Filmmakers increasingly flock to Chateau de Versailles

By Anne Chaon, AFP

VERSAILLES, France–The Chateau de Versailles, the backdrop to “Farewell My Queen” which opens the Berlin film festival Thursday, has long welcomed filmmakers into its grounds, provided they behave themselves. Sofia Coppola’s “Marie-Antoinette” in 2005, with its candy-colored take on courtly life, followed the next year by “Da Vinci Code,” rekindled industry interest in the chateau west of Paris — which has hosted close to 1,000 film shoots since 1940. “Not a year goes by without one. Japan in particular is a regular at Versailles,” said Denis Berthomier, general administrator of the chateau and its 900 hectares (2,200 acres) of grounds, property of the French state. Versailles asks only one thing of its guests: “no fire or destruction” in the screenplay. For the rest, “I trust people — and I have never been let down so far,” Berthomier said. French director Benoit Jacquot was among the latest to take over Versailles for “Farewell My Queen,” which stars Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette on the eve of a French Revolution told from the point of view of the underclass. To shoot the last three days of the French monarchy, in July 1789, Jacquot let loose some 200 extras, in addition to a small army of technicians, on the wooden floors of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. “I never thought I they would let me do it — and I was a bit worried,” the director said. “It was a lot to ask. We brought in a trailer for the traveling shots — but on wheels, not on rails.” “At the Chateau they told us the hall had seen worse. The only thing they asked was for us not to use artificial light.” For practical reasons, and to stay on budget, Jacquot shot some of the film’s scenes in other chateaux. “But Versailles was the main character in the film — and the most expensive too,” he said. For a day inside the chateau, count 15,000 euros (US$20,000) before tax, and 10,000 for the gardens — a price set during the Coppola shoot, which Versailles used as a chance to draw up a formal film policy, explained Olivier Rene Veillon, head of the Paris region film commission. “Versailles is one of our greatest stars,” he said, citing for instance Woody Allen, who spent a day in the chateau gardens shooting two scenes for his recent “Midnight in Paris.”

Its appeal, Veillon said, reaches well beyond the period drama genre. “A decor like this one can just as well be the star of an international production like James Bond.” For Berthomier, renting out the chateau and its grounds makes sense as a publicity exercise — far more than as a money raiser. “On a good year, site rentals bring in perhaps 200,000 euros — which is the equivalent of one day’s visitor tickets in high season. So it is not really about money. “On the other hand, the number of people who see a film can amount to two years of visitors” to Versailles, which hosts 6.5 million people each year. “It is a secondary activity — but a good display window.”