Sarlat-la-Canéda is the presumed foundation of a 9th Century Benedictine monastery and was further developed under the protection of the Catholic Church in 1153. Through centuries of wars, military occupation, broken treaties, destruction and rebuilding, Sarlat has survived to become one of the most visited attractions in the region, due in great part to the enthusiasm of writer, resistance fighter and politician André Malraux, who, as Minister of Culture in the 1960s, restored the town and many other sites of historic significance throughout France. Anchored by an enormous square at its center, influences of its tumultuous history are ever present, from the impressive medieval Cathédrale Saint-Sacerdos de Sarlat, to the corbel and stone-covered roofs of half-timbered houses dating back as far as 1300.
We arrived in Sarlat at midday and it was bustling with holiday travelers. Entering the square for the first time gave me a sense of what our little film might look like if we chose to shoot it here. I could easily imagine our story’s hero going door to door in search of his hidden mentor, growing frustrated by the possibilities. From the square, the town winds in and out of a series of curved alleys, all of them lined with shops, galleries and outdoor cafés. A local theater festival was about to begin, with the production of over twenty plays to be staged behind the church abbey. Shakespeare’s Richard III and Romeo and Juliet were on the schedule and one could only hope that the sword fight between Romeo and Tybalt might spill offstage and into that magnificent Romanesque inspired square. It was certain that a quiet movie could not be filmed here.
If history and grandeur are what you’re after, there’s much to behold in Sarlat. A pair of major Hollywood films have been produced here: Ridley Scott’s 1977 historical drama The Duellists and, more recently, Richard Donner’s science fiction adventure Timeline. Both were period pieces and Sarlat served as an appropriate backdrop. Logistically, Sarlat has its challenges, namely the locking down of city streets in a town that stays busy well beyond the holiday season. I wouldn’t eliminate it for this reason, but shooting a film here would require far more cooperation from local government and businesses than would be needed in a village with fewer inhabitants and less traffic. Still, I doubt you would find much more production value in France for your money than in this thoroughly authentic location. There’s a good reason movies have been made here.