To most visitors, Saint Tropez is all about the picturesque harbourfront. Loved for its rich mix of mega boats, old and modern sailing yachts and traditional fishing boats flanked by bustling cafes and restaurants. There are fabulous outdoor terraces where one can sit and watch the world go by on their Harley Davidson motorbikes and open top Ferrari’s. Designer shops and lively nightlife complete the image, topped off by an iconic church clock tower.
Yet to many French people there is also a warm nostalgic association with French cinema and music. Evolving rapidly at the end of the 1950’s and into the 60’s it transformed Saint Tropez from a small, relatively unknown fishing village, into the place to be. In summer months movie stars and musicians, both home-grown and from outside France, flocked here. Attracted by the beautiful coastline and turquoise blue sea, Mediterranean pines, soft white sandy beaches and rocky coves backed by verdant hills with occasional vineyards, clear skies and omnipresent sunshine movie makers descended on St Tropez.
The films were initially in black and white. Then colour burst onto the scene. Alongside it, the exuberant freedom of expression and experimentation that ran rampant in the sixties when the beaches of Saint Tropez also became popular with nudists.
There was two genres of movie which took off big time. One invariably involved beautiful women and handsome young men in all manner of romances and intrigues. The other was comedy, which found its inspiration in an unlikely, yet quintessentially French institution – the Gendarmes.
When the young and exceptionally beautiful Bridget Bardot starred in Et Dieu Crea la Femme, filmed in Saint Tropez, things really took off. It seemed as if the whole world took notice and headed for the south of France. The combination of rising middle-class mass tourism and the opportunity for movie making put the strategic seaside village firmly on the map.
Alongside the glamorous shining star of French cinema, a less likely legend was born. Much of the filming was set in and around the actual Gendarmerie which is situated near the centre of the old part of the village. Pitched as a relatively modest budget comedy the first film Le Gendarme de Saint Tropez wildly exceeded the box office expectations in 1964 and a suite of hit films ensued. Starring the brilliant livewire, Louis de Funes, and the extremely funny and likeable Michel Galabru.
We all know the Gendarmes with their distinctive Képi hat and uniform. Gendarmes are actually part of the French army – in other words paramilitary. They hold a place in the hearts of the French, a bit like the Bobbies in the UK. Perhaps it’s the uniform or just the roles that destiny has given them through recent French history. They are generally respected figures, more likeable and closer to the people than the more aggressively perceived CRS, and more important than the somewhat restricted Police.
Combining comedy with the Gendarmes in a place like Saint Tropez in the swinging sixties was a masterstroke. Add the wonderful French cars of the time, the legendary Citroen 2CV and the open top Mehari, the Renault Estafette van and BMW motorbikes. Plus beautiful yachts and motorboats and another highly respected figure of French society, nuns – and you have the stuff of legends. So much so that the actual Saint Tropez Gendarmes have moved to new quarters. Their old building has been converted into a museum which opened in June 2016.
It is very well laid out and combines interesting stuff about the Gendarmes and the Gendarmerie with French cinema and the role Saint Tropez played and still plays in a manner which appeals to both adults and children alike. It has good English translations too so even if you don’t know what it is all about at the start you will by the time you finish.
If you work up an appetite during your tour of the museum, why not indulge in one of the local speciality cakes which you can buy in the village, Tarte Tropezienne.
Musée de la Gendarmerie et du Cinéma – Golfe de Saint-Tropez
Peter Horrocks lives in Grasse where he blogs about life, what to do and see in France, getting beyond the obvious where possible. An avid walker, skier and amateur travel photographer, you can find him blogging at PeterHorrocksTumblr