Les Vacances de M. Hulot
He angles forward from the waist and bobs like one of those drinking birds you perch on the rim of a glass. His trousers end well above the ankles of his long, gangly legs. A pipe juts from his teeth, a hat perches jauntily on his head, and there is an optimistic spring in his step. He is Monsieur Hulot, and he has come to the seaside on holiday.
Hulot is the defining creation of Jacques Tati, one of the great physical funnymen of film. Mr. Hulot's Holiday was his second feature, and the one that introduced his gawky, bumbling, good-natured alter-ego. Released in 1953, the film quickly became a huge international success, particularly in America, where it played the art-house circuit for years.
There's no plot to speak of in Mr. Hulot's Holiday. It's a succession of sight gags, some hilarious, some gentle. They look simple, but they are the product of meticulous planning and engineering. Take the scene where Hulot applies some varnish to a kayak he comes upon in the sand at the edge of the water. Why he does this is hard to say, but whys are irrelevant in Tati's world. The kayak is there, the can of varnish is there, the brush is there, and he sits down and paints. As he applies the brush, the tide laps in and carries the can out into the water, but it floats it back in just as Hulot absently reaches out to dip the brush again. This dance goes on, with variations, for a while, and it's both funny and fascinating. How did he do that?
Things aren't always so serendipitous for Hulot, but he generally emerges unscathed from whatever mayhem he has inadvertently caused. He arrives at the seaside resort in a car that even the Joads would scorn, a dilapidated jalopy so unimposing that a mongrel sunning himself in the middle of the road can hardly be bothered to move to let it pass (it's a 1924 Amilcar, with tires like bicycle wheels and a repertoire of backfire snaps, crackles, and pops that sound like Rice Crispies facing a firing squad).
Tati was a champion athlete as a young man, and many of his best gags involve physical dexterity masquerading as clumsiness. Remember the classic scene in A Shot in the Dark, Blake Edwards's best Inspector Clouseau movie, where Peter Sellers barrels through a room and sails out the window on the far side? You'll find its parent here, meticulously planned and effortlessly executed, and side-splittingly funny.
Tati is heir to the great comics of the silent era, Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd, and Mr. Hulot's Holiday is essentially a silent film. There are little patches of dialogue, but the words are not important; they have the same quality as sound effects. "The dialogue is background sound as you hear it when you’re in the street, in Paris or New York," he once told an interviewer, "a brouhaha of voices." In Hulot, Tati emphasizes this quality with a brilliant sight gag at the top of the movie, where a crowd of vacationers waiting at a railway station becomes confused by garbled announcements over the loudspeaker system, and stampedes from one platform to the other.
Hulot has some stylistic traits in common with Chaplin's Little Tramp, particularly his chivalry, his politeness, the tipping of his hat. But where the Tramp is clever, aggressive, and mischievous, Hulot is blithely clueless. He leaves the door open as he wrangles his bags into the hotel, and never notices the havoc wrought by the seaside wind howling through the lobby. His obliviousness puts him closer to Keaton.
If Tati learned from and paid homage to the masters of silent comedy, he also bequeathed stylistic concepts to the generation of filmmakers that followed him. His device of scattering varied sounds and areas of visual interest across his frame, rather than directing the audience's attention, influenced other directors, notably Robert Altman. Like the best of Altman's films, Tati's can be seen again and again with new discoveries to be made at each viewing.
"There are films I would see every other day if I had the time," director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive) once said in an interview on Salon.com, citing Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Tati's Mon Oncle along with classics like 8 1/2, Lolita, Sunset Boulevard, Rear Window, and The Godfather. "There's an abstract thing in there that just thrills my soul. Something in between the lines that film can do in a language of its own -- a language that says things that can't be put into words."
Despite his enormous influence on French and international cinema, Tati's output was slim. He made only five full-length films, the last four featuring Hulot. Mr. Hulot's Holiday was by far the most popular, but many critics consider Playtime (1967), a satire of modern urban life, technology, and architecture, to be Tati's masterpiece. But Playtime, which took four years and a large budget to make, was a commercial flop that broke him financially.
Jacques Tati came from generations of frame-makers – his grandfather made frames for Van Gogh – and he disappointed his father when he rejected the family business and went into show business instead. He became a mime and a music hall comic before turning to the field in which he would achieve immortality. This beautifully restored print of his best-known film will give new audiences the chance to judge whether he made the right decision.
© Text 2010 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be