Mr. Hulot’s Holiday: Bumbling in Brittany

IT’S LAUGH-VACATION TIME AS JACQUES TATI ROMPS THROUGH THE MOST GLORIOUSLY MAD LARK EVER TO TICKLE THE RIBS OF YOUNG AND OLD ALIKE!

 

mrhulotsholidayAs a Swede watching this classic film by Jacques Tati, I realize that one of the most successful Swedish filmmakers, Lasse Åberg, must have studied it closely. The observations in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday of people on vacation are just as slow, pleasant and friendly as Åberg’s films. Director Tati has been an inspiration to many others as well, not least Mr. Bean, but it is also obvious that the Frenchman himself has learnt a lot from the classic silent film comedians.

The film begins with a wide variety of people arriving in Brittany to spend their August vacation in one of the sleepy little towns. One of them is Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati), a quaint, tall, very polite man who always smokes a pipe and has a peculiar bounce in his walk. He’s a character along the lines of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin; he doesn’t say much and appears to have no knowledge of his clumsiness. Unlike Peter Sellers’s Clouseau who is aware of his bumbling nature but refuses to acknowledge it, Hulot goes through life mostly unaware of the crises he causes. Tati usually portrays him as utterly unlike the other tourists; there’s Hulot doing things and then there’s this huge collective doing something else. There’s a great opening shot with a group of people chasing a train; one of the first scenes with Hulot shows him leaving a door open, causing a wind to blow through the hotel’s entrance hall, wreaking havoc on the other tourists. Those scenes are examples of how Tati creates comedy not just out of one funny individual but of a whole group of people that are not inherently funny; it’s quite effective. The fact that the star once was a mime comes as no great surprise; the influence from silent comedies is evident in the way the humor entirely depends on sight gags. The lack of dialogue is another example. This is the reason why Tati is careful to emphazise noises for comic effects. Some of them work, others don’t; one of the funniest gags involves Hulot’s car horn, that sounds exactly like a duck, and a senile old man with a rifle.

Quiet but pretty amusing
The movie is the first to introduce Tati’s classic character and it was a major art house hit in the early 1950s; it is still Tati’s most beloved film. I don’t know if it ever inspired belly laughs. I doubt it, because most of the gags are quiet but pretty amusing. Still, one can admire how Tati has chosen to shoot certain sequences, how he stages gags. I love the way he films Hulot leaning back on a chair and falling off of it; all we see is his legs but we get the picture and it’s a novel way of shooting an old gag. We also get a nice feeling of a kind of holiday resort that barely exists anymore in these days of huge hotel chains: it’s very charming.

Perhaps it is this nostalgia that makes some critics hail Mr. Hulot’s Holiday as a masterpiece. Because I can’t for the life of me quite see why this simple, entertaining film is so highly regarded; most of the virtues attributed to the director can also be found in earlier filmmakers and comedians. But if you ignore the burden a masterpiece label can bring, and just view the film as an unpretentious comedy, you will have a good time.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday 1953-France. 87 min. B/W. Produced by Fred Orain. Directed by Jacques Tati. Screenplay: Jacques Tati, Henri Marquet. Cast: Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot), Nathalie Pascaud (Martine), Michelle Rolla (The Aunt), Valentine Camax, Louis Perrault.

Trivia: Original title: Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot. The original version ran 115 min. Christopher Lee dubbed all voices for the British release.

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