Toujours Provence

FILM : What draws so many French film-makers to Provence? Robin Buss visits the set of 'The Horseman on the Roof' to find out
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"SILENCE, on tourne!" shouts the assistant director, followed by a mild reproach to some other members of the film crew who are talking behind his back: "We're trying to make a film here; be quiet." He can hardly be heard over the chirping of cicadas in the grass and the insistent tugging of the wind - the mistral, a cold blast that brings sunshine and cloudless skies, and one of those winds important enough to have its own name.

I'm in Provence with two other journalists, an Italian and a German, to watch the director Jean-Paul Rappeneau filming his adaptation of Jean Giono's picaresque novel, Le Hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof). Rappeneau's previous film was Cyrano de Bergerac, where he faced the challenge of making a big-budget feature in rhyming alexandrines; then he had Gerard Depardieu. Now he is filming with a virtual unknown - Olivier Martinez - in the lead, and is trying to seize the spirit of Giono's highly charged poetic prose. Yet in the Fifties, Giono himself abandoned a project to film the novel, as did Rene Clement and, later, Marcel Pagnol and Luis Bunuel.

Giono was born 100 years ago, in the same year as both the cinema and his fellow Provencal Pagnol. Pagnol was amused by the coincidence: his birthplace was only a short distance from Le Ciotat, where the Lumiere Brothers took their famous shots of a railway train coming into the station. Pagnol saw himself primarily as a playwright and novelist, using cinema to record his plays - but during the 1930s his studios near Marseille were an important counterweight to the dominance of Paris; his use of authentic, outdoor locations was unusual in the early days of sound (influencing, notably, the Italian Neo-Realists); and he helped to establish a positive image of Provence in the popular imagination. Most of all, the cinema brought his work to an international public, and continues to do so, through the adaptations by Claude Berri (Jean de Florette) and Yves Robert (Le Chateau de ma mere).

Pagnol and Giono each had distinctive, but rather different concepts of Provence. Pagnol was a marvellous raconteur, with what is supposed to be a typically Provencal habit of embellishing the truth: Yves Robert recalls the actor Fernandel coming to see Pagnol after reading his autobiography and saying: "Marcel, it's wonderful, it's beautiful, I laughed, I cried ... And to think there's not a word of truth in it!" According to Robert, who worked with the writer in the last 20 years of his life, "il racontait joli" - in other words, he sacrificed strict accuracy to the requirements of a good story. These were the anecdotes which Robert would enjoy hearing in their successive versions as the teller refined them, and that Fernandel recalled swapping with Pagnol's film crew over a bouillabaisse - after which, if it turned out fine, they might get round to an afternoon's filming.

Giono was a more overtly "literary" novelist, whose work is inspired by ideals of pacifism and idiosyncratic notions of pantheism. Provence, for Giono, was not the picturesque South of France, but the north shore of the Mediterranean, home to a civilisation that stretches back to antiquity. His peasants stand in a direct line from those in Virgil's Eclogues, and in the later novels his writing becomes increasingly abstract. The adaptor of The Horseman on the Roof has to do without Pagnol's wily peasants and the colourful denizens of Cesar's waterfront bar (which offered such memorable roles to Raimu and Charpin in the 1930s, and to Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil in Claude Berri's films). Instead, he has a Stendhalian hero trying to avoid an outbreak of cholera whilst escaping from agents of the Italian-Austrian police.

But there is still the glorious scenery of Provence, where Rappeneau spent a year finding the 45 different locations for his film. When I visited the set, he was based at Sisteron, in the south-east, and filming around Savournon, a scattered hamlet in the foothills of the Alps. We watched him rehearsing and then shooting a scene where some children run out into a field among a group of peasants making hay, while Olivier Martinez rides past in a cart. It quickly became clear that Rappeneau is not an on-the-hoof director. His shooting script reads like the game plan for an American football team, with every move meticulously plotted out. For the hay-making scene, wearing a stetson (one of a succession of hats which are his trademark on set), he rehearses the extras once or twice, talks gently to the children, and does a couple of takes. Everything goes smoothly: there seems to be a friendly atmosphere among the crew, who have been filming together now for over four months.

Rappeneau doesn't like formal interviews while he is filming, but he agrees to sit with us and chat under the marquee where we are to eat with the crew (reportedly, the English make-up artists, who have been in the business for years and worked on location all over the world, say that this is the best catering they have ever encountered). Rappeneau eats and talks in a somewhat abstracted way, mentally preparing for the afternoon shoot - which involves filming Martinez and co-star Juliette Binoche in a carriage set up on the back of a moving lorry. The local gendarmerie has agreed to clear the road, but a passing plane or a shot of a 20th- century electric pylon could still ruin everything. It's enough to make anyone anxious.

He doesn't want journalists getting in the way, either, so we stay behind talking to the owner of one of the farms across the valley, who, like everyone else around, has been involved as an extra. He is also the local historian, who seems to know the history of this small corner of the Midi from Roman times onwards. After he leaves, we sit down in the shelter of a barn to enjoy the view. The valley below us could have been the setting for Pagnol's film Regain - another adaptation from Giono, which has the warmth of Pagnol's own work without the sometimes cloying sentimentality. The mistral is still blowing relentlessly, the sun is bright and the landscape is radiant. It would be hard to imagine a more idyllic place to make a movie.

! 'The Horseman on the Roof' opens here in January. The National Film Theatre, SE1 (0171 928 3232) is running a centenary season of films by Pagnol, including: 'Regain', Wed; 'Angele and Jofroi', Sun 17 Dec; 'Letters from My Windmill', 20 Dec; 'Le Schpountz', 22 Dec; 'The Well-Digger's Daughter', 29 Dec; and two versions of 'Topaze', 30 Dec.