Pages Navigation Menu

Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

M. Hulot’s Holiday

hulot_window2

Director: Jacques Tati
Country: France
Year: 1953

“This is what interests Tati. Everything and nothing. Blades of grass, a kite, children, a little old man, anything, everything which is at once real, bizarre, and charming.”
Jean-Luc Godard

“Tati is sparse, eccentric, quick. It is not until afterward—with the sweet nostalgic music lingering—that these misadventures take on a certain poignancy and depth.”
Pauline Kael

“What I wanted to present with the character of Hulot was a man you can meet in the street, not a music hall character. He does not know that he is being funny.”
Jacques Tati

Background

Continuing our recent run of directors who fled the Nazis and who worked under assumed names, I submit for your approval Jacques Tati, who has an additional claim to fame that the others lack: Frank Black (of the Pixies) wrote a song about him.

M. Tati was born Jacques Tatischeff in 1907. His father, Georges-Emmanuel Tatischeff, was Russian. His mother, Marcelle Claire Van Hoof, was Dutch. I mention them not because they have any particular bearing on Tati’s later artistic output, but because their names are frigging awesome! Say it again: Marcelle Claire Van Hoof!

After early successes as a professional rugby player and a mime, Tati turned in the 1930’s to the career for which he is best known: filmmaking. An early short film, L’École Des Facteurs (The School for Postmen), led directly to Tati’s first full-length film, Jour de fête (The Big Day).

The Big Day chronicled the efforts of a slightly inebriated small-town postman (played by Tati) to emulate the legendary efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service. SPOILER ALERT: with disastrous results. Released in 1949, The Big Day was actually filmed two years earlier, in the small village where Tati hid from Nazi recruiters during the occupation of France. The Big Day contained the elements that would eventually be recognized as Tati’s trademarks: elaborately constructed slapstick and sight gags, a gentle satirical poking at the wonders of modern technology and the concomitant loss of humanity.

Tati’s follow-up film was 1953’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, or, in a mixture of French and English, M. Hulot’s Holiday). Wikipedia describes it accurately: “The film openly lampoons several hidebound elements of French political and economic classes, from chubby capitalists and rabid Marxists to petty proprietors and drab dilettantes, most of whom find it nearly impossible to free themselves, even temporarily, from their rigid social roles in order to relax and enjoy life.”

Holiday contained the same elaborate sight gags and gentle satire as The Big Day, but with an added idiosyncrasy that became another Tati trademark: An almost complete lack of dialogue.

Holiday also marked the first appearance of Tati’s best-known and best-loved creation: the kindly and bumbling M. Hulot, perpetually befuddled and obstructed (but never truly defeated) by the modern world. He would go on to play Hulot in all but the last (Parade) of his subsequent full-length films.

“Whether attempting to grapple with a heavy suitcase, a temperamental horse, or a faulty motor car, Hulot is plainly not the man for the job,” says David Ehrenstein in his Criterion essay.

Holiday was filmed in the seaside resort town of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer, where a bronze likeness of Hulot was later erected in his memory.

Holiday was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and Tati’s subsequent film, 1958’s Mon Oncle (My Uncle, but you probably guessed that), won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Mon Oncle was Tati’s first film to be released in color (even though The Big Day was actually shot in both black-and-white AND color), and remains his most popular film.

Emboldened by success, Tati went on to mount his most ambitious and expensive project: 1967’s Playtime. With nothing less than “Modern Paris” as his theme, Tati spent nine years and enormous sums of his own money making the film. Much of the time and money was spent constructing the massive set on the outskirts of Paris.

Filmed in 70MM and recorded with a then-daring Stereophonic soundtrack, Playtime was acclaimed by critics but a disappointing flop at the box office. Tati was eventually forced to file for bankruptcy.

Tati made two more full-length films (Trafic, Parade) on a much smaller scale. He had plans for one more film, Confusion, a non-comedic sci-fi story in which the Hulot character, now elderly, was to be killed. Tati died in 1982, before he was able to mount the production.

