Saturday, June 29, 2013

Through these eyes...

 As In My Dreams
 The Puy du Fou - France
It has been said that at the moment of death, one's life unfolds before one's eyes.  That I cannot know, but what I can know and what I have seen at the Puy du Fou Cinéscénie in France is the unfolding of a life before my very eyes in the most unbelievable way!
It was a pageant that depicted the life of the people of France, the story itself and what I remember was so overwhelming as to defy description.  Mere mundane words, words such as "spectacle" and "extravaganza" pale and fade away and one feels the need to "coin a new phrase" so as to do justice to such an event.
Philippe de Villiers, creator of this, magnificent undertaking, did just that.  Because it was neither a "son et lumierè," a diorama, nor certainly not a theatre performance, he grandly proclaimed it to be La Cinéscénie.  It comes from the Greek words "kine" meaning movement and "scene" expressing space, therefore he called it "moving space."
But what, may you ask, did I see?  I saw a great living film, unfolding in three dimensions before my eyes.  It was a show unique in all the world, and advertised as one of Europe's greatest entertainments venues.  This is the 25th anniversary of the theme park and 35th anniversary of the La Cinéscénie show with  1.5 million visitors every year, well over 35 million to date, making it one of the most popular cultural tourism sites in all of historic France.
Do come along with me as I attempt to paint a word picture of this great Cinéscénie, the beauty of the people and events of the land, the magical land of Puy du Fou.
It has been said that if we could see light years out into space we could see the complete panorama of life, beginning with the Garden of Eden, all laid out as in a photo-drama.  Each successive generation would propel the previous one further and further on out, and so on and on.
That hypothesis describes the concept of this play; we see generations live out their lives, then pass before our eyes even as our eyes were drawn back to the succeeding chapters as they, too, unfolded before us.  And what "chapters" they were...
When the actual Puy du Fou site was discovered in 1977, it all came together for Philippe de Villiers.  Seeing the ruins of the great castle with the huge lake below gave him inspiration for the framework and setting for this human panorama.
As for the setting and story itself, prepare yourself.  The setting, Puy du Fou, stands among the granite hills and farmlands of the upper Vendeén Bocage, between the Mont des Alouettes and Saint Laurent-sur Sèvre, the burial place of Père de Monfort, who evangelized the area at the beginning of the 18th century.  The place took its name from a rocky hillock called Puy du Fou.  The word Puy came from the Latin podium topped by fouteaux, the common botany name for beeches.
On the borders of Poitou, An Jou and the marches of Brittany, close to Nantes, Angers, Poitiers and New Rochelle, the strategic position of Puy du Fou once led to the erection of a medieval keep which was razed to the ground by the English during the Hundred Years' War.  It was recently rediscovered by the archaeological club of Puy du Fou.
The pink brick renaissance chatêau was built under King Francois I at the invitation of Catherine du Puy du Fou, using plans drawn up by Le Primatice, the Italian architect of the 16th century.  However, in 1794 it was set on fire by General Turreau's "infernal columns" which wrought havoc on the Vendée.
This chatêau which serves as a backdrop to the Cinéscénie is on the territory of the Commune of Les Epesses in the canton of Les Herbiers.
Philippe de Villiers was 27 years old when he came up with the idea of creating a great folk pageant which would combine oral tradition with very modern technology.  It tells the story of the upper Vendéen Bocage and covers the 700 years from the Middle Ages to the Liberation.
The story is shown beautifully through scenes of everyday life.  A life with its simple joys, its work carried out through all four seasons, with its sorrows and tragedies, all seen through the eyes of a simple farm family, the Maupilliers.
The narrator is the distaff merchant, a traveling salesman who takes anecdotes and small knick knacks from town to village.  To hear his commentary and to observe the fantastic scenes of life as it was then is almost beyond description.
Try to visualize the stage, the setting for this grandiose affair.  I will relate it to you as it was told to me, by our most gracious host, Etienne Morille.  Our small party consisting of Melania and Pierre Simon, who are residents of the area, and Doris Clark and myself, were greeted warmly by Mr. Morille who proceeded to tell us wondrous things.
Now, about the "stage," imagine, if you can, the magnificence of a stage which encompasses 15 hectares (that is 37.5 acres) with a peripheral circuit of 1500 metres (4,500 feet) around the lake and a width of 350 metres (1050 feet)!  Unbelievable!  But what came on stage was even more splendid.
Mr. Morille patiently explained to us that on any given night of the 28 performances held only on weekends from May to September 2600 players will take to the lights and water for this epic.
If you think I was overly impressed, just listen to these figures.  Every performance has a cast of 4500 different characters, which of course calls for 4500 costumes.  To insure that the show goes smoothly there are 300 people providing services at each performance plus 20 frogmen, 65 first-aiders and 700 people for the stage management alone.
And now for the part that enhanced the overall picture, the animals.  Horses, not just any horses, but many were royal, white, stunning Lipizzaner, prancing and dancing.  And there were dancing bears, great falcons, vultures, owls, eagles, wild boar, greyhounds, flocks of sheep, pairs of trudging oxen, cows, rams, goats, gaggles of geese, pigs, and even Poitou asses.
But what, you may ask, did they do?  Were the circus animals performing on cue?  Did people watch their antics and politely applaud?  No, they were part of this awesome kaleidoscope of humanity, this trudging, marching, flailing, dancing mass that lived and died, the people of France, through the ages.
We saw the villagers laboring in the fields with their plodding oxen, then joyously singing at their parish festivals alongside the dancing bears.  We saw the jousting of chivalry in all its bravado.  When King Francis I visited the Lord and Lady of Puy du Fou, we saw the happy celebrations of the people of the land, the wine drinkers and food eaters, the local color, and the characters.
We saw the horrors of the Vendeén wars with the many casualties, wailing and bloodshed, the despair as shown through the weary figures as they moved through time and space.
The beautiful "Pardon of Bon-Champs" thrilled us when the "white" general, mortally wounded at the battle of Cholet in 1793, orders the desperate Vendeéns to honor the 5000 "blue" prisoners as they had been threatening to kill.  Against all their instincts, they did honor the prisoners and the general.
We cheered at the rebirth of the martyred land in the 19th century and we watched in dreadful silence as the refugees from the Ardennes made their silent trek home to the Vendeé after the defeat of 1940.
The thrilling and emblematic figures of Saint Louis Grignion de Monfort, the evangelizer, Georges Clemenceau and Marshal Jean De Lattre de Tassigny, two heroes of the world wars of the 20th century, were represented amid spectacular fireworks at the conclusion.
You must understand and visualize the entire production consisted of the haunting narrative of the merchant.  Each chapter, each age passes before your eyes in all its joy and pathos, then moves on slowly until the figures are too small to distinguish.  As one age exist another age is springing to life before your very eyes.
It's a great arch of life, a dance of the human spirit and beautiful beyond words.  The constantly moving carousel of life and death and all the human drama that comes between, that is the history of France.
Having been roused from our trance like reverie at the end of the pageant, we were thrilled to accept Mr. Morille's invitation to enter the magical backstage, and what a place it was.  It was truly the land of Puy du Fou!
It is hard to grasp the magnitude of this venture and what is even more astounding is that the actors, ranging in age from 3 to 90, are all volunteers.  All of them live in the area in 15 communes or villages.
They are the Puyfolais, three generations of them, and this intermingling of ages and occupations has been the secret of their great success.  These Puyfolais are young children, teenagers, mothers, white-collar workers, farmers, craftsmen and shopkeepers in their regular lives during the week and perform only on weekends.
Philippe de Villiers, the original volunteer, calls this commitment of giving one's free time, energies, ideas and skills to bring thrills and happiness to the public for 2 hours per performance "personal sponsorship".
However, this volunteer work cannot be considered amateurism as the dedicated Puyfolias have managed to combine the enthusiasm of amateurs with the expectations of professionals, not an easy task.
Nothing is left to chance as the young people are taught through the junior academy of Puy du Fou about the traditional skills, heritage and responsibilities expected of them by their region.
Pageant techniques, costumes, traditional dances, theatre, regional history, woodcarving, juggling and illumination are among the skills taught.  Children in particular are interested in their history, the fauna and flora and their cultural heritage.

