Les Vacances de M. Darling #2

Les Vacances de M. Darling #2

The search for M. Hulot …

According to those in the know Jacques Tati wasn’t the easiest fella to get along with. When shooting his films he claimed to have all the shots in his head and rarely used ‘professional’ actors – famously ‘Martine’ (the young, frivolous girl Hulot falls for while on holiday) was played by a friend of a friend. She was initially unwilling to be on location for a long period of time as she was married to a businessman from Lille. Tati simply arranged for the husband to have a part in the movie too – he plays M. Smutte – the portly gentleman always being called to the telephone.

However, this doesn’t detract from the comic genius mind that scripted, sculpted and structured his films with such deft timing and subtle nuances that they remain funny even today. Tati’s art belies fashion, trends and modernistic observations on gimmicks, trinkets and fads. Instead, he focuses on people (most notably their behaviour) and reactions to everyday situations that we all face and our interactions with one another. Sadly, in this modern age of smartphones and in-ear devices our faces are pointed towards the ground rather than upwards into each other’s eyes. Tati makes us look at each other squarely in the face, often with a question etched in our expressions or a bright, knowing smile lighting up an otherwise dull encounter.

In ‘M. Hulot’s Holiday’ a series of unfortunate events happen to Tati’s character, or rather, those surrounded by the gangling, over-polite, hesitant anti-hero with his pipe, silly hat and too-short trousers. As Tati himself once remarked ‘he is not a gag man, he doesn’t tell jokes’ – moreover things just seem to happen around him. A boat is unhitched and careers into the sea; a horse almost decapitates a man in the backseat of a car; players unwittingly ‘cheat’ at cards which sets off a passionate quarrel; mourners at a funeral are left in a state of laughter and giggles by Hulot’s nose being tickled by a feather … all seemingly tame stuff nowadays but delivered with the timing and delicate sensitivity these gags stand the test of time.

In modern day Saint-Marc sur Mer there is little in the way of mass commercialisation that you might think, at such a well-known, recognisable film location. There are no fun rides, theme-based attractions or even an authentic souvenir shop to speak of, to remind any passing visitor of the film itself. The intimate bookshop-cum-tabac has a handful of Tati graphic novels and the odd postcard but, somewhat ironically, nothing to write home about. The hotel has half a dozen Tati items in a small, unimposing bookcase: a 7 inch vinyl from ‘Mon Oncle’ (the follow up to ‘Les Vacances’) and a couple of grainy, dusty black and white stills.

It reminded me very much of one of my other favourite haunts – Heydon Village in north Norfolk, where ‘The Go-Between’ was made (Julie Christie, Alan Bates et al) in the early 1970’s. There isn’t a single reference to the film in those parts and only the knowing (some might say sad) film fanatic such as myself would even marvel at the location for that reason. Moreover, we are taken in by the sheer beauty of a place, for the unspoilt, uncomplicated nature of life, so far removed from London and other inner cities.

I guess that’s how the locals like it and want it to stay that way …

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Les Vacances de M. Darling #1

Les Vacances de M. Darling #1

‘Trains, Planes and Automobiles …’

A few miles east of La Baule on the south coast of Brittany, with a beach of firm sand set between two outcrops of rock that stretch out into the Atlantic, lies Saint-Marc sur Mer. Not a town in its own right but a province of Saint Nazaire, the delightful coastal resort is best known and most fondly remembered as being the location for French film-maker Jacques Tati’s ‘Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot.’

The journey to the west of France is something akin to the Steve Martin / John Candy 80’s classic ‘Trains, Planes and Automobiles’ – bus to Clapham Junction, train to Gatwick Airport, shuttle train to the north terminal, aircraft to Nantes, shuttle bus to Saint Nazaire, cab to Saint-Marc sur Mer.

Having left London in balmy, warm spring sunshine the sodden, soggy grey skies that greeted the aircraft didn’t look promising for a few days of continental warmth and much needed recouperation from brattish south London schoolchildren. However, under our most excellent canopy the taste of the Atlantic air was enough to raise the spirits and quickly as it was necessary to raise the umbrella.

L’Hotel de la Plage is precisely that … a hotel on the beach. Although the entrance is on the main road (and not the side on one depicted in the film – an added prop constructed as the actual entrance was still in use while filming took place), as soon as you head towards the restaurant you get that magical first glimpse of the instantly recognisable rocks, sand and jetty that are as much the stars of the movie as Tati and co.

Indeed the tempation to take a stroll is only puntured by the need for sustenance – a fish course, naturally (we are on the Atlantic coast) and some fine red wine from the friendliest of friendly staff.

It is early in the season and it allows almost a private excursion to the entire beach – the sand is as welcoming and as crumbly as the film suggests, the air warm and succulent, the landscape unspoilt by lines, signs and other warnings. The steps taken onto the old stone jetty are steep, jagged, broken and not at all safe but a welcome relief from ‘Health and Safety’ and people saying ‘No’ all the time. Waves splash your boots as you yourself splash through puddles lying otherwise dormant on the greeny/brown, undulating slabs underfoot. One side of the jetty has a rickety hand-rail but the other is open to the elements – again there is a sense of freedom – if you were to slip and fall then so be it – there’s no metaphorical hand-holding here, no ‘nanny-state’ cotton wool wrapped experience – just the rocks below and the lapping waves, slurping around the jetty like an eager puppy quenching his thirst after an hour spent chasing a stick in the park.

As you look back towards the hotel a ghostly figure is backlit from the streets, peering, straight-backed but leaning forward from the ankles, elbows splayed with too-short trousers, comical peaked hat and what appears to be a Clint Eastwood-style half-chewed charoot protruding from his lips.

Ah. Hulot. H-U-L-O-T. Hulot …