Travel: Where M Hulot lost his head

Nicola Barranger enters a Jacques Tati time-warp called St Marc- sur-Mer, site of the comic classic M Hulot's Holiday
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The Independent Culture
IT'S NO good looking for Hotel Jacques Tati, or even Hotel Hulot, if you come to St Marc-sur-Mer in Brittany. If you want to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of 1953 and share the same lodgings as M Hulot, you will have to check in - as he did - at the Hotel de la Plage. The hotel's name has never changed; indeed, apart from some post-war rebuilding, St Marc itself has changed little.

Unless you are a Mastermind specialist on the films of Jacques Tati, there is little to welcome you to the location of Monsieur Hulot's Holiday. St Marc is not a town in its own right, but a district of the port of St Nazaire. Exploiting cinema fans is not a priority. At the end of May, the tourist office was closed and my request for Tati information at the sub-office of the Mairie was answered with a shrug. Don't expect an American- style visitor's centre here. There is one small tabac, no souvenir shop and certainly nowhere to see the black-and-white film that won the French actor/director/writer a string of film awards in 1953.

No one knows exactly what prompted Jacques Tati to visit St Marc in that summer of 1952. It was only his second film and from July to October that year any unsuspecting visitor who checked in to the Hotel de la Plage might have found himself playing an extra or - perhaps worse - being told to keep out of the way of filming.

Les Vacances was M Hulot's cinematic debut. As with most Tati films, the plot (amiable social misfit joins holiday-makers beside the sea) is virtually irrelevant. It was the vignettes of modern life that fascinated Jacques Tati.

International audiences loved the visual and particularly the aural humour that underlined his social observation. For Tati, sound effects were essential. Dialogue itself didn't interest him. It was the pitch and intonation of words that he chose to parody. You need no French to sympathise with the holiday-makers at the railway station in the film. The tourists race from one platform to another, unable to make out a word of the distorted, squawking station announcements. In all Tati's films, the director of sound had his work cut out choreographing squeaking shoes or spluttering cars. In Monsieur Hulot's Holiday there was the restaurant door which "kerplunked" every time it swung open or closed; in Traffic the women who yacked in time to windscreen wipers; in Playtime the soft chairs that gently broke wind when sat on. But Tati's humour was subtle and underplayed (you wonder how much inspiration Inspector Clouseau drew from M Hulot) but tuning in to his language of observation could take a little time. Some people in his cinema audience would sit quietly, slightly bemused, while others guffawed helplessly.

You won't have any problem recognising the shots from Monsieur Hulot's Holiday if you go to the beach at St Marc. Until recently the two-star hotel was owned by the same family as in Tati's time; unlike so many other Hotels de la Plage throughout France that have been separated from the sands by urban development, St Marc's remains, literally, on the beach. As in the film, from the terrace you can step down straight on to the sand. There are just as few undemanding entertainments - the charming, picturesque beach, organised games for children, swimming, rowing, just walking and admiring the view. No more donkey rides, though. France has been cleaned up dramatically since the Fifties.

However, there is one, significant and recent change at St Marc-sur-Mer. High on a promenade overlooking the beach stands a statue of M Hulot. "We've been thinking about it for several years," says Jean Failleur, of the main tourist office in St Nazaire. "We decided that it was about time we paid tribute to Tati."

The sculptor, Emmanuel Debarre, a friend of the Tati family, was invited to represent the much loved director. Debarre, who is best known for his abstract work, has portrayed Hulot in classic pose - hands behind his hips, weight over the toes, bending forward slightly at the waist. "I wanted to do a living image," he says, "and I'm delighted that the people of St. Marc just love it. They've taken him straight to their hearts."

Visitors love him, as well. "Apparently, one or two visitors haven't realised he was a statue," says Debarre. The figure has the familiar flat- backed hat, and trousers that are just a little too short. What he does not have, however, is his pipe. Not that Mr Debarre omitted to craft the famous accessory, but within 36 hours someone had swiped it - not that easy, since the statue is bronze.

M Hulot is contemplating the sea. Half-close your eyes, and he is about to take off in the direction of the pipe-swiper, his arm outstretched, shouting "Ah, mais non!" While the local authorities like to blame souvenir hunters, Emmanuel Debarre is more pragmatic. "First it was the pipe, then within two months the face had been hit with a hammer." The council has now installed floor-level floodlights and has commissioned Debarre to redo the head. Visitors to St Marc this summer, however, are unlikely to be confronted by a headless Hulot. "Fortunately I've kept the cast," the sculptor explains. "I can prepare the new head in the studio and then go over to St Marc to replace it."

If a similar statue to a former hero had existed in the film, no doubt Jacques Tati would have used it to great effect.

Reaching St Nazaire takes three hours by train (0990 300003) from Paris or about two hours by car from St Malo. Brittany Ferries (0990 360360) has a daily overnight service to St Malo from Portsmouth.