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CULTURE

Marseille: Why Hollywood can’t get enough of France’s ‘gritty city’

Its grimy glamour and dazzling light have captivated directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Steven Spielberg, and now Marseille is the setting for no less than three films at the Cannes film festival, including Matt Damon's latest drama.

Marseille: Why Hollywood can't get enough of France's 'gritty city'
Marseille has proved popular with Hollywood directors over the years. . Photo: Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP.

France’s raffish Mediterranean second city has iconic status in Hollywood as the setting for The French Connection thrillers of the 1970s.

Lately, the narrow alleys leading down to its Old Port have been thick with film crews.

As well as the Netflix series Marseille, which played up the city’s reputation for corruption and criminality with Gérard Depardieu as its crooked but charismatic mayor, a crop of gritty films by young French directors have also thrown it back into the spotlight.

Stillwater, which premieres at Cannes on Thursday, has Damon as a fish-out-of-water American oil-rig worker trying to get his daughter out of jail for a murder she claims she did not commit.

New York on the Med

The film was made by Tom McCarthy, who made the Oscar-winning Spotlight and introduced Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage to the world with Station Agent.

It is no surprise that he should light upon Marseille, said William Benedetto, who runs the city’s mythic Alhambra cinema. “Marseille is the most American city in Europe. Its port, like New York’s, has been the springboard for so many stories,” he told AFP.

Like the Big Apple, Marseille is also a multicultural Babel, a city of immigrants with a big personality whose heroes and villains walk the tightrope of legality.

READ ALSO Why did so many in Marseille rebelled against French government health measures?

Netflix snapped up another Marseille-set film, BAC Nord, before it even premiered at Cannes, precisely because it has the hard-boiled quality of an early Martin Scorsese film.

It draws on a real-life corruption scandal in the city’s tough northern suburbs where detectives were accused of stealing from the drug dealers they were supposed be locking up.

Also penetrating these tower blocks is A Good Mother by acclaimed French actor-director Hafsia Herzi, which is also opening at Cannes.

As a native of the city, Herzi had the credentials to film there, but still had to negotiate with the locals before shooting.

Resists and revolts

Many legendary directors have been drawn to Marseille, including Hitchcock (Rich and Strange), Spielberg (Catch Me If You Can), and Alexander Korda, who made a trilogy of films about the city. And the number of films and series shot there has tripled in the last decade, according to local officials.

That’s great for the economy but perhaps risky for its reputation, since many play on its stereotype as the violent and dangerous “Kalashnikov City”.

“Marseille is a city that resists, that fights, that revolts, that doesn’t take anything lying down, and that borderline side of it can sometimes end up as a caricature like in BAC Nord,” said writer Vincent Thabourey. But the clichés have also given France’s former colonial port a global profile, he added.

That will get another boost from the hotly tipped Stillwater. Damon said he drew on his own emotions as a father of girls to channel the anger and frustration of a lost Oklahoma redneck abroad.

The character “runs into all the issues you have when you have the language and cultural impediment that an Oklahoma roughneck would have abroad”, Damon said in a recent interview.

The actor, of course, has history in Marseille since it was a fisherman from the city that pulled an unconscious Jason Bourne from the Mediterranean at the start of the blockbuster franchise.

Trying to do justice to a “city as complex as Marseille is a real challenge for directors”, said Thabourey, which is “why they probably keep coming back”.

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MONEY

Everything you need to know about France’s 2022 summer sales

In France, you can only shop the best deals twice a year - during the soldes. Here is everything you need to know about this year's summer sales.

Everything you need to know about France's 2022 summer sales

They happen twice a year – Each year, France has two soldes periods: one in the winter, usually starting January, and another in the summer, usually starting in June.

This summer, the soldes will start on Wednesday, June 22nd in most parts of France and run for four weeks, so even though you might be tempted to go on the first day, keep in mind they’ll be going on for a while.

They are progressive, so items will be continuously marked down as the soldes wear on. If you wait, you are risking that your favourite t-shirt might sell out quickly, but if you’re lucky it might end up marked down even further.

During 2020 and 2021 the government altered sales dates and time periods to help shops cope with closures and lockdowns, but now we’re back to the usual timetable.

This is the only time stores can have “sales” – Technically, the soldes are the only time that stores are allowed to have sales, but the definition of ‘sale’ is important.

Basically, the French government qualifies a ‘solde‘ as the store selling an item for less than they purchased it for.

During the rest of the year discounting is allowed in certain circumstances, so you might see promotions or vente privée (private sales, usually short-term events aimed at regular customers or loyalty-card holders) throughout the year.

In these situations the stores might be selling items for less than their original price, but they are not permitted to sell the item for less than they bought it for. 

Shops are also permitted to have closing-down sales if they are shutting down, or closing temporarily for refurbishment.

They are strictly regulated by the French government – Everything from how long the soldes go for to the consumer protection rules that apply to the very definition of ‘solde’ is regulated by the French government, and the main purpose of this is to protect small independent businesses which might not be able to offer the same level of discounts as the big chains and multi-national companies.

Whether you shop in person or online, the same rules apply.

As a consumer, you still have the same rights as non-sales times regarding broken or malfunctioning items – meaning you ought to be entitled to a refund if the item has not been expressly indicated as faulty. The French term is vice caché, referring to discovering a defect after purchase.

On top of that, stores must be clear about which items are reduced and which are not – and must display the original price on the label as well as the sale price and percentage discount. 

READ MORE: Your consumer rights for French sales

They started in the 19th century – France’s soldes started in the 19th century, alongside the growth of department stores who had the need to regularly renew their stock – and get rid of leftover items.

Simon Mannoury, who founded the first Parisian department store “Petit Saint-Thomas” in 1830, came up with the idea.

Funnily enough, this department store actually is the ancestor for the famous department store Le Bon Marché. His goal was to sell off the previous season’s unsold stock in order to replace it with new products.

In order to do this, Mannoury offered heavy discounts to sell as much merchandise as possible in a limited time.

The soldes start at different times depending on where you live – The sales start at the same time across most of mainland France, but there are exceptions for overseas France and certain départements, usually those along the border.

France’s finance ministry allows for the sales to start at different times based on local economies and tourist seasons. 

For the summer 2022 sales only two parts of metropolitan France have different dates; Alpes-Maritimes sales run from July 6th to August 2nd, while on the island of Corsica they run from July 13th to August 9th.

In France’s overseas territories the sales are held later in the year.

You might qualify for a tax rebate – If you are resident outside the EU, you might be eligible for a tax rebate on your sales purchases.

If you spend at least €100 in one store, then you qualify. You should hold onto your receipt and tell the cashier you plan to use a tax rebate so they can give you the necessary documentation (a duty-free slip).

Then when you are leaving you can find the kiosk at the station or airport dedicated to tax rebates (détaxe) and file prior to leaving France. For more information read HERE

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