Provence, especially the low mountain range of the Luberon, is a land of shifting fortunes, a countryside overwhelmed by people with money and fame who come to seek its tranquility. But for the locals, who often can no longer afford to stay, these "nouveaux," or what they call "éstrangers," whether from Dublin, London or Paris, will never quite speak their language.
Many "nouveaux" are very rich and enjoy high art, and during the summer season, cultural clashes in the Luberon, which ranges from Cavaillon to Manosque, make dissonant sounds. A few years ago, when the couturier Pierre Cardin bought the Marquis de Sade's château in Lacoste to create a festival in the nearby quarries, he found himself pitted against a group of outraged citizens. The village of Lacoste, population 410, rallied to stop the project.
The anti-Cardin movement spread to neighboring villages: Word was that the great figure of couture, who has designed everything from dresses to bon-bons, intended to turn the site into a theater of debauchery.
"When Cardin came here, people said the man was Bluebeard himself. When they don't know you, they'll call you anything," said Aline Bosc, a local ceramist. "They just hate the unfamiliar."
Cardin, 84, recalled the campaign, and the hate mail: "We even got death threats and traced the letters: To our surprise, they were from a Swiss neighbor!" He refutes his critics by saying that the festival has created jobs for the local population.
Eliane Thomassin, the mayor of Lacoste, has been Cardin's champion. "Pierre has done so much for Lacoste, but it's been tough: Every time we asked the departmental authorities for a permit, such as stone benches in the amphitheater, we were turned down," she says.
Despite not getting everything he wanted, Cardin won the day, & he relishes playing host to de Sade evenings, a modern nobleman in his nifty navy blazer and Nikes. The unconventional programming of the festival has proven popular, including "La Traviata," with the role of Violetta sung by a young Korean soprano, or a modern dance company from Beijing performing to songs by Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf.
The Luberon, traditionally a quarrelsome land, with a history of famine and religious persecution, is a natural stage for drama. This is moviemaking territory - with the gray stones of Gordes, the ochre cliffs of Roussillon and the Marquis's castle set against the hills.
For decades, these hills have been home to artists. Robert Bresson filmed in Sivergues, Samuel Beckett hid from the Nazis in Roussillon, Albert Camus was buried in Lourmarin. And in Ménerbes, Picasso abandoned Dora Maar - the weeping woman of Guernica - leaving her a house where she lived in mourning. These days, the actor John Malkovich can be sighted in Bonnieux and the director Ridley Scott in Oppède.
During the last wine-harvesting season, Scott and his friend, the writer Peter Mayle, filmed Mayle's novel "A Good Year" at the Château La Canorgue near Bonnieux. The film is to be released later in the year. After the notoriety of his novel "A Year in Provence," about the tribulations of a foreign homeowner, Mayle had fled Ménerbes for a house on the other side of the mountain, beyond the reach of those who love him less than the tourists do.
"It all went very well," said the owner of La Canorgue, Jean-Pierre Margan, walking through the sprawling family property built on Roman ruins. But Margan, who makes organic wine with the fervor of a 1968 idealist, could not suppress a wince when he described how the film crew painted his kitchen cornflower blue.
Marie-Laure Pessemesse, the director of the Luberon Vaucluse film commission, who scouted for locations and discretely smoothed relations between moviemakers and locals, said she is relieved the production is finally over.
During filming last autumn, the actor Russell Crowe, the film's star, roamed Bonnieux's narrow streets signing autographs, accompanied by his bodyguard.
The locals may be pleased enough that their region attracts stars, but some grouch about the ratio of quality to quantity. "When I was growing up, Michel Simon spent holidays next door at the Château La Canorgue," recalled Jean-Marie Bout, a local baker. "We used to have artists like Jean Giono; today, we have Peter Mayle."
Ménerbes has never recovered from the impact of Mayle's best-selling novel, which was translated into 30 languages. Tour buses still haunt the parking lot. Yves Rousset-Rouard, the producer of "Emmanuelle," among other films, and the owner of the 40-hectare, or 100-acre, Domaine de la Citadelle winery, has been the mayor of the high-perched village since 1995, and has lived there for 20 years.
With a population of 1,200 in winter and 3,000 in summer, Ménerbes flourishes. But English is heard more than French these days, and the sole café, Le Progrès, now belongs to Eli Zabar of New York's gourmet markets.
Rousset-Rouard, who speaks English and describes himself as politically to the right in a land known as the domain of the left, is a longtime friend of Scott's, and he supplied Scott with editing rooms during the filming of "A Good Year." He has also acquired the film rights to another Mayle novel about Provence, "Hôtel Pastis."
The mayor is particularly proud of his Ménerbes creations: the Musée du Tire-Bouchon (Corkscrew Museum) and the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon (a truffle and wine museum). With the help of generous "nouveaux," Dora Maar's house has been restored and looks better than it did when she lived there. The mayor wins high marks among his constituents.
Roger Fénelon, a doctor who came to Bonnieux 30 years ago, is a very different kind of mayor. A Socialist, he has spoken out against the influence of what he calls "Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism." He has criticized Kerry, an Irish company that runs a fruit conservation plant near Apt, accusing it of polluting the environment while cutting local farmers' benefits. He has also lambasted Europe's "technocrats" with their rules that make cherries imported from Romania cheaper than Vaucluse cherries.
Fénelon sees himself as a champion of the native-born and chides "our new co-citizens," with reminders that if they want the region to remain authentic, they should support farmers who are being squeezed out of their homes and livelihoods. But he also finds himself at odds with some constituents. He has a formidable opponent in Ione Tézé, a Frenchwoman who has lived in New York and Geneva and who has different ideas about environmental causes. Tézé heads Luberon Nature and presides over a local citizens' group, Bonnieux à Tout Coeur. "The Luberon is a premier spot for real estate vultures," she said. "The mayors too often play into the hands of the developers."
The associations have thwarted numerous development projects - some close to the mayor's heart. He cited a residence project that he said was meant to house local families who can no longer afford to live in Bonnieux.
Everybody seems to have ideas about what is best for the Luberon. The photographer Denis Brihat arrived on a motorscooter in 1958, which makes him the oldest of the "éstrangers."
"There's no doubt that these villages have never been the same since the real estate boom of the past decade," he said, "and the locals feel they have been invaded by foreigners who don't have their interests at heart.
"When I arrived, Bonnieux was the end of the earth. People spoke Provençal. Today, the language is neo-Provençal-French and English." He adds: "This is the new Provence."