Grand designs

How Pierre Cardin has been turn­ing the Mar­quis de Sade’s for­mer home into a tourist at­trac­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - TONY PER­ROT­TET

FRANCE has al­ways been a kind of Coney Is­land for lovers of lit­er­a­ture: the land is lousy with shrines. There’s Vic­tor Hugo’s apart­ment in Paris, Ge­orge Sand’s man­sion in No­hant and Balzac’s cot­tage in Passy, where even the au­thor’s old cof­fee pot is revered like a piece of the holy cross.

But a more se­lect breed of bib­lio­phile has long made the pil­grim­age to La­coste, a lit­tle vil­lage in Provence where the chateau of one Dona­tien Alphonse Fran­cois, bet­ter known as the Mar­quis de Sade, looms in de­cay­ing grandeur.

Born in 1740, Sade re­mains one of France’s more out­ra­geous cul­tural he­roes — an aris­to­cratic lib­er­tine who has gone down in his­tory for his ma­ni­a­cal life­style and bizarre porno­graphic nov­els, in­clud­ing Jus­tine, Juli­ette and 120 Days of Sodom, each one over­flow­ing with sex­ual fan­tasies of such night­mar­ish cru­elty that they gave birth to the term sadism.

For gen­er­a­tions, in­ter­est in Sade’s crum­bling refuge was limited to the cognoscenti. Then, one day in 2001, word leaked out that the Chateau de Sade had an il­lus­tri­ous new owner, the celebrity fash­ion de­signer Pierre Cardin. Ever since, the king of pret- aporter has stirred things up in sleepy La­coste, in­tro­duc­ing up­mar­ket bou­tiques, cafes, gal­leries, ho­tels, even an an­nual arts fes­ti­val.

I re­ally don’t care about this fa­mous new lord of the manor; I de­cide I am not leav­ing France with­out get­ting in­side that no­to­ri­ous cas­tle and its dun­geon.

Few writ­ers’ homes are so in­ti­mately con­nected to their dis­tinc­tive creative process. From the mid-1760s, when he re­ceived it as a wed­ding present from his fa­ther, the me­dieval chateau was Sade’s most beloved res­i­dence, and he lived there for much of his feral prime. Crouch­ing above La­coste like a wolf in am­bush, the cas­tle fed Sade’s fan­tasies of feu­dal in­vi­o­la­bil­ity, where he could act out his ra­bid de­sires with no fear of reprisal. And even later in his life, when Sade was in prison, it re­mained a fount of in­spi­ra­tion for his grisly lit­er­ary out­put — a Walden Pond for the poly­mor­phously per­verse.

Spec­u­la­tion has long been rife as to what re­mains in­side the chateau, par­tic­u­larly the dun­geon. Although it was looted dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion in 1792, by the early 20th cen­tury it had be­come a louche must-see for avant-garde trav­ellers. Sur­re­al­ists such as An­dre Bre­ton ex­plored it; Man Ray sketched it; Henri CartierBres­son pho­tographed it; Lawrence Dur­rell wrote the racy parts of The Alexan­dria Quar­tet in one of La­coste’s cafes.

But it is the 21st-cen­tury owner of the ru­ined pile, Pierre Cardin, who has brought most at­ten­tion to the vil­lage since the mar­quis him­self. The cou­turier has erected a shiny bronze statue of Sade by the cas­tle gate and started a sum­mer theatre fes­ti­val on the no­to­ri­ous es­tate that lures crowds from Paris and the Riviera.

Since 2006, Cardin has also been buy­ing up La­coste’s his­toric struc­tures and con­vert­ing them into gal­leries in an at­tempt to cre­ate a St Tropez of cul­ture. The re­ac­tion to this real-es­tate grab among most of the so­cial­istlean­ing vil­lagers has been vi­o­lent — much more so than if he had been in­tent on host­ing mad or­gies in the chateau.

In re­cent years, La­coste has been torn apart by a mini civil war with a vi­cious­ness that only French provin­cials can man­age.

I know that get­ting an in­vi­ta­tion into the pri­vate lair of any celebrity is a del­i­cate busi­ness, and the tricky vil­lage pol­i­tics of La­coste only make things worse. Luck­ily, I am not head­ing into the French hor­net’s nest un­pre­pared. I have dis­cov­ered a story that would melt the heart of a Sade fan such as Cardin.

While re­search­ing Sade’s sor- did life in Provence, I come across a book­let on the his­tory of La­coste. At first, I pay it lit­tle at­ten­tion. It seems to be the typ­i­cally my­opic lo­cal study that wal­lows in eye­glaz­ing sta­tis­tics, with ros­ters of grape har­vests and trea­tises on pate pro­duc­tion. But as I flick through the pages, I freeze in shock. There in the vil­lage tax cen­sus for the year 1608 is my own name, An­toyne Per­rot­tet.

Although I know my fam­ily came from Provence, the de­tails have been, un­til now, deeply ob­scure. From the Mid­dle Ages to the mid-19th cen­tury, it turns out, a ver­i­ta­ble army of Per­rot­tets in­fested this Proven­cal vil­lage — well, about 10 ex­tended fam­i­lies, roughly a quar­ter of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion. Then, around 1860, Provence fell into eco­nomic de­cay and the Per­rot­tets all cleared out — to Australia, North Amer­ica, Ar­gentina.

Aquick call to the fam­ily ge­neal­o­gist con­firms that La­coste was in­deed our fount. Even stranger, I dis­cover, a cer­tain An­dre Per­rot­tet had risen to promi­nence in La­coste in the late 1700s as an em­ployee of the Mar­quis de Sade.

