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 …