Mr. Hulot's Holiday
1954, 83 min.
Directed by Jacques Tati
Although not a double feature night, I was watching two films on Tuesday, the 24th. Thematically there were no real similarities, except for maybe neither was going to have spoken English in them. Sunrise was a silent film that had just ended minutes before, and next was a French comedy. Still feeling a bit drained emotionally from the silent film, I ventured downstairs to grab a drink and snap a few pictures of the tunneling taking place in the lobby. Although at first I was just intending to write a paragraph or two about the dig in this entry or the Sunrise entry, I realized that all of my jumbled ideas could warrant a separate entry. A crazy, manic kind of blog that took a life all its own. Digging into my messenger bag and taking out my notebook, I scribbled furiously until the next feature began.
Mr. Hulot's Holiday promised to be much lighter fare. It's a minimalist comedy about some vacationers at a beach resort. As the film begins it spends some time leisurely introducing us to several of the characters, many of whom can't seem to put aside their work or politics long enough to enjoy themselves. I mean, God forbid one actually relaxes on their vacation, huh? Comment terrible, non?
Some are enjoying themselves the best they can, socializing, playing cards or the like. Enter Mr. Hulot himself (played by writer/director Jacques Tati), a pipe-smoking Frenchman also there to enjoy a summer respite. Although unintentional, he steps in like a force of nature. Once he arrives, forecast goes from sunny to partly clumsy with a chance of calamity.
Hulot is, to put it delicately, a bit of a klutz. Give this man a wide berth, because most things that he touches ends up broken or disheveled. Never malicious in his mischief, he's more like a wide-eyed child that reminded me of classic clowns from the silent film era. Chaplain, Keaton, Lloyd; you know the type. In many ways, it's like watching Disney's Goofy in a live-action setting. The comedy, because of the large numbers of vacationers in many of the shots, is clearly meticulously choreographed. Hulot's misadventures on the beach are a precursor of the comedic style we are familiar with from more modern bumblers like Mr. Bean, Inspector Clouseau, or Kramer from "Seinfeld."
Now, when I referred to the comedy as "minimalist" earlier, I didn't mean that the laughs were few. It's the style that I was actually referencing. Dialogue is at a minimum, and the atmosphere is driven by a combination of sight gags and ambient background noise. Mr. Hulot's Holiday is like a hybrid of silent and sound films.
There's a bit of social commentary to be found in the film also. Combing this beach will reveal some hidden treasures of critique on the modern society. The scenes where the portly businessman is constantly taking calls from his stock broker made me grin. I just couldn't help thinking of all those people who can't unplug themselves today (like those who constantly text). Is this what technology has wrought? All of the wifi in the world hasn't helped most of us become untethered from our responsibilities. If anything, it's become more intrusive. Why can't we just relax (as Frankie Goes to Hollywood would say)? Why not just simply let go of things and enjoy a vacation? Relaxation is not just another job to multitask. I couldn't help but think Tati would find the irony even more hilarious and relevant today than back then.
At it's heart, Mr. Hulot's Holiday is a silly piece of film, but has a good deal of charm. The use of the jazzy little number "Quel temps fait-il à Paris" for practically every scene gets old rather quickly, but damn if it isn't catchy. It's likely still playing in my head as your read this. In a way, this is a microcosm of the film's experience. The movie is a bit repetitive in throwing out sight gags and improbable scenes one after the other, but you can't stop grinning. It's like eating a whole meal of nothing but dessert. I know I shouldn't keep eating these sweets, but- huh? Why, yes! More please!
On this beach, Tati makes his own little sand castle of a movie, and it's fun to watch him play. One thing I found interesting was the foreword before the film, explaining that Tati himself re-tweaked the film by editing numerous times over the years, and that this restored print was based on his final re-edit in 1978. I found it odd that something enjoyed by so many when it first came out would warrant a plethora of revisiting and re-assembly by its creator. And here I thought messing with popular movies was a more modern convention. But I guess that made Tati the first George Lucas, huh? Thank goodness, however, that Mr. Hulot was endearing to watch. I couldn't imagine tolerating this if the character was more like, say... Jar Jar Binks.
While I found the humor to be more ridiculous and silly than outright hilarious, I was nevertheless delighted by the gangly Mr. Hulot. Jacques Tati has constructed a comedy with the joy of clowns (without all the scary makeup), and a sense of minimalist efficiency right out of Ikea. It proves that, when done well, misadventures and clumsy antics can be a universal form of entertainment. Mr. Hulot's Holiday made for a light and refreshing experience at The Theatre that evening. The title character may a bit of a mess, but the film itself is no disaster. I left with a smile as big as la lune and as warm as le soleil.