Synopsis

Our film begins with waves breaking on a beach. Jazzy lounge music plays in the background.

Again that credit for “Script Girl” which always makes me chuckle and/or wince (depending on whether Robin is in the room).

There is an abandoned dinghy on a quiet beach, then a sudden cut to the pandemonium of a train station. A distorted, completely unintelligible voice (sorta like Charlie Brown’s mother) makes announcements over a loudspeaker, and hapless passengers rush to and fro, trying in vain to follow the garbled directions. One of the passengers is a beautiful young woman with Princess Leia Organa sidebuns, who I’m guessing will be one of the main characters.

Meanwhile, M. Hulot putters along a country road in an impossibly small and rickety car.

Every hill overtaxes the engine; every bump threatens to reduce the vehicle to its component parts. Too long to fit inside, a butterfly net (or fishing net?) is strapped to the outside of the car.

Princess Leia boards a packed bus, which is briefly delayed while the driver extricates a child that has become wedged in the steering wheel.

Leia and Hulot eventually arrive in the same seaside resort town. Chaos seems to follow the cheerful and oblivious Hulot. When he opens the door of the resort hotel, a sudden breeze upends the guests’ hats, mustaches, and teacups.

While carrying his fishing rod through the lobby, he hooks another lodger’s coat. His attempt to enjoy dinner in the hotel’s restaurant leads to an extended routine of accidental hat-swapping. Meanwhile, Princess Leia relaxes in her room overlooking the beach.

On the beach, a mischievous boy uses a magnifying glass to burn spyholes in the dressing-tents. A boat-painter is stymied by the unexpected disembarkation of the boat he is currently painting. A waiter checks his watch and dumps a glass of milk in a customer’s lap. And so on.

Throughout these scenes, an older gentleman strolling behind his wife, a group of athletic young men, and a crass American businessman are frequently distracted from business at hand by the opportunity to ogle Princess Leia.

That evening, a quiet and civilized dinner is interrupted by an eruption of raucous big-band jazz from an adjoining room. When the enraged diners burst in to complain, they find M. Hulot sitting next to a phonograph, serenely puffing on his trademark pipe.

While M. Hulot’s Holiday is not a silent film, it has the feel of a classic silent comedy, filled with elaborate, precisely timed sight gags. More to the point, the main character almost never speaks, though he is an animated bundle of odd physical business.

Hulot walks with a strange stiff-backed and forward-leaning lope, wears pants that are pulled up almost to his nipples, puffs on an ever-present pipe, never misses an opportunity to awkwardly genuflect to a lady or offer to assist with a heavy package (often leading to peripheral disasters), and appears to be completely unaware of the wreckage he leaves in his wake.

In the next episode, Hulot ends up in a cabin with a bunch of drunken members of the Parisian resistance, or possibly some sort of socialist Eagle scouts. They welcome him as a kindred spirit, and their late-night revelry again wakes up the hotel’s guests (the windows of the hotel lighting up one-by-one is a recurring image).

Hulot has a canoe, which of course breaks in half and prompts a shark scare.

His attempt to give someone a ride in his jalopy disrupts a funeral procession. His leaf-covered spare tire is mistaken for a wreath, which loudly deflates during the ceremony.

Hulot next displays his prowess at tennis, handily winning several matches despite his unorthodox attire and bizarre playing style.

Princess Leia watches with amusement. After all the stray balls are located, Hulot escorts Leia to her doorstep, regaling her with banter that we cannot hear.

That evening, Hulot again disturbs the more refined guests with a loud and surprisingly acrobatic game of ping-pong in the adjoining Game Room. A card game turns into a slapping fight, but Hulot and Leia smile at each other, above the fray.

