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Prêt-à-Partir

Jeremy Harding

The Marquis de Sade’s phantom Citroën in the ruins of the château above Lacoste, as imagined by Jeremy Harding and drawn by Paul Smith, pen and ink, c.1973.

Pierre Cardin, who died at the age of 98 in Paris last week, was a monumental figure in France. He cut a dash through postwar haute couture, first Paquin, then Schiaparelli, then Christian Dior, on his way to prêt-à-porter. The youngest child of Italian migrants, he moved to Paris from the provinces after the Liberation. In 1948 he created several of the masks and costumes for Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête and doubled for Jean Marais in action scenes; the beast outfit, not unlike Marais himself, could be sweaty and cumbersome.

In 1950 Cardin left Dior, where he had become the senior tailor, and started out on his own. In the early 1960s he was dressing the Beatles in collarless jackets and Patrick Macnee for his dandyish role as Steed in The Avengers. Steed’s weapon of choice was a furled umbrella: Cardin would get around later to designer umbrellas. Even as he announced that he was gay, the love of his life was Jeanne Moreau: their relationship was another of his many moon-shot achievements, and in 1969 Nasa asked him to reimagine its astronauts’ outfits without the puffy, boil-in-the-bag look. In the 1970s, when Ferdinand Marcos decreed that the barong tagalog should become part of the national Filipino dress code, Cardin added flared sleeves for the president’s own version. Imelda’s prolific shoe collection included at least one pair by Cardin.

Whatever your view of the Marcos family, it’s hard to think well of the changes that Cardin brought to the hillside village of Lacoste, in the Luberon, in the wake of the millennium. Lacoste had gone about its unpretentious business for centuries: silkworms, vines, then almonds and fruit in the valleys below. Not much changed in 1970, when a little arts school was set up in the village and ageing luminaries, including Man Ray and Lee Miller, Max Ernst and Roland Penrose – by then married to Miller – were invited to address the students.

What drew intellectuals and artists to Lacoste in the first place wasn’t just the village: there was also the crumbling castle on the promontory above it, which had belonged to the Sade family. Les 120 Journées de Sodom, which Sade wrote in 1785 when he was banged up in the Bastille, is set in the château of Silling, based on the castle at Lacoste, where Sade spent several years before the Revolution, between arrests, detentions and scandals, until the ancien régime finally got its hands on him. The idea of Silling/Lacoste as a space of wild, transgressive, unthinkable acts appealed to the Surrealists: René Char, who grew up near Lacoste, took a shine to the ruined castle in the 1930s. André Breton made a pilgrimage to Lacoste after the war. From the 1950s on, like Sade’s reputation (see Beauvoir, Foucault, Barthes et al.), the castle stood its ravaged ground.

Cardin bought it in 2001 and the arts school was acquired the following year by the Savannah College of Art and Design. That’s when the process of ruin in Lacoste underwent a curious reversal: the dilapidated castle was rapidly refurbished while the village beneath – population in the low hundreds – became a lifestyle showcase, like Cardin's high-end prêt-à-porter, as he began buying up property. Some of it was empty, but several residents were prêt-à-partir: his offers were too good to refuse. It began with two or three buildings; then it was ten, then twenty. Up went the scaffolding and down came the dust along with Cardin’s friends from Paris, Venice and New York, who were hosted in his luxury gîtes. By 2010 nearly half the properties in Lacoste were second homes. Within a few years the village was a 4x4 park-and-walk arrangement with troubled forty-something fathers wandering about in shorts trying not to shout at their partners and children, probably in English.

I’m hesitant about Cardin’s renovation of the château, with its niche apartments and conference chambers, but at least he got it rebuilt. That was a formidable task. In 1974 Malcolm Imrie, a friend of mine studying Sade at UEA, invited me down to the Luberon to work on the reconstruction, on the back of a grant he had been given by Colman’s, the local seigneurs in Norwich. Like, a holiday in Provence? Why not? Malcolm, who went on to become a distinguished translator, would put his mind to Sade and occasionally nudge a stone into a plausible semblance of its original position, while I, who had failed to finish Justine or Les 120 Journées de Sodom, would be on hand for any heavy lifting.

