La Ciotat calls itself the cradle of cinema, with justification. The pioneering Lumière Brothers made their first films here and its Eden Théâtre claims to be the world's oldest surviving public cinema.
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And that's just part of the story: La Ciotat has plans to revamp and revitalise other sites belonging to its rich film heritage, including the Grand Salon at the Lumière family's holiday home where those early films were screened for the first time and the Villa Michel Simon (1895-1975), the holiday home of one of France's best-loved actors.
The Lumière Family in La Ciotat
In 1890, having made a fortune manufacturing plates for still photographs, Antoine Lumière bought a huge 90 hectare / 222 acre plot of land between the station and the waterfront in La Ciotat.
On this land, which he called the Clos des Plagues, he built a magnificent 36 room château, the Villa Lumière, pictured as it was in the early 19th century, as a summer residence for his family (which was based in Lyon for the rest of the year).
Meanwhile Antoine's two sons, Auguste and Louis, were busy developing their own new invention which they called the "cinématographe": a motion picture camera which also functioned as a developer and projector. They lodged the patent for this device on 30 March 1895 and shot numerous short films, all roughly 50 seconds long, in and around La Ciotat during this period.
These include the famous L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), one of the world's first movies. It records a steam train, pictured top left, pulling into La Ciotat from Marseille, with the Lumière Brothers' mother Joséphine (in a tartan cape) and Louis' daughter Suzanne on the platform.
Like most of the Lumières' early shorts, the 50-second silent film consists of a single, unedited real-time view, with the camera carefully positioned so that the train seems to be coming almost directly towards it (according to legend, the first viewers, imagining themselves to be in the path of the locomotive, ducked for cover).
Among other celebrated films shot by the Lumière Brothers in La Ciotat around this time is one of their three versions of L'Arroseur arrosé (The Gardener, or The Sprinkler Sprinkled), in which a gardener is tricked into drenching himself with his own hosepipe by a naughty little boy.
The little comic skit was staged in the gardens of the Villa Lumière and "starred" the family gardener, François Clerc, and a local lad, Léon Trotobas, who went on to live to be a hundred and become one of La Ciotat's oldest citizens. It's said to be the first ever fictional film.
The Lumières also filmed extensively around the shipyards of La Ciotat, shooting, for example, Lancement d'un navire (Launching of a Ship), featuring the Cordillière ocean liner.
Pictured: Auguste (left) and Louis Lumière. Buy a DVD of work by the Lumière Brothers and other film pioneers
On 21 September 1895, the Lumières invited 150 guests to watch some of these "experiments" at a screening in the Grand Salon (the main drawing room) of the Villa Lumière. It was the first time the cinématographe was unveiled. In the audience was Raoul Gallaud, the owner of the local Eden Théâtre, who promptly offered to host the films' public premiere.
It proved impractical for technical reasons, and so the Lumières' first paid screening was to be in Paris, at the Salon Indien of the Grand Café on 28 December 1895 (one of the viewers was another major early film pioneer, Georges Méliès). The Eden Théâtre eventually showed their films in La Ciotat on 21 March 1899.
After Antoine's death in 1911, the Lumière family gradually detached itself from La Ciotat and the land at the Clos des Plages was divided up and sold in 1925. The château itself was converted into the Golf Hotel, and its front façade substantially modified. In 1938 this too closed down and (after being successively occupied by German, Austrian and American military during the Second World War) was converted into private apartments.
On the Cinema Trail in La Ciotat
La Ciotat is proud of its cinema connection and the first thing you see, when driving into the town from the A50 motorway, is a roundabout crowned with a large topiary train, pictured, in honour of that famous film.
If you arrive at La Ciotat station itself, still a busy working station on the line between Marseille and Toulon, you will discover a large still from The Arrival of a Train and a portrait of the brothers on the platform where the film was shot. On the opposite platform is a commemorative plaque, unveiled in 1942.
The Villa Lumière remains a private residence, now known as the Palais Lumière, which contains 50 apartments. Its grounds no longer extend right down to the seafront as they once did; instead the estate is approached along the allée Lumière, an attractive public road lined with palm trees.
The Palais is normally closed to the public, though you can get a glimpse of it through the gates. However, in autumn 2013, the Insider was lucky enough to be given a private tour of the building and landscaped gardens.
Irrigated from a privately owned water tower, the latter include a charming, leaf-covered kiosk which was inspired by oriental kiosks in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, neo-classical statuary, a little stone bridge and a pond.
All these date from the time when the Lumières owned the villa (photographic displays dotted around the grounds show various family members relaxing and playing around in the very same spots).
Behind the building there was once a vineyard that produced a well-regarded wine, the Château Lumière. The present-day building boasts a wine cellar but, sadly, none of the original wine.
