Jacques Tati is one of the more famous comedians in film history, possibly even the most revered of the sound era. Tati is most famous for his recurring character Monsieur Hulot who features in three films on the 1001 list. I thought I would take a look at the first of them.
The character of Hulot debuted in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), a film famously and shamefully remade by Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007). This is unsurprising given that the character of Hulot is clearly a massive influence on that of Mr Bean. In fact, most of the best jokes in Mr Bean seem to be lifted pretty much straight from Tati’s work. Mr Hulot’s Holiday sees the good natured, but somewhat bumbling Monsieur Hulot funnily enough take off on holiday. A vast majority of the film concerns the travails of the character on his beachside holiday. The film is a gleeful insight into that microcosm that is created when strangers congregate at the same place for a holiday, with firm transient relationships springing up.
The only character that the audience gets a real sense for is that of Hulot, and the whole film really does centre on him. Earlier I said that the character of Hulot is a bumbling one. But it is not really that. It is more that Hulot struggles to keep up with societal sensibilities. He is not aware of the chaos he is causing because he is off in his own world. It is the delightful havoc that one slightly different soul can make in the world. Hulot is not really fussed about keeping up with society, rather he seems content to exist slightly outside of it. Describing humour as slapstick often gives the impression of lazy, stupid, rambunctious attempts at jokes – pies in the face and slipping on banana peels. Mr Hulot’s Holiday sees a lot of slapstick, but it is far more gentle and nuanced than that described. It is derived from Hulot’s befuddlement and inability to use the objects around him. There are also straight visual jokes that in less assured hands would fall flat, but when delivered through the genius of Tati all of a sudden seem inspired. Hulot’s numerous attempts at driving cars spring to mind. One of the great strengths of Mr Hulot’s Holiday is that rather than being a straight slapstick film, it trades in a variety of other comedic forms such as comedy of errors as well. This means that it can appeal to more people, and also that it does not wear out its welcome by continually bombarding the viewer with one kind of joke. It is not only his skill as a writer and filmmaker that ensure this, but also Tati’s physical presence. His long, large former Rugby Union player body creates so much of the humour.
In the current cinema climate it almost seems strange or unnecessary to talk about technical aspects of filmmaking when reviewing a comedy. But as with many older comedies, Mr Hulot’s Holiday really does hold up to this kind of analysis. The film is wonderfully shot, simply done yet beautiful to look at. The cinematography is sharp and there are just enough longing shots of the seaside to set up the idyllic location. Strangely for a film almost free of dialogue, the use of sound is innovative. The film opens by introducing the catchy tune that resonates throughout the entire film, reinforcing the atmosphere Tati is going for throughout. The volume of the sound effects is quite high, giving them added emphasis, especially when Hulot interacts with the props he is surrounded by. As such, waves crashing and doors swinging shut become a focus. The film is gently satirical in tone at times as well. People are really quite rude to this man who is slightly different to them and Tati gently mocks this coldness and uncaring attitude that is found in society.
This is a gentle, simple introduction to the Hulot films, which would evolve and enlarge as the series goes on. It is not entirely groundbreaking, a lot of it riffs on what Keaton and other silent stars did many years before, but it is done well and it is done in a wryly humourous manner. A word of warning though, make sure you get a hold of the subtitled version, not the horrid dubbed version that occasionally rears its ugly head.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs