Emerald Street’s sub editor Siobhan Morrin bypasses Cannes and heads for the American Film Festival in the resort of Deauville, Normandy
Picture a French resort with sandy beaches, high-end boutiques and a buzzy film festival that sees Hollywood stars swell the population. Now stop imagining Cannes, because I actually visited France’s other film festival – in Deauville. Firmly aimed at film types in the know, the American Film Festival is a week-long celebration of US cinema, attended by A-listers but with screenings open to locals and cinephile visitors.
It’s where Michael Douglas met Catherine Zeta- Jones – a fact that seemed particularly poignant as he opened this year’s festival with his hit film Behind The Candelabra looking smaller and more delicate than I had expected, just a few days after their separation had been announced.
The festival is held every September, showcasing the films battling for the Grand Prix prize, along with a host of premieres and American classics (with French subtitles, naturellement). Deauville is usually far from what any city-dweller would call crowded but the festival gave the town a definite buzz. Even away from the festival, the area offered plenty for a cinema obsessive like myself, having featured as the backdrop for at least 50 films, including the 1966 classic, A Man And A Woman by celebrated director and local Claude Lelouch, and Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tatou.
A cameo appearance isn’t Deauville’s only link with the grande dame of French fashion: Coco Chanel opened her first boutique in the town when she lived here. Sadly, only a plaque marking the event remains, but Deauville still offers the opportunity for some serious shopping; alongside Saint Laurent and Longchamp, there is a handful of independent boutiques, a market every day during summer and chemists full of cult French cosmetics brands, including my favourite, Bioderma.
It’s so calm, if you turn this photo upside down, it looks exactly the same
As you’d expect, Deauville is as pretty as a film set; the town centre is dominated by well-preserved Norman-style homes and buildings with timber frontage and pastel decor. The Villa Strassburger stands out from the rest, though. Built on the site of writer Gustave Flaubert’s farm, it became the home of a US general, then starred as Chanel’s workshop in Coco Before Chanel before opening to the public, preserved just as it was in the Fifties. It was like entering a French-tinged set from Mad Men, with a huge oval vacuum cleaner and a personal spa that you sat in and zipped up to your neck.
The views from the house are of the award-winning seafront, where I headed for a stroll along Les Planches, a boardwalk built in 1923 for fashionable Parisian visitors. The art deco cabins and their colourful mosaics are largely still intact, evoking images of flapper girls, bobs and Twenties-style bathing suits.
Next I headed for Café Dupont, famed for serving super-rich chocolat chaud, which last year was named as France’s best hot chocolate in the drinks equivalent of the Palme d’Or. The service was slow but all was forgiven when I got my jug of 70% cocoa hot chocolate (£4), the most intense on the menu. The fresh macarons piled up in the window and the chocolate cocktails were beyond tempting too. On arrival at my hotel, Les Manoirs de Tourgévilles, around 10 minutes’ drive from the centre of bustling Deauville, the calm was striking. The winding country roads and surrounding fields give it the sense of being further away from town than it is, making it feel like a real retreat. It has the welcoming vibe of visiting a friend in their country manor, which makes it easy to understand why so many Parisians come here for a weekend break.
The manor was originally built by Claude Lelouch as a film set, then turned into a house for his friends before being converted into a hotel three years ago. Each room is named after a glamorous film star (Geraldine Chaplin, Anouk Aimee) who visited the house so I tried hard not to feel cheated with Laurel and Hardy above my door.
And the award for the comfiest bed goes to…
Walking into my threestorey suite, or triplex, I was struck by the light streaming in through the huge window, and the first glimpse of my patio in the afternoon sun. Up one set of stairs, I found a bathroom fit for a starlet, and another floor up, there was a massive squashy bed. I headed for the swimming pool for a quick dip, then into the spa and a calming blue-lit room for an expert massage which, at £75 for an hour, was much cheaper than in comparable London spas.
The meals at Les Manoirs consistently featured fresh, seasonal produce, such as the juicy yellow tomatoes in the excellent salads. The chef accommodated requests easily, making me a buttery vegetable pasta dish instead of the seafood dish of the day.
The wine list was also a delight – the muscadet sur lie was a fruity accompaniment to the lighter bar menu – and the cheese selection was impressively local, featuring livarot and the most famous of Normandy cheeses, camembert.
Meanwhile, another regional speciality, apples, meant that trying the sweet-smelling but potent Calvados apple brandy was a necessity. As I sampled the range of aged varieties, I realised that I might have found the ideal spot for an autumnal French getaway...
Deauville is a two-hour drive from Paris and three hours from Calais, or a one-hour flight from London City. Flights are available with CityJet from £59 each way. A double manor room at Les Manoirs de Tourgévilles starts from £145 per night including breakfast; a triplex starts at £245; lesmanoirstourgeville.com