The idea that my fore­bears hob­nobbed with Sade puts a whole new spin on things. It seems this an­ces­tor of mine was a per­sonal as­sis­tant of some sort, ar­rang­ing Sade’s wide range of needs.

If this doesn’t give me li­cence to talk to Cardin and de­mand en­try into the chateau’s depths, I don’t know what would.

To beef up my­case, I hunt down Sade’s cor­re­spon­dence in the Na­tional Li­brary in Paris. I learn that young An­dre Per­rot­tet was first sin­gled out by the mar­quis in 1767 and was hired as an all-round fixer. He over­saw ren­o­va­tions to the chateau and be­came a trusted courier, car­ry­ing sen­si­tive let­ters about Sade’s sex scan­dals to lawyers in Mar­seilles, three days away by coach. And he kept an eye on un­ruly cas­tle staff.

In 1776, An­dre re­ported that a maid, Gothon (whom Sade had hired be­cause she had the sweet­est arse in all Switzer­land), had be­come drunk and lost in the coun­try­side one rainy night, but An­dre found her the next morn­ing in the for­est, cold but un­harmed.

So my an­ces­tor was Sade’s toady. Ex­cel­lent.

I take pho­to­graphs of the cor­re­spon­dence and have them printed up into a dossier.

These are my cre­den­tials: ‘‘One of the Per­rot­tets, Mon­sieur Cardin, he was the mar­quis’s right­hand man, you see.’’ I am ready to take on the vil­lage. A SE­RI­OUS heat­wave has set­tled over Provence and many of the forests are tin­der-dry. But La­coste still man­ages to look ver­dant and dra­matic, the Chateau de Sade loom­ing on its lush crag like a mad sci­en­tist’s home in a hor­ror movie. The vil­lage turns out to be mi­nus­cule, with only four cob­bled al­leys, two cafes and a boulan­gerie of er­ratic hours.

The me­dieval room I have rented in its heart looks rather grim

un­til I push open two shut­tered win­dows. The gar­ret also comes with a small bal­cony with views to make an im­pres­sion­ist drool.

La­coste, I dis­cover, floats above the Luberon re­gion like a hot-air bal­loon, with sweep­ing vis­tas across vine­yards and cherry or­chards. It is the nearmythic Provence of Peter Mayle’s mem­oirs and nov­els.

It is 9am next day when I glimpse Cardin walk­ing into an old man­sion he’s con­vert­ing into a ho­tel. I take a deep breath, pre­tend I am j ust pass­ing by, then en­ter the work site. Two labour­ers stare at me with sus­pi­cion. I in­tro­duce my­self, try­ing not to bab­ble.

‘‘I am a his­to­rian. I am cu­ri­ous about the vil­lage ren­o­va­tions. Do you mind if I have a look?’’

To my sur­prise, Cardin walks up and shakes my hand. He’s wear­ing tai­lored slacks and a flo­ral shirt with the cuffs ca­su­ally rolled; up close, he seems far taller and stronger than his ad­vanced years (he was born in 1922) would sug­gest.

‘ ‘ The up­stairs is fin­ished, if you would like to see it?’’ Cardin in­vites. The ex­te­rior stair­case is blocked by con­struc­tion poles. But Cardin sim­ply grabs the fence and be­gins to hoist him­self up.

It is too am­bi­tious at first; he swings back and forth like a limbo dancer un­der the me­tal bar. I hover be­neath him with my arms out­stretched, ter­ri­fied he is about to crack his skull, but with a re­newed ef­fort he gets him­self up.

On the sec­ond floor, he proudly shows me the suites, each dec­o­rated in a dif­fer­ent style and colour and filled with his own fur­ni­ture designs.

I make ap­pro­pri­ately ad­mir­ing noises while I won­der how to steer the con­ver­sa­tion.

I can’t just ask to see his home; that would be vul­gar. An in­vi­ta­tion has to arise or­gan­i­cally.

Then, in the en­trance hall,

I glimpse a Dali-es­que paint­ing of a fig­ure in a pow­dered wig hov­er­ing in a star­lit sky. Here’s my open­ing.

‘‘You know, my an­ces­tors used to live in La­coste,’’ I ven­ture. ‘‘A cer­tain An­dre Per­rot­tet . . . he ac­tu­ally worked for Sade in the 1770s.’’

But my words are sud­denly drowned out by shouts and grunts. Two work­men are lug­ging a mon­strous scar­let lounge the shape of a potato crisp up the stairs. Cardin has his hand out to shake mine. And be­fore I know it, he has disap- peared up the stairs, di­rect­ing the work­ers around a tight corner.

I want to wail, ‘‘Please show me the damned dun­geon!’’ But I think bet­ter of it. Con­tact has been made. Tony Per­rot­tet’s en­coun­ters with Cardin are de­tailed in The Sin­ner’s Grand Tour: A Jour­ney Through the His­tor­i­cal Un­der­belly of Europe; sin­ners­grand­tour.com.

PIC­TURES: TONY PER­ROT­TET (MAIN AND BE­LOW RIGHT); AFP (BE­LOW LEFT)

The vil­lage of La­coste in Provence; the new owner of the in­fa­mous chateau, Pierre Cardin, be­low; and the bronze statue of Sade by the gate, be­low right

AFP

Ge­of­frey Rush as the Mar­quis de Sade in the 2000 movie Quills

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