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24 September 2014
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Sandrine Voillet in Paris


Sandrine Voillet

Sandrine Voillet is an art historian who has worked in a number of museums and art galleries. She was educated at the Ecole du Louvre where she specialised in the history of art from the Far East.


She has also worked in the film industry, initially as part of the Artificial Eye Film Distribution Company becoming involved in the 2003 French Film Festival.


She is the author of Sandrine's Paris: A Cultural History Of The World's Most Romantic City, published by BBC Books. Paris marks her television debut.


Sandrine's Paris and the BBC Two series it accompanies take us on an exhilarating walk through your amazingly romantic city, focusing on its rich cultural history from Roman times to the various challenges it faces at the dawn of the new millennium. What was the biggest challenge for the programme makers?


I guess to find a fresh twist! There have been so many books and films about Paris that it was a monumental challenge! To me it seemed that the idea was to take the viewers through the looking glass, on a tour of Paris's most beautiful historical spots and secret enclaves, but we also wanted to focus on real-life and look at crucial present-day issues.


From the start, it was evident to all of us that it wouldn't be easy to reconcile the undeniable charm of picture postcard Paris, traditionally considered as the Capital of Style and art de vivre (the art of living), with some of the social realities brought to the fore by relatively recent newsreels of riots and burning cars, familiar to television audiences all over the world...


But, I think we've succeeded in striking a balance, providing a lot of useful keys to the cultural subtleties underlying these contrasting visions of the city.


In what light did you want to present Paris?


As a multicultural, multigenerational mosaic of atmospheres reflecting distinctive identities – a City of Lights known as the City of Enlightenment during the 18th century, from which so many intellectual and artistic movements emerged since then... I like the thought of Paris being a ville phare (beacon city) that welcomes people.


It has attracted "leading lights": from artists of all periods to flamboyant showbiz personalities like Josephine Baker who conquered le tout-Paris (all of Paris) at the beginning of the 20th century.


Being a presenter was a first for you. Was this a daunting experience?


I felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension at the prospect of a thrilling adventure, aware that what lay ahead represented a huge undertaking, but not quite sure what to expect.


In my opinion, nobody can teach you to be a presenter. It's not enough to be enticing, or simply knowledgeable about your subject. I'd never done it before. So, by definition, I became a self-taught presenter, learning as I went.


From one episode to the next, I learnt the tricks of my new trade – trying to be concise, keeping speech and movement in synch. Finally, I found that what worked best for me was to just be myself.


You grew up in Nantes, in the Loire region, renowned for its enchanting châteaux, so you're no stranger to beautiful buildings that have borne witness to extraordinary events over the centuries... What are your earliest childhood recollections of visiting monuments charged with historical significance?


My childhood was pretty peaceful, if somewhat solitary. I devoured one book after another and like many country kids dreamt of living in the city someday, which did happen eventually.


My passion for history and old buildings came quite early. As far back as I can remember, my parents used to take me to visit all kinds of historical spots, along with my older brother – everything from châteaux, museums and medieval cities to archaeological sites.


One year, on a trip to Normandy, when I was 12 and going through my William the Conqueror (or William I of England) phase – because I had a crush on a handsome young actor who was playing the part of the Norman king in a popular French television series – I asked to see the Bayeux tapestry.


As for my brother (almost five years older), he was into D-Day. So we concluded that outing with an expedition to the military cemeteries and memorials on the beaches where the Allied landings took place.


The next step was studying to become an art historian at France's prestigious École du Louvre, housed in the world's best-known museum. What are your most vivid memories of your student days in Paris?


In a way, my entering the École du Louvre had roots in childhood memories. On my first visit to Paris at the age of nine, we were taken to the Louvre, among other museums and monuments, and I was so enthralled with the galleries devoted to Ancient Egypt that I could barely be persuaded to look at anything else.


In desperation, my mother said, "At least, let us see the Gioconda!" So, finally, before we left, we caught a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, which I'm still amazed by. It comes alive like real flesh on real bones. That's the joy of studying art at a school located inside a museum. You get the opportunity to study masterpieces in the flesh.


The École du Louvre is extremely selective and competitive and this selectivity isn't limited to the initial entrance exam. There's a ruthless selection process in the first couple of years, which means that some students are not even able to complete their degree.


So, I recall having to cram the facts in relentlessly, in order to move on to the next stage. This meant that I didn't have much time for extra-curricula activities, all the more so because I had to juggle with various student jobs. By the time I was studying for my Master's in Museum Studies, I was able to work as a tour guide.


Despite all the slogging, I look back on these bohemian student days as enriching in more ways than one. On the rue Mouffetard, the street in the Latin Quarter where I had my digs, there's a tiny independent cinema called L'Épée de Bois (The Wooden Sword). This was like my second home enabling me to indulge my other passion – cinema.