At the back of the Palais, the façade has not been as substantially altered as at the front. You can still see the Lumière crest on the wall, a large 'L' interlaced with what looks at first like an 'A' for Antoine but is actually a compass, signifying Antoine's membership of the freemasonry.
Pictured as it formerly was, circa 1905, the Grand Salon, where the Lumière brothers unveiled their first short films for the very first time, is a curiously-shaped 12 metre / 40 foot perfect cube with a very high ceiling. From it hangs the magnificent original chandelierdecorated with lions' heads that evoke the family's origins in Lyon, where Antoine made his fortune.
But it comes as a shock to discover that otherwise the salon, pictured as it is today, bears little resemblance to the sumptuous and elegant room seen in early photographs.
It was crudely restored at the time of the Golf Hotel in a clunky Art Deco style, painted bilious yellow, the original balustrades hidden behind cheap, flimsy cladding and the fine ceramic wall tiles, also decorated with lions, either covered up too or stripped and sold off. The great double doors leading into the room have gone too, replaced by two smaller side ones.
There is currently a campaign to restore the Grand Salon but, given the residents' understandable reluctance to have streams of tourists trooping through the building, this may turn out to be a very long-term and highly contested project.
Meanwhile, if you would like to visit the Palais Lumière, you should plan a trip to La Ciotat for mid-September, when it may (or may not) briefly accessible as part of the Journées du Patrimoine programme, when sites of historic interest all over France briefly open their doors to the public.
On the seafront just down the road from the Palais, a large stone memorial to the Lumière Brothers, pictured, was erected in 1958. Engraved on the other side of the monument is the legend, "Le cinématographe fait connaître le monde" ("The cinematographer lets you get to know the world").
By then both brothers had passed away, Louis on 6 June 1948 in nearby Bandol and Auguste on 9 April 1954 in Lyon.
However Auguste was told of the project before his death and wrote, rather poignantly, in praise of the location "which embraces a view of this whole marvellous bay whose grandeur and nobility seem scarcely to have been appreciated for their true value. When I was forced to leave the region and the property, it was with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes."
As you walk along the seafront from here towards the town centre, you will pass the 250-seat Eden Théâtre, pictured at it was near the beginning of the 19th century. First inaugurated on 16 June 1889, it claims to be the oldest surviving cinema in the world.
Over the years, it has served a variety of other purposes, hosting theatrical shows, concerts and music hall performances, as well as boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling matches. Among the artists who appeared there over the decades were Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Jean Gabin, Fernandel and Yves Montand.
The Eden Théâtre was bombed in 1945 and closed down altogether in 1995. It reopened to the public in 2013 after a five million €uro renovation project which took six years. Pictured: the Eden Théâtre after the restoration.
The intention is not for the cinema just to be a museum piece, however. Just as the Lumière Brothers were trail-blazers, so it is also hoped to make the Eden Théâtre a centre for innovation and new digital technologies. Boulevard Georges Clemenceau, 13600 La Ciotat. Website for the Eden Théâtre
La Ciotat also has a modern, three-screen movie theatre, named, naturally, the Cinema Lumière. Place Évariste Gras,13600 La Ciotat.
A few minutes' further from the Eden Théâtre on the road into the Old Port, the Chapelle des Pénitents Bleus, a 17th century chapel of architectural note in its own right, regularly welcomes exhibitions devoted to cinema, painting and the other arts. Boulevard Anatole France, 13600 La Ciotat.
As you reach the edge of the Old Port, the local history museum, the Musée Ciotaden, just opposite the Tourist Office, has a room devoted to the Lumière Brothers and the birth of cinema.
It includes a display of magic lanterns and early cameras and projectors, photographs of the town and family using the brothers' experimental Autochrome colour process and - for real enthusiasts - a detailed Lumière family tree. 1 quai Ganteaume, 13600 La Ciotat. Website for the Musée Ciotaden
The Lumière Brothers aren't the only famous film folk associated with La Ciotat. The city also has a close connection with Michel Simon, the Swiss-born actor who starred in such classic films as Jean Renoir's Boudu Sauvé des Eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning) in 1932.
In this delightful, ageless comedy, Simon, pictured in the film, is a slobbish, suicidal tramp whose life is rescued by a middle-class bookseller.
His saviour welcomes him into his elegant home and attempts to teach him good manners. But both sides go on to regret the day. Simon also played a leading role in another all-time great film, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, in 1934.
In 1946 Simon bought an 18th century country house high on a hill with superb views over the bay and the city. On the left about halfway up the hill, it's marked with a small round red plaque on the gate.
It is possible to view it by appointment with the association Les Amis de Michel Simon which also holds open days there for the Journées du Patrimoine. Chemin du Sémaphore, 13600 La Ciotat.
Long-term plans involve refurbishing this house to use as a venue for residential courses for film writers. It's also hoped to create an Espace Michel Simon in the centre of town to house the association's large collection of posters, film stills and other memorabilia.
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