On location

It’s pure David Lean: a sweeping widescreen panorama of forested mountains, their lush ridges wrapped in ethereal early evening mist. The dreamy dusk view from the medieval olive mill the late film director restored into a Côte d’Azur retreat deserves an epic score and a lingering camera lens.

Last weekend Lean’s masterpiece, the Oscar-winning Lawrence of Arabia, was screened down the hill at the Cannes film festival, one of numerous events marking the 50th anniversary of the film’s release. But perhaps the best place to re-watch the classic is here, at the late director’s serene French property, which recently became available for rent. Tucked discreetly into a seven-acre garden in Mouans-Sartoux, high above the urban sprawl linking Cannes and Grasse, Moulin du Jardinier accommodates nine guests in surroundings as atmospheric as they are luxurious.

It wasn’t always this way. When Lean fell in love with the property in 1987 – while finishing the screenplay for Nostromo in St Paul de Vence – it was a derelict 15th-century ruin. Over 15 months it was alchemised into a home of almost clichéd Provençal beauty; its ancient walls laced with vines, dotted with faded green shutters and bleached by sunshine.

The renovation was overseen by the director’s partner – and later sixth wife – Sandra Cooke, though Lean had originally wanted to involve John Box, the designer of a fake city for Lawrence of Arabia and two replica Moscow streets for Dr Zhivago(it took 800 men 18 months to build them in the Spanish desert), was no stranger to ambitious construction.

Inside it is all baronial chic and bohemian opulence. The vast open-plan ground floor – where glorious stone arches separate the living, dining and entrance areas – sports 25ft-high beamed ceilings, mighty chandeliers and the largest of the Moulin’s many fireplaces. Its massive canopy pays homage to its famous former owner with a mural of the snow palace from Dr Zhivago.

The master bedroom

The master suite boasts a four-poster cocooned in linen drapes, four separate French windows and two bathrooms with Greco-Roman murals, one with a working fireplace, the other with a frescoed roll-top bath. The present Danish owners have embellished the design. As well as adding a Moroccan-themed bedroom with stand-alone shower – Lean vetoed showers as oddities for “health freaks” – they’ve juxtaposed splashes of Scandinavian style with the medieval aesthetic.

But the Moulin’s charm also lies in its sprawling gardens. “All I want to do is lie on the grass and look up through the ancient olive trees to the blue sky above,” remarked Lean on seeing the terraces.

I know how he felt. I spent hours wandering around the verdant grounds. Above the Moulin, the olive trees mingle with a riot of hawthorn, roses and cypresses, while below they sit on manicured grass among spruces, avocado and cherry trees. Beneath the trees is a canal bridge that was reinforced and widened to accommodate Babe, Lean’s convertible Rolls Royce Silver Cloud.

The gardens appear wonderfully organic, but they also reflect the film-maker’s attention to detail. Lean decided a telegraph pole interrupting his morning view must be hidden. Seven labourers toiled in 32C heat to drag an enormous cypress up the hill before digging a sizeable hole and, after much struggle, finally raising it. The director wasn’t satisfied. He held up one finger, as if measuring a camera angle, and demanded it be moved – two inches to the left.

Lean revelled in entertaining on the mill’s huge sun-washed terrace. While he welcomed the potential cast of Nostromo – Yves Montand, Anthony Quinn and Isabella Rossellini – I enjoyed the less stellar company of my family for lunches of fresh produce from Mouans-Sartoux market.

One night we called on the services of local chef Donna Melbourne. Al fresco sunset canapés followed by new season asparagus, dorade with citron sauce and seasonal vegetables, and a chocolate fondant were a palate-tingling peek into the dining habits of Melbourne’s A-list Riviera clientele.

With its memorable views, enviable grounds, heated pool, tennis court, PlayStation and Wi-Fi, it’s easy to pull up the Moulin drawbridge. But after two days seclusion we escaped to the Fondation Maeght near St Paul de Vence, whose light-filled pavilion and grounds host works by Hepworth, Miró, Chagall and Klein.

More interesting was the elegant dining room of the nearby Colombe d’Or hotel where Picasso, Tinguely and Dufy rub frames with Matisse, Léger and De Staël. The outside terrace, fringed with orange and fig trees, witnessed a withering Lean put-down. He ignored a boozy Robert Mitchum at a neighbouring table, as the American actor – well past his prime – boorishly recalled the director’s snail-paced perfectionism while filming Ryan’s Daughter. As Mitchum was leaving, Lean spun round: “Hello Bob,” he said coolly. “Made any good movies lately?”

But our excursions were limited; the Moulin deserved more time. I started to notice more architectural flourishes: the 15th-century olive press, carved antique doors and a sandy walkway perfect for boules. It clearly inspired Lean. He bought a second farmhouse in the Tuscan hills and looked beyond Nostromo to directing another renovation and movie, “a love story, before I keel”.

Neither happened. Just four months after his wedding in December 1990 he passed away. His ashes were scattered among an avenue of cypress trees with imperious views of the Alpes-Maritimes.

It’s a suitably spectacular final destination for the man who escaped Croydon, south London, for film sets in burning deserts, tropical jungles and snowy wastes. “This was to be where, at last, this nomad stopped searching,” wrote Sandra. “He had everything he wanted: sun, the chirping of birds and crickets, and a beautiful garden with his beloved sunflowers and roses.”

Ian Belcher was a guest of SJ Villas (www.sjvillas.co.uk) and British Airways (www.ba.com). SJ Villas offers a week at Moulin du Jardinier from €12,500; BA has returns from London to Nice from £189 including a week’s car hire

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