Happy Hideaways: Saint-Marc-sur-Mer
The places that promote carefree joy – and often deliver it – fashion themselves to be beyond the reach of the humdrum world. And they usually are also physically remote locations: islands, capes, peninsulas, end-of-the trail places and gated enclaves. That’s what makes going there especially fun.
This sleepy little village is hidden away on a sunny peninsula in Brittany, on the west coast of France. It was the location for Jacques Tati’s beloved 1953 comedy, “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” (“Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot”). It was precisely the little corner that the director had been dreaming of to serve as the centerpiece for his mostly pantomime comedy of a small-town, middle-class beach resort.
The movie follows the charming but bumbling Monsieur Hulot as he goes about his daily activities settling in with a ragtag cast of other guests at l'Hotel de la Plage to enjoy a holiday at the ocean. He does morning calisthenics, plays tennis, paddles a kayak, strolls the village, and takes meals in the hotel dining room, cheerfully unaware of the topsy-turvy predicaments his clumsiness causes everyone. His hapless gags are reminiscent of the best of Charlie Chaplin.
The film feels timeless -- one beautiful, sunny day casually unfolding into another, full of gently humorous scenes. Children laughing and squealing with delight, splashing in the surf, pushcart candy and newspaper vendors’ touts, grumbly straight-laced guests, 20-something merrymakers, a funeral procession, and an unplanned evening fireworks display.
The effect of the film is pleasantly hypnotic, very much like the dreamy languor one gets from napping in the heat and salty air of the seashore. There is no story arc or dramatic climax, just a series of vignettes – much like real life, only sweeter and with funnier sound effects.
The beach town and hotel really do exist. And it seems, not that much has changed or is very different from the silly fantasy of the film. Families still decamp to Saint-Marc-sur-Mer every summer to while away their days in sun and surf.
You can go there yourself, as The Guardian’s Lizzie Davis did in 2009. The beach -- now known officially as la Plage de M Hulot – “is recognisably Tati-esque. Families lounge, their parasols up, hampers out and buckets and spades at the ready. Couples sprawl languidly. Toddlers tumble, ice-cream first, into the sand.” A life-size bronze of Hulot himself now permanently surveys the scene from the village boardwalk.
But instead, I suggest that your first visit to this very happy hideaway should be taken vicariously, by watching Tati’s enchanting film. Settle back and lose yourself in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” at least once a year. Make it a new summer tradition, preferably on a sultry Saturday afternoon, to enhance the effect.
Film critic Roger Ebert remarked of Tati’s subtle masterpiece, “When I saw the film a second time, the wonderful thing was, it was like returning to the hotel. It wasn't like I was seeing the film again; it was like I was recognizing the people from last year. There's the old couple again (good, they made it through another year). The waiter (where does he work in the winter?). And the blond girl (still no man in her life; maybe this is the summer that . . .).
“The movie is about the simplest of human pleasures: The desire to get away for a few days, to play instead of work, to breathe in the sea air, and maybe meet someone nice. It is about the hope that underlies all vacations, and the sadness that ends them. And it is amused, too, that we go about our days so intently, while the sea and the sky go about theirs.”
“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” at Saint-Marc-sur-Mer is available on Vimeo (below) and in HD on YouTube and Amazon Prime.
Photos (from top): The beach at Saint-Marc-sur Mer, ©SNAT Vincent Bauza/Saint-Nazaire-Tourisme.uk; stills from the film; poster from Moviepostershop.com.