A few years later when I lived in London for a while, I worked for the Artificial Eye film distribution company, and assisted them regularly at the Cannes Film Festival.


Today, you are the curator of a private art collection, commuting back and forth from Paris to Normandy – an exacting full-time occupation requiring scholarly research and standards of excellence. Yet, the tone of the series and book is at once informal and informative. How do you manage to appear relaxed and in no way sententious when discussing topics you are so knowledgeable about?


Being an academic doesn't have to mean being dry or stiff. Part of a curator's job is to make art accessible to a large audience.


I suppose I can also thank my parents. They weren't academics (my father was in sports and my mother gave up her job as secretary to take care of us), but they exposed us to a variety of cultural influences. With them acquiring knowledge became a pleasure and awakened our curiosity.


Has presenting this series given you a fresh take on your own city? Do you visualise it differently?


My perspective has changed slightly. I see it from within and without – from the viewpoint of an insider and as an observer. I'm still particularly attached to the area I live in now, near the Père-Lachaise cemetery, as well as to the Latin Quarter.


It's the former historical heart of Paris, with ancient landmarks like a Roman amphitheatre (in the Arènes de Lutèce, a public park today) and the thermal baths at the Musée de Cluny. And, of course, it brings back memories of my student days...


Some districts have remained picturesque, retaining their local shops. But, others have been transformed into showcases for fashion brands.


I think Paris runs the risk of turning into a Tale of Two Cities. The well-to-do tend to stick together in splendid isolation in the city centre while other more disadvantaged Parisians have moved out to the outskirts beyond the city's périphérique ring road that has gradually formed a line of social demarcation, not unlike the ramparts of feudal strongholds.


What we call "Paris intra-muros" is in danger of becoming more of a museum than a modern capital with a varied population. Soaring property prices and rent are to blame for this. Presenting this three-episode series has made me even more aware of these contrasts.


I think that Paris wouldn't be Paris without the Seine and its bridges. Its leafy banks are a great place to meditate and relax, offering solace from the stress of city life. Each summer the City of Paris transforms a section of this haven of tranquillity into Paris-Plage, an artificial beach, complete with sand, Riviera-style recliners, palm trees and parasols.


As a presenter, I was suddenly propelled into a privileged universe – I was allowed to visit places that were either out of my price range (for instance, the Grand Véfour restaurant once frequented by historical figures like Napoleon Bonaparte) or not accessible to the general public.


It's terrific to be able to share those unique experiences with the viewers, to show them aspects of my city that I would not have seen otherwise!


What special moments would you include in a "Making Of" DVD dedicated to the programme? What are your best memories?


Shooting just got better and better. Among the special treats that came with the job, for a "Best Of" or "Making Of", I'd have to mention interviewing celebrities like designer Christian Lacroix or the English-born Paris-based singer-actress Jane Birkin and another living legend, the photographer Willy Ronis, which reminds me of an amusing story…


In one sequence, I was supposed to ask him to comment on some snapshots I'd taken that very morning, but this turned out to be extremely embarrassing! My fiancé, Pedro, had lent me a camera. He couldn't remember when he'd last used it, but he was absolutely positive that it was in working order.


When we developed the film, we discovered that all my fun cityscapes were out of focus. Ronis was very kind considering that none of my pictures were any good! He asked me which of my eyes I'd used to take the photographs and advised me to switch to my "best eye" next time!


My very best memory has to be our spoof of the legendary films of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) directors in vogue in the 1960s such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, hooking cameras onto the back of their own cars and filming their characters driving through the streets of Paris in real-time.


In another fun sequence, we filmed a faux Je t'aime dialogue in a café, parodying the contrived though ostensibly simple dialogues favoured by Godard. On this occasion, I got a chance to act! It was towards the end of the series and we'd been on location for about 12 hours.


This unforgettable Nouvelle Vague interlude was a team effort, the result of a group brainstorming session. It was fun to capture the spirit of those times!


Any regrets...? What's your next career move, to act in a Hollywood movie?


In the past, I have worked with film crews but it was not for television and I was on the other side of the camera, not acting. I was helping friends to produce short films.


They had a precise film d'auteur (author's) message to put across. It's true that participating in this extraordinary project that has come to fruition has given me extra confidence!


Following this experience, I would be happy to continue to create bridges between the museum world and larger audiences.


Would I like to act? That is another question ... I'm not sure whether or not being an actor is more or less difficult than being a presenter. Actors are fortunate in that they're expected to slip into the role of somebody altogether different to them.


On the other hand, when you're a presenter you're playing a beefed up version of yourself – a you that's at once you and not you. It's an exercise in self-sublimation.


Having to be full of beans all the time, projecting yourself as bright and smart non-stop, can be exhausting, but if it helps you to bring the best out of yourself and share it with the audience, what's wrong with that? To echo Edith Piaf's all-time hit: Non, je ne regrette rien!





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