On the following day, Hulot calls on Leia, with plans for a day of horseback riding. He has accordingly worn knee-high boots with spurs. While waiting for Leia in the sitting room, he inadvertently wreaks all sorts of havoc, destroying furniture, knocking paintings off the wall, and dragging around a fur rug after the deceased fox’s teeth clamp down on one of his spurs. After an escalating series of blunders, Leia does, in fact, go riding, but without Hulot, who is now being chased by a crazed stallion.

A costume ball is scheduled for the evening. Most guests are content to wear a fancy hat or mask. Hulot, of course, strides about cheerfully in a ridiculous dollar-store pirate costume, complete with a crab- and anchor-embroidered vest, an eye patch, and an incongruous hatchet hanging from his belt. Leia, meanwhile, is wearing an elegant backless harlequin getup.

The Prime Minister is making some sort of dire announcement on the radio, but the hotel guests are preparing for a party, and do not listen. Hulot and Leia dance, but Hulot, ever the gentleman, is not sure where to put his hands. Eventually he resolves to place them delicately on the narrow strip of fabric around the back of Leia’s neck.

For a group outing the next day, Leia and her… sister? Mother? Aunt? are assigned to Hulot’s car. Unfortunately, Hulot’s dilapidated vehicle has broken down and is being towed. A suddenly-taught tow rope hurls Hulot into the water (which reminded me of Monty Python’s Fish-Slapping Dance). After a few delays, they are off, but soon a flat tire leads to two runaway cars and narrowly-averted disaster.

The ladies make it back to the hotel, but Hulot is nowhere to be found. We soon find him running through the dark, chased by a pack of angry dogs. After taking refuge in an unmarked shed, he lights a match, which prematurely sets off the fireworks display stored therein. Once again, the guests at the hotel are awakened. When Hulot’s jazz record is accidentally turned on, the disgruntled and disheveled guests don their fancy hats and groggily resume the previous evening’s party.

Next day, the vacation is over and it’s time to return to the real world. Princess Leia leaves with her friends. Hulot’s nose is burned (by the fireworks, presumably), but he is otherwise intact. Somewhat sadly, he gets in his jalopy and putters off down the road.

What I Liked

I loved the cheerful, jazzy score. One funny thing that I didn’t mention above was how the title theme recurred throughout the film, sometimes at incongruous moments. Gradually, the re-appearance of that theme became a running gag in itself, and prompted my genuine laughter.

The sight gags were like a master class in precision comedy timing and buildup/payoff. There is a special kind of delight in watching the groundwork for a gag being prepared so skillfully, raising anticipation for the moment when… YES! Of course Hulot’s flimsy canoe folds in half to look like a shark’s mouth! Of course the leaf-covered tire is mistaken for a wreath! Of course it deflates with a Bronx cheer during the service! For someone who grew up watching Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, M. Hulot’s Holiday is a treat.

I also adored the character of Hulot himself; always a gentleman, nary a mean bone in his body, cheerfully striding through the world, pipe thrust forward, determined to enjoy himself, somewhat befuddled by the modern world, and (mostly) oblivious to the disaster in his wake.

Also nifty: The postmark on the closing freeze-frame.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

While I laughed consistently, it has to be said that M. Hulot’s Holiday has no real plot. Around the hour mark, I started to feel that the film might be overstaying its welcome. Trimmed down to just under an hour, or split into a series of half-hour shorts would have been more suited to the slight nature of the material.

Should You See It?

If you enjoy the films of Chaplin or Harold Lloyd or the best moments of the Pink Panther films (only the ones starring a living Peter Sellers, thank you very much), if you have a deep appreciation for a well-timed sight gag or a bit of elaborately-contrived slapstick, you’re likely to enjoy M. Hulot’s Holiday.

If your comedy taste runs more to the latest entry in the Scary Movie franchise than The Music Box or Modern Times, then you should probably give this one a skip. You’re missing out, though.

Next: Miss Julie

3 Comments

  1. It is a 1924 Amilcar. Perfect car for Hulot.

  2. I have seen all of his films; enthralled by them. Trying to establish exactly the type of car in ‘Mr. Hulot’s Holiday’. Any information would be appreciated. James.