At the time, the ruin was owned by André Bouër, an English teacher and a harsh taskmaster, who picked us up from a bus stop in Apt and drove us to Bonnieux, a hillside village about seven kilometres east of Lacoste. He showed us to our quarters in an abandoned stable filled with aluminium bunk beds, where other volunteers had been before us. It was early spring and we were the only occupants. Bouër collected us the following morning, took us to a café in Bonnieux for bread and coffee and drove us across the valley to the castle. I’d seen the ruin once before, on a visit with Malcolm, but I’d failed to notice the immense flagstones lying in the overgrown moat, about thirty or forty kilos apiece: the castle had been roundly trashed at the time of the Revolution.

Bouër pointed out a wheelbarrow and led us to a couple of planks he had set up across the moat. We spent our first few days hauling flagstones up onto the plateau and loading them one at a time on the wheelbarrow. I would ferry them across the moat on Bouër’s precarious pontoon, with Malcolm in an advisory capacity, and together we would unload them in the remains of the keep. By the second day Bouër had kindly suggested we order a packed lunch and water from the café where he’d taken us for breakfast. Every morning he drove us from Bonnieux to Lacoste; every afternoon around two o’clock he came to inspect our labours, and at four or five, we undertook the beautiful but tiring walk down into the valley and up the other side to Bonnieux, where we went in search of a meal. Bouër could never be bothered to ferry us back to the stables.

I used to daydream that Sade was sitting in a wrecked car in the ruins – not unlike the Devil in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée – and scoffing at Bouër’s gaunt heritage slaves, bused in free of charge from the Home Counties. I’d already imagined the car on my first visit to Lacoste; a friend in the UK drew the scene in pen and ink. The desolate remains in the drawing give a good idea of what Bouër was up against.

He must have known that we were spent after our labours in the moat. He assigned us to lighter duties, sorting rubble in the castle and casting around in the quarry nearby for any vestiges of dressed stone. (Cardin spruced up the quarry in the 2000s and turned it into a concert venue: free entry for under-tens to, I don’t know, Dido and Aeneas; a hundred euros or more for adults, equipped with squeaky insect-repellent and flashing phones in silent mode.) Malcolm used to favour the abandoned quarry for our al fresco lunch break.

Bouër’s passion for the castle, his Lacan-style hedgehog hair, his gold tooth (or was it teeth?) and his ruthless use of volunteer students made him an intriguing figure, often brusque but occasionally talkative, especially at breakfast. He told us he’d bought the castle at a peppercorn price, one parcel of land at a time, during the 1940s and early 1950s, though I never established who the previous owners were, or whether he was telling the truth. The restoration of the château was his heart’s desire, but he died while it was still an attractive ruin; it was his widow who approached Cardin.

What would Bouër have made of Cardin’s work on the château and his effect on the village? I suspect he would have liked the castle and mourned the village, though he didn’t live there. I ran into him maybe thirty years ago, when I was visiting the Luberon. He couldn't remember Malcolm, or the moat, or the flagstones, or the packed lunches, or me for that matter, but he still had his glinting smile and his head of prickly hair. When I reminded him that he’d lodged us in the old stables, he told me he used to dream of standing at a window in Bonnieux with a clear view of Lacoste as the moon rose over the Luberon. In the dream, he would stretch out a hand and his arm would become a long, fluttering ribbon, spanning the valley, until his fingers were scrabbling in the remains of the château and piecing them together like pages of decaying parchment.


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  • 6 January 2021 at 8:59pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    What’s not to like? (Re-)create your very own fantasy dream castle while banishing the hoi-polloi.
    Vive la rèvolution