as Cahors, about 50 km from Villefranche in the Lot. I don’t know it well, but it’s bigger than Villefranche and probably has more going on.
Also, I would suggest that you visit a range of places, if you can, in late autumn/winter (November to early Feb) to see what they are like then.
Everyone has their opinion, and others may disagree, but I hope this helps a bit.
Hi Vanessa. Thanks for replying so quickly. Every snippet and morsel of info is valuable!
I’ve lived in a countryside location here in the UK for nearly a couple of decades, and while there’s a lot I like about it, if I do move, I’m minded to try somewhere a bit busier (but not too much!). I’ve an Honours degree in French, spent a year in Paris and have travelled about the Loire and South of France. Integrating with either expats or locals is fine by me. I think it’s the prospect of things being too, too quiet over the winter with not much to do that impels me to consider towns of a certain size. It’s quite possible I wouldn’t fully relocate but spend about half the time in the UK.
Visiting in the quieter months is certainly something I’ll be trying to do! I suspect in orderto have a good range of activities and entertainments really requires being close to some of the larger towns, but I wouldn’t be too keen on living in one.
The Aveyron département appeals due to the scenery. I like me some hills and rivers.
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For some reason, your reply went into the spam bin, but I fished it out! Speaking French helps a lot, since you can get involved in more activities and take part in the community more easily. I must admit I prefer rural France outside the holiday season, since it’s more authentic, but you do have to hunt for things going on. I am very attached to Aveyron, although we live just over the border in Tarn—et-Garonne.
Good luck with your search. I will be interested to hear what you decide to do eventually.
Fascinating blog Vanessa. I love that book so will look out for it on Netflix.
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I enjoyed it too, although I recall not being quite convinced by the ending. I hear it might come out on Netflix in 2023, but that remains to be seen.
Aha! I wondered what happened! Sent it but it didn’t appear. Tried to log in and send another but it wouldn’t behave.
One other reason for my wanting to be in a town is I’ll be moving on my own. Living out in the country is nice but I’d be stuck with my own company too much 😁 Many thanks for all your help and encouragement!
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