Blame it on Cole Porter. Back in 1922, he was the first to discover the enchantment of summer on the sleepy French Riviera when he and his wife, Linda, rented a château on Cap d’Antibes. They invited their friends, American expatriates Sara and Gerald Murphy, who immediately fell in love with the deserted crystalline turquoise coves and lush palm-fringed coast.
The word was out. The Murphys — the first models for Nicole and Dick Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night” — moved to the Cap the following summer. Soon they were hosting elaborate picnics on La Garoupe beach for their charmed circle of friends, which included the likes of Gertrude Stein; Pablo Picasso and his first wife, Olga; Ferdinand Léger; Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda; and Ernest Hemingway. They swam and swapped ideas under parasols over sherry, listening to the latest jazz tunes on their portable Victrola. The French locals looked on, bewildered. An era was launched on the Riviera, though the Porters never returned.
Coincidentally or not, Woody Allen’s new romantic comedy set on the Riviera, “Magic in the Moonlight,” opens with the Cole Porter song, “You Do Something to Me.” But by the late 1920s and ’30s, when the movie takes place, that once-deserted paradise had already morphed into a fashionable summer playground for wealthy American vacationers, English aristocrats, and the hard-drinking expat literary crowd.
The film tells the story of Stanley Crawford (played by Colin Firth), a famous but haughty English magician who has a class act as a Chinese illusionist in Berlin and a reputation for debunking frauds. When a fellow magician (Simon McBurney) summons Stanley to the South of France, the plan is for him to meet a beautiful young American medium, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who, with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), has taken up residence at the well-to-do Catledge family’s country home. Presumably, Stanley will expose Sophie as a fake and even manage to slip in a visit to his dear Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), who lives in nearby Provence. Of course, nothing turns out quite as expected.
For Allen and his team, finding unspoiled Riviera settings still imbued with Belle Époque or années folles charm was crucial. “It was a bit complicated,” says location manager, Arnaud Duterque, “because so many of the grand historic mansions of the 1930s on the Côte d’Azur were bought by rich foreigners and completely transformed. But there are still a few rare places that have remained intact, like the Château du Rouët, a vineyard with a late-19th-century villa, which I found completely by accident.”
Here’s a rundown of some of the hot spots in the “Magic in the Moonlight” shooting itinerary that offer timeless atmospheric vistas right out of a Jacques-Henri Lartigue photo and a choice of swank hotels with outstanding restaurants and bars.
Begin in Juan-les-Pins at the Hôtel Belles Rives, a 43-room Art Deco gem where Allen shot a restaurant and bar scene. The site’s illustrious history dates to summer 1926, when the Fitzgeralds returned to the Riviera and rented the seaside Villa St-Louis. Three years later, the villa was revamped into a small, family-run hotel, with period furnishings, frescoes, and a fumoir (smoking room) that have all been preserved by the current owner, Marianne Chauvin-Estène. There’s also a private beach, a water-skiing school, and a superb terrace restaurant, La Passagère, with one of the most romantic views on the coast. Order a gin fizz, Scott’s favorite, at the Art Deco “Fitzgerald Bar,” where you can imagine the writer busy at work on “Tender Is the Night.”
‘So many of the grand historic mansions of the 1930s on the Côte d’Azur were bought by rich foreigners and completely transformed.’
“Magic in the Moonlight” moviegoers who recall the ethereal evening ball where guests dance the Charleston might assume that it was filmed at a millionaire’s sumptuous private home. Well, think again. Just down the coastal road on Cap d’Antibes is Eilen Roc, a meticulously restored cream-colored 1867 Greek-meets-Belle Époque villa with luxuriant gardens with roses, olive groves, and century-old Aleppo pines. You can stroll through the 27-acre park and also visit the mansion’s sprawling first floor of opulent Deco-style interiors, once home of 1920s American department store magnate Louis D. Beaumont and his wife, Hélène. Part of the glam set, the Beaumonts were best known for their lavish champagne-fueled fêtes where European royalty swanned with film stars like Greta Garbo and Rudolf Valentino.
For an authentic hideaway experience, head west to Le Muy, the 1840s leafy estate of Château du Rouët, a peaceful vineyard lined with cork, sequoia, and oak-shaded walkways. Pick up a bottle of the Belle Poule vintages, or stick around and lounge by the pool, since you can also stay in one the three affordable furnished studios. Best bet: La Grande Maison, the vineyard’s ocher two-story country mansion, where Allen shot interiors of Aunt Vanessa’s home, is also available for weekly rentals. Everything from the delicate hand-painted Italian frescoes to the period antique furnishings conjures a costume drama from days gone by.
Then swing back toward the coast, to the red rock Esterel beaches near Saint Raphaël, where you can still splash around in limpid jade shallows. Allen shot the flirtatious seaside scene between Stanley and Sophie in a secluded inlet facing the “Ile d’Or” — a mini-castle slab of rock that inspired Tintin’s “The Black Island.” You can have the same view at the more easily accessible Plage du Dramont, also known as the beach where the Allies landed on Aug. 15, 1944.
Nice is awash with period piece atmosphere, beginning with the landmark seafront pink-and-white wedding cake palace, Hôtel Le Negresco, whose glittery jumble of Baccarat chandeliers, Louis XIV-style antiques, and an Eiffel-designed dome still attracts the powerful and the glamorous. Allen transformed the elegant 1900s walnut-paneled bar into a Berlin cabaret nightspot. For an aperitif, try the Royal Negresco, a sparkling cocktail of champagne and kirsch with a zest of orange and gold leaf thrown in.
Follow the Promenade des Anglais to Vieux Nice, the Nice Opera, a mix of stucco columns and swirling green wrought iron with plush red velvet and rococo gold interiors, where the well-heeled locals still flock for top-notch performances, symphonic concerts, and contemporary ballet. The dramatic turn-of-the-century entrance was used as an exterior shot of a Berlin theatre.
Steps away, the city’s oldest wine shop Cave Bianchi, founded in 1860, is stocked with superb local little-known vintages and also offers private wine tastings by appointment. You can see why Allen and the “Magic in the Moonlight” cast camped out in the deliciously cool cellar, escaping the record sweltering temperatures during last summer’s shoot. “At one point, we used the wine tasting backroom as a massage table for Colin Firth,” says owner Frank Obadia, who served chilled Bandol rosé (ask for the Bunan Chateau la Rouvière or Moulin des Costes) to the crew and cast during breaks. The vaulted stone annex across the street was transformed into a smoky jazz club for the film, and the room still bears traces of Allen’s faux-’20s band posters on the walls.
Finally, if you’re seeking cool breezes and a dazzling panorama of the city, head to the Nice Observatory, perched on the summit of Mont Gros on the winding Grande Corniche. In the middle of a forest, Charles Garnier originally designed this still-functioning astronomy research site, built in 1887. Then Gustave Eiffel stepped in to create the enormous white dome where the giant telescope to the stars stands. In the film, Stanley and Sophie take refuge here during a thunderstorm and get a glimpse of the crescent moon. Visitors may not be that lucky (unless you’re invited by the mayor or starry locals like Elton John or Bono, who sometimes hold private dinners inside the dome), but you can tour the vast grounds in the daytime. It’s still magical, even without the moonlight.