My recent time spent looking at the movies of French filmmaker Jacques Tati has been a true delight. As I’ve made my way through his small but brilliant catalog of films I’ve grown more and more impressed with the ingenious craft at the heart of them. “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” was the first film featuring Tati’s lovable Monsieur Hulot character and it’s arguably the greatest display of his physical comedic abilities. Tati both starred in and directed this picture and his meticulous approach to filmmaking is seen in every frame from his carefully conceived sight gags to his beautiful work with the camera.
There’s no strict and focused narrative in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”. It simply follows Hulot’s vacation at a small French beachside resort. Much like other Tati films, there is a great focus on community here. We’re introduced to a number of fellow vacationers each with their own unique personalities and quirks. There’s no real effort towards character development. Instead they simply become familiar faces who we grow to know through their reappearances. This is one of the characteristics of Tati’s films that I enjoy the most. I love how he develops a community of characters all built around their individual interactions with Mr. Hulot.
Hulot is the picture of gentleness and happiness. With his pipe in mouth and striped socks showing he certainly stands out in the crowd. But it’s his fidgety demeanor and overall clumsiness that makes him so physically awkward, something only rivaled by his social awkwardness which he seems totally unaware of. He simply goes on enjoying life completely impervious to the inconveniences he may be accidentally causing. He annoys several of his fellow vacationers which provides some great laughs for the audience.
For me the true treat was just watching him interact with this wonderful assortment of people. For example there’s the grumpy and mopey waiter who doesn’t crack a smile for the entire movie. There’s the pretty blonde who gets the attention of nearly every young man at the resort yet she lives in her own uninterested little world. There’s the older couple who just stroll around observing everyone and taking everything in. We get the mischievous children and a handful of animals, both of which Tati loves to incorporate into his films. There are several other great characters and we never really get to know any of them yet they become very familiar to us. They all share the resort, the dining area, and the beach with Mr. Hulot which results in some hysterical moments.
First and foremost Jacques Tati is a physical comedian, a skill that dates back to his early years as a mime. His films often reflect back on the days of Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keeton when the stories were told through the amazing vehicles of expressions, gestures, postures, and athleticism. That’s certainly the case here. The dialogue is scarce and the speaking we do hear from people is mostly unintelligible. Instead the story is made for our eyes and mainly told through the lens of Tati’s camera. His skill is incredible and you can’t take your eyes off what he’s doing on screen. It’s unlike anything we see today.
In many ways “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” resembles a classic silent film yet there is a steady emphasis on sound. There’s the aforementioned chatter from the characters. Most of the time we have no idea what they’re saying yet they are a delightful ingredient. The spitting and sputtering of Mr. Hulot’s funky automobile almost makes it a character itself. Then there are the little things such as the swinging door to the dining room. Every time someone walks through, it makes this peculiar “fwoom” sound. Tati removes the music and places a heavy emphasis on that unusual sound. It may not sound like much but in the flow of the film it fits perfectly.
Tati is also a director of timing. So many of his hilarious gags are dependent on precise timing and I can imagine even some of the smallest scenes taking a lot of time and expertise to get right. Take one scene where Hulot is fixing his broken down jalopy on the side of the road. He is underneath his car but with his legs laying out in the road. Another car comes flying through and at just the right time Hulot pulls in his legs as the car barely misses them. He never moves his legs to miss the oncoming car but to just shift positions yet the timing is perfect. Now there could very well be some camera trickery involved but it’s just one example of the many great gags revolving around perfectly timed people or objects.
“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” was a huge success upon its release and it remains a cherished movie for many today. It’s a perfect display of Jacques Tati’s artistry as both a filmmaker and a comedic actor. It’s a celebration of silent comedy as well as its own unique brand of filmmaking. It also gives us our first introduction to one of the most lovable characters in cinema chock full of his deadpan humor. Just a couple of days ago as I sat in a theater watching a series of comedy trailers that looked neither interesting or funny I thought of this film. I thought of how lazy and formulaic the one-trick-pony comedies of today are. Then I thought of Tati’s creativity, his style, his skill with the camera, his poetic grace. All of these things and more are beautifully wrapped up in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”. I sat in that dark theater thinking the same thing I’m thinking now – “Man I wish they still made comedies like this today”!
VERDICT – 5 STARS