  3. Inspector Clouseau, The Little Tramp, Bean – these are comedic characters who, through their very actions within the story can create comic gold. Laughs. Chortles. Guffaws galore! Does Monsieur Hulot fall into that category?

    The film today is M. Hulot’s Holiday and we find Mr. Hulot driving a classic old car to a hotel to the coast of France. We then follow his bumbling stumbling ways as he tries to relax at the beach.

    As he vacations we encounter others at the hotel. The attractive blond with Princess Leia curls, the busy businessman who is always being called, the older couple where the wife is excited about every shell on the beach (and her husband couldn’t give a crap), the workers in the hotel who put up with everyone and everything and a gaggle of kids who run in and out of scenes.

    And, well, there isn’t much to say from here on out…other then to talk about the comedic bits.

    Hulot’s car getting a flat while at cemetery and his tire being thought of as a wreath.

    Hulot’s attempt to go horseback riding.

    Hulot’s playing of tennis and his obscure style of serving the ball.

    Hulot’s attempt to go canoeing and then being mistaken for a shark.

    Hulot’s setting off of a bunch of fireworks.

    And a handful of others.

    There are some moments within the story (or lack of one) where he attempts to woo the Princess Leia beauty (and comes up short).

    And then, like most vacations, they end and everyone goes home.

    What I liked:

    Overall I loved the feel of a film that is so embracing of the style of silent films. Literally I could have watched the film with the subtitles off and gotten every joke and nearly every comment.

    Hulot’s comic character and mannerisms where fun to watch and enjoy and the film never came off as mean-spirited or stupid.

    What I didn’t like:

    To me, this is where the film fails. It has no STORY. It has no THROUGH LINE. There’s no PLOT. It’s a disjointed collection of comic bits that really don’t add up to a whole.

    I know, you’re saying to yourself, “Plots are OVER-RATED! Why do we need be so obsessed with STORY?” And Terry Jones’s comments about comedy and art really do ring true when looked at in that context but I wanted more. I wanted there to be a story to wrap the comedic shenanigans (love that word) around.

    For instance, it would have been funnier if within the first 30 minutes Hulot loses his wallet and has to spend the time trying to avoid the owner of the hotel who is looking for him. Or it would have been funnier if within the first 30 minutes Hulot had set his sights on the lovely lady and chose to pursue her in earnest (not, more so, running into her and enjoying her company). If there was some desire or want or need coming from Hulot (much like Clouseau’s attempt to solve the mystery – and succeeding in the process while destroying everything around him) – then this film would have had more resonance. The comedy would be, how do they say it, “EARNED.” Instead we get a handful of disjointed comedic bits that don’t add up to much of anything other than…well…a handful of comedic bits.

    I’ll give you two examples in this film, one good, one bad:

    1. (good) The taffy. Early on in the film Hulot becomes fascinated by the fact that a sweets salesman has a big ball of taffy on a hook. The taffy SLOOOOOOOOOWLY begins to ooze off the hook and the salesman always seems to rescue it before it drops to the ground. Later in the film – now that the joke has been set up – we see Hulot spy the taffy again. This time the cart that the taffy is on is tipped and the taffy is oozing quicker. Hulot attempts to save the taffy and ends up stretching it over a door frame. Set-up + Pay-off = FUNNY!

    2. (bad) The fireworks. Late in the film Hulot wanders into a small beach house only to set off all the fireworks therein – creating havoc in the hotel and the surrounding area as he tries to stop them. No Set-up + Pay-off = Pointless and/or stupid.

    (Note, in “Revenge of the Pink Panther” Clouseau’s investigation takes him to a fireworks factory in China. You KNOW the inevitable is going to happen and, of course, it does. All hell breaks loose. And it’s funny – though “Revenge” is certainly not the best in the Panther series.)

    Overall:

    Cute. Some funny bits that don’t add up to a whole.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.