LACOSTE, France (Reuters Life!) - Casanova will set out to seduce theater-lovers this month on the old whipping grounds of his fellow roué, the Marquis de Sade.
And the man who’s bringing the two together is a legend in his own right: Pierre Cardin, the modern master of de Sade’s domain.
The 87-year-old fashion designer (who turns 88 on July 7) began restoring the castle of the Marquis a decade ago as part of his controversial plan to turn this hamlet some 60 miles (100km) north of Marseille into “the St. Tropez of culture.”
The French premiere of “Casanova: Love and Betrayal in Venice” on Bastille Day (July 14) marks the 10th anniversary of the “Festival de Lacoste,” Cardin’s attempt to bring big-city culture to the Provencal countryside.
Performances take place in the open-air theater constructed by Cardin in the chateau’s quarry-on the grounds where the Marquis staged his own theatrical productions, both respectable and obscene.
Depending on the year, Cardin’s fest ranges from the Sade-centric to the eccentric, usually with a nod to the brand-savvy designer’s pet projects.
This summer’s line-up features “Le Petit Groom de Chez Maxim‘s,” a farce set in the Parisian landmark that Cardin bought in the early 1980s and has since turned into a global chain of restaurants and hotels.
THE CASANOVA CONNECTION The Casanova connection is also close to Cardin’s heart -- he’s even designed the costumes for the show himself.
“I‘m Italian, you know -- I‘m Venetian,” he told Reuters at the Lacoste Festival, a reminder that “Pierre” was originally known as “Pietro.”
Cardin’s parents fled the fascism of Mussolini to move to France, where their son began his career apprenticed to a tailor. Now a flesh-and-blood fashion label, Cardin is also the proud owner of the palazzo where Casanova trawled for love and money in Venice.
“It’s very funny that I live in Casanova’s villa and the Marquis de Sade‘s,” he told me.
Still, not all of Lacoste’s 420 inhabitants are happy with his designs on their community. Until now, the village has miraculously escaped gentrification.
Lacoste is ground zero of the “Year in Provence” dream, a castled hilltop of stone maisons and cobbled streets overlooking the cherry trees, olives and lavender of the Luberon Valley.
Former adman Peter Mayle began his 1989 bestseller with lunch at Lacoste and turned neighboring Ménerbes into a mecca for upscale tourists, while Hollywood actor John Malkovich has a house in the valley and the playwright Tom Stoppard has spent time living in the village itself.
In a surreal touch, much of Lacoste is already occupied by an art school from America’s Deep South. The ‘Lacoste campus’ of the Georgia-based Savannah College of Art and Design is the legacy of Bernard Pfriem, an American painter who fell in love with Lacoste in the 1950s and began buying up buildings and restoring them.
But Cardin hopes to take Lacoste to a whole new level.
Besides the Marquis’ chateau, the designer now owns some 40 buildings in the surrounding village, including the Café de Sade, a couple of galleries, a boulangerie, and a boutique that sells goodies from Maxim‘s; with plans for a restaurant, a couple of luxury hotels, and even a golf course.
The size of the castle’s theater reflects the scale of his ambitions: it holds more than twice as many people as live in the village itself.
Cardin’s opponents have organized petitions and letter-writing campaigns, likening the wealthy outsider to the feudal seigneurs like de Sade who lorded it over Lacoste for centuries.
In response, Cardin has said simply: “I just want to make the village beautiful.”
Against that backdrop, the timing of opening may add a certain frisson to the Festival de Lacoste. Bastille Day commemorates a key event in the French Revolution, when ordinary citizens rose up to destroy a medieval prison-fortress that symbolized their oppression.
And sadism’s namesake also played a role in the Storming of the Bastille. As one of its last inmates, the Marquis de Sade converted his urinal into a loudspeaker to provoke the protesters, claiming that his fellow prisoners were being slaughtered and needed to be rescued.
Ironically, his lies backfired.
De Sade was transferred to an insane asylum just days before the Bastille was liberated, and much of his writing was lost or destroyed in the looting.
Pierre Cardin’s Festival de Lacoste runs from July 14 to August 6, with tickets ranging from around 30 euros to 140 euros ($40.25-$187.80), depending on the show.
For detailed booking info, visit www.ButNotAsWeKnowIt.com.
Editing by Paul Casciato