Because horses and horsemanship are a major part of the spectacle an equestrian academy was also established to train the 130 riders and coachmen.  After witnessing the dazzling displays by the horses and riders it is clear nothing is left to chance.
Imagine intermingling with all these people and animals "backstage" which is really several villages on the perimeter of the "Great Stage", a world unto its own and one I will never forget.
Much to our delight Mr. Morille then whisked us up to the inner sanctuary itself, the projection room.  High above the 14000 seats in the panoramic stands, which are all equipped with headphones to translate the program into numerous languages, we found 2000 projectors with 450 kilometres of electric cables.
The lighting was fantastic, outdone only by the bedazzlement of the fireworks exploding in the program finale.  Ten thousand fireworks per season add great excitement to the performances.  Add to the impressive program 1500 computer-controlled fountains that combine fire and water in ways beyond the imagination.
Cinéscénie combines quadriphony, laser, electronics, computerized pyrotechnics and huge water screens to create a magical atmosphere defying expectations.
The powerful music, as everything else, is also performed voluntarily.  The famous composer Georges Delerve created the soundtrack and popular music of Vendée was recorded with harpist Lily Laskine.
An ensemble of 73 musicians from the French National Orchestra and 92 chorus singers from the Paris Opera House perform music you will never forget.
Imagine a mixture of perfect script, timeless music, spectacular colors and the mystical presence of the actors who paradoxically appear to be both near and yet so far away in time and space.
Oh yes, the actors, or should I say glorious, resonating, mesmeric voices of actors who volunteer their well-known talents and trademark voices to the project.  The star packed list includes Francios Chaumette, Marie Dubois, Michael; Duchaussoy, Susanne Fion, Robert Hossein, Dominque Leverd, Denis Manuel, Jean Piat, Catherine Salviat, Nicolas Silberg, Pierre Zimmer and Philippe Noiret.
Now, if I close my eyes, I see it once again.  The strong figures moving behind the sturdy oxen planting their seeds.  When adversity and wars strike they tire and bend toward the ground and the oxen slow their pace, trudging along.
I hear the hypnotic voice filling my senses and I feel I am a part of history, while being in the present between life and death.  There is no distinction.
And this I will remember always as in my dreams...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fannee - What an uplifting report! I'm an American who lived in France 10 years. I left in 1980 and had no idea what I have missed since then. Thank you for bringing this story into my life!