Beauty and the beach

Jacques Tati's 'Monsieur Hulot's Holiday' is treasured as a poetic and amusing study of the rituals of summer. To mark its 50th birthday, Simon O'Hagan traces the film's origins and travels to St Marc to find out how much things have changed
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The Independent Culture

An experiment to put up big screens on holiday beaches and bring films to where the people are has proved a hit in California recently. But a screening that will take place on the beach at a modest seaside resort in western France this week will be special in a quite different way.

The resort is St Marc-sur-Mer, which lies on the edge of the industrial port of St Nazaire in the Departement of Loire-Atlantique. On Friday evening many of St Marc's 2,000 residents will gather on the shore, settle into their temporary seats, and watch a film which is a landmark in cinema history but which has a whole other meaning as far as this particular audience is concerned.

The film is Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot - Jacques Tati's comic masterpiece and one of the best-loved films to come out of France or anywhere else for that matter. This year marks the 50th anniversary of its release, and thanks to the British Film Institute a new print of M. Hulot is going on general release next month. A three week retrospective at the National Film Theatre will feature M. Hulot and Tati's six other films, of which three - Jour de Fete, Mon Oncle and Playtime - will also show in selected cinemas.

The British soft-spot for Tati is sometimes compared with the one we also have for Woody Allen - both are said to exceed the degree of affection with which either director is held in his own country. But in Tati's case, an exception would have to be made for the tiny corner of France that is St Marc. For it was here, in the summer of 1951, that Tati and his crew turned up, took over the town and then presented it to the world as the quintessence of French middle-class life as it rediscovered its rituals in the aftermath of the Second World War. The world lapped it up much as it had lapped up Buster Keaton. The humour was universal. There was an enchantment about the film that transcended national boundaries. And, crucially, there was almost no dialogue.

M. Hulot might contain the greatest collection of sight gags ever committed to celluloid, but it is the context in which they are placed and the atmosphere of the film that lift it into another realm. The central character (played by Tati himself) is an unforgettable amalgam of bafflement at the modern world, eagerness to please and just the right amount of eccentricity - ie not too much. These attributes virtually guarantee that his every effort to fit in during his seaside holiday merely succeeds in creating chaos out of orderliness. Puncturing the veneer of the comfortably off at play is by no means the least of Tati's concerns. But above all, what stays in the viewer's mind is an elegiac quality, the sense that what Tati finds funny he also cherishes.

Of many beautifully timed jokes is one that seems to pay direct homage to the moment when the facade of a house falls on Buster Keaton and he escapes because he is standing underneath an open window. The Tati version has Hulot miraculously avoiding being run over by a bus as he attempts to fix his broken-down car.

"Sublime'' is how Tati's most recent biographer, David Bellos describes M. Hulot. "It was through this film that I first fell in love with France. I think that is true of a lot of people.'' When, in 1997, this newspaper invited readers to nominate what they thought was the funniest film of all time, Les Vacances de M. Hulot came out top, beating Some Like It Hot.

It was Tati's cosmopolitan ancestry that perhaps enabled him to make films that anyone could enjoy. He had Russian, Dutch, Italian and French grandparents, and his Russian grandfather had been the Czar's ambassador to Paris. Tati was born in 1908 and grew up to work in the family picture-framing business. He was a natural mimic and a foray into music hall led to opportunities to make short films. During the war he served in the French infantry. Then, in 1947, he directed a short film about a village postman. Two years later this evolved into Tati's first full length feature, Jour de Fete. Its comic portrayal of rural life went straight to the hearts of French audiences.

For his next film Tati moved away from La France profonde and focused his attention on the newly-emerging holiday-taking classes. "M. Hulot is one of the first films that's really about holidays,'' said David Bellos. "The French virtually invented the idea of the holiday, and Tati sniffs what was to become a national obsession.''

The setting for M. Hulot became all important. Tati had scoured long stretches of the French coastline for the locale that would be emblematic of this new kind of summer holiday. St Marc fitted the bill because it was neither too big nor too small. A sheltered inlet, with a graceful curve of sand, it boasted a hotel on the beach on which the main action could be centred. Beach huts, windbreaks, fishing boats and outcrops of rock helped to complete a picture which was all the more idyllic for being so unspectacular. For many seeing M. Hulot for the first time St Marc seems to embody the France of blissful imagination. "It's almost a platonic beach," Bellos says.

The St Marc of 2003, little changed from half a century ago, is certainly Tati-conscious, but it is no theme park. The Hotel de la Plage is still there, an original poster for M. Hulot adorning one of its foyer walls. There is a Place M. Hulot, and a café named after him, but the most elegant reference is the statue of Tati in his Hulot guise that gazes out to sea from a raised area of decking at the back of the beach.

It was standing next to the statue a few weeks ago that I met Pierre Joubert, a 63-year-old retired headmaster who has lived in St Marc all his life. M. Hulot means more to Joubert than most - as an 11-year-old boy he was used as an extra in the film, along with numerous other local people. Joubert recalls that the film did not at first go down well with the town. "It was a new type of film, and people didn't appreciate it. Jour de Fete was liked better because it was about rural France and the ordinary working lives that a lot of people still led. M. Hulot seemed less relevant because then only some people had seaside holidays.''

The young Pierre appears in the film with a group of other children playing on the rocks when Hulot comes by. "Tati was very demanding," Joubert recalls. "He told us all not to look at him but just to carry on playing. But Tati had a problem. He had injured his nose and there was a bandage on it. So the scene had to be shot without showing his face."

An English family also happened to be on holiday at St Marc at the time. It included two brothers, Nigel and Euan McLusky, then aged 14 and five. "Tati and my parents got to know each other meeting in the hotel in the evenings," says Nigel, a retired solicitor who lives in Falmouth. "He seemed very friendly and he arranged for us to be in the film." Except that Nigel declined the offer, and it is just Euan and his mother who can be seen walking up to a shop entrance next to the hotel.

"The thing I could not get over was that when you opened the shop door, there was nothing behind it," says Euan, who is now 57 and working as a GP in Yorkshire. That was because all the interiors in M. Hulot, including the scenes inside the Hotel de la Plage, were shot in studios.

In the early 1950s the English middle-classes were just beginning to venture across the Channel for their holidays, in something of a pioneering spirit. Euan McLusky recalls that the Michelin map still had red dots marking where bridges had been destroyed during the war. It was no coincidence that Englishness was one of the themes Tati was exploring in his film, which features an archetypal English busybody, a middle-aged woman who was forever pestering Hulot.

"One of the things M. Hulot shows is how so many French aspirations were towards Englishness,'' David Bellos says. "The whole film is suffused with the idea of le style Anglais as something desirable.''

Now it is as if the roles are reversed. There is a swathe of English people who look to France, and Pierre Joubert says he notices them in St Marc, looking for the spot where Hulot's spluttering little car comes to a halt outside the hotel or where his kayak outing goes so spectacularly awry.

The Hulot character appeared in Tati's later films, though on each occasion with less and less to do. By the time Tati died in 1982, he had acquired a reputation for self-indulgence and over-extended jokes. There was, it seems, only ever one place for Monsieur Hulot, and that was St Marc-sur-Mer.

A new print of 'Monsieur Hulot's Holiday' is at selected cinemas from 8 August. The Jacques Tati season: National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), 2 to 26 August