Visit France with French cinema Episode 4 : The region of Brittany

A strong regional identity, rocky and rugged coastlines attacked by a stormy ocean, many islands and as many microcosms, and historical fishing ports make Brittany a land that attracts, and at the same time leads toward departure. It is a land of heroes and legends, but also a land of sailors and farmers, proud of their Celtic roots and whose life was often harsh. For others, it is a holiday resort and a space for dreams. It is not surprising that this world, in the confines of Europe, has often inspired filmmakers.

The island is conducive to the theme of loneliness and isolation. In 1980, Alain Resnais shoots Mon oncle d’Amérique. In this rather educational film, the director analyzes the behavior of man in society. One of his three characters, John, born on an island, returns there several times. The island symbolizes the place where, far from any social life, man is alone with himself. Jean (Roger Pierre) revives the primitive impulses of childhood. This small uninhabited island near the coast of Morbihan is one of the Logoden islands. As a child Alain Resnais used to sail so far to this islet, without the knowledge of his parents, in order to play Robinson Crusoe.

Even more than the island, the lighthouse is a symbol of isolation, as seen in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2004 film, A Very Long Engagement. The first encounter between Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) and Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) is inside the lighthouse of Héaux, near the island of Brehat. Afterwards, Matilda is waiting for her fiancé in Eckmühl lighthouse, at the Point Penmarc'h. This same year, the lighthouse of La Jument, in the Iroise Sea, in the south of the island of Ouessant is the main frame of The Light by Philippe Lioret. A family secret and the rejection of outsiders are at the heart of this intimate story.

When Chabrol lampoons the small provincial town's bourgeoisie, he is also filming the story of what's behind closed doors. For this, he is often up in Brittany: in 1969 in Quimper for This Man Must Die, in 1982 in Concarneau and Quimper for The Hatter’s Ghost, in 1985 in Dinan for Inspecteur Lavardin, in Saint-Malo in 1995 for La Cérémonie and in 1999 for The Color of Lies. But there, away from the touristic Brittany, Chabrol is essentially searching after a provincial atmosphere.

In 1987, Philippe de Broca directs Chouans! a heroic and romantic story. He does take some liberties with history, but he shows us some of the most beautiful locations in Brittany. We recognize Locronan, an emblematic village in Brittany, where he shot for three weeks, a few years after Polanski transformed it into an English village for the filming of Tess. Jean-Pierre Jeunet also shot here the last scene of A Very Long Engagement. In the incredible final scene of Chouans! we can also recognize the impressive Fort La Latte, in Côtes d'Armor, opposite to Cape Frehel. This fortress is a setting for a dozen other movies, since The Vikings by Richard Fleischer in 1958 until The Last Mistress by Catherine Breillat in 2007, including Ridicule by Patrice Leconte. For Chouans!, De Broca also chose to film on location in Morbihan, especially in the bygone village of Poul Fetan and on the islands of Hoëdic and Belle-Ile-en-Mer. It is in the latter that the director chose to be buried. 

In this movie by Philippe De Broca we discover the rural Brittany from the 18th century. The rural Brittany from the following century is the subject of The Horse of Pride, an adaptation of the novel by Pierre-Jakez Helias. Claude Chabrol directed it in 1980, between Bigouden and Cap Sizun. This movie accurately portrays the life and environment of a peasant family in the early 20th century. It is ultimately in his least chabrolian movie that the director really filmed Brittany.

For the contemporary Brittany countryside, we can see Western, by Manuel Poirier. This 1997 movie is not a western film, but it takes place in the far west of Europe. It's a road movie in which the two ‘heroes’ cover Brittany, by car, by bus, by foot – and even on their hands or in a wheelbarrow! It chronicles the travels and the love lives of two men forgotten by our society. Between Le Guilvinec et Pont-l'Abbé, port environments, roads and the countryside from Bigouden, in the gray or the light of dawn, make us discover a more real Brittany than in mostly movies. 

Since 1951 with Mr. Hulot's Holiday by Jacques Tati, the Brittany beaches are, for cinema, often synonymous withholiday rentals - though administratively Saint Marc-sur-Mer where Tati shot is in Pays-de-Loire. In 1977, Michael Langshoots in Locquirec, on the Pink Granite Coast, The Beach Hotel, the very name of Mr Hulot’s hotel.

In A Summer’s Tale, a 1996 movie by Eric Rohmer, the beach is a holiday destination. It is also the location of the emptiness of feelings and existential uncertainty of youth. Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) hesitates between the two banks of the river Rance, between Margot at Dinard, Lena at Saint-Lunaire and Solene in Saint-Malo. The developments of Gaspard thoughts and his changes of mind take place during conversations during walks on the shore or on the “custom officers’ paths”. These romantic walks occupy half of the film. As for the island of Ouessant, for the hero it is only a project or a dream. Gaspard goes back alone as he came, by the ferry going from Dinard to Saint-Malo.

In 1993, Coming to Terms with the Dead by Pascale Ferran deals with life and death on the foreshore, this symbolic part of the beach covered by the tides. The film opens with a long tracking shot on a beach, at Audierne, and ends on the same beach. A man builds a sand castle, under the eyes of three characters. Each of them, while looking, rebuilds his own story after the death, in his childhood, of a loved one, in the same way that the man will rebuild its castle destroyed by the sea. According to Pierre Trividic, the co-writer, " a beach looks like a theater the stage of which remains empty [...] we all stand in the same direction, looking at the sea…". Everyone can tell himself the story, that is what the three observers do.

The actress Anne Le Ny, a Parisian born with Breton roots, chooses to highlight the romantic and mysterious feature of Brittany. In summer of 2011, she shoots House in Brittany (Cornouaille), her third feature, near her familial vacation home. "My Cornwall is both a familiar place and a little dreamed one," she says. The movie is largely set in Plouhinec (that of Finistère). Scenes were filmed, in the Bay of the Dead at Plogoff, in Cléden, Audierne and Quimper. Released in 2012, it deals with a familiar theme: Following a legacy, a Parisian (Vanessa Paradis), faces a forgotten past. With the characters, we explore beaches, headlands and coastal paths. The movie showcases the changing light of the Audierne Bay and the wild and sometimes hostile Breton nature, and a bit of of his Celtic legend. 

This theme of a return to the past was already addressed in 1995 in Jacques Becker’s Elisa, with the same actress in the leading role. Leaving the suburbs of Paris for the rainy, windy and stormy island of Sein, Marie (Vanessa Paradis) revives its history and finds peace of mind. With her, Jacques (Guillaume Depardieu), the painter of shipwrecks, is also surfacing again. The beautiful end on the island cheats a bit with reality: the white tower, Ar Guéveur (The Great Dog), is not a beacon of the port, but a foghorn on the pass of Millinou on the other side of the island. But, as in House in Brittany where the movements of the heroine may surprise the inhabitants of Cape Sizun, Jacques Becker creates its owntopography. For, if filmmakers like to root their characters in real places, they often submit these places to their imagination. 

To be continued ... Episode 5: The North East (Alsace, Lorraine, Franche-Comté and Champagne-Ardenne)

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