M. Hulot’s Holiday
Opens Fri., March 5
A silent comedian who emerged in the age of sound, mime-turned-actor-and-director Jacques Tati worked at about the same pace as predecessors Chaplin and Keaton did during the same period: a mere six features from the ’40s through the ’70s. It’s always been in vogue to glom onto just two: Mon Oncle (1958) and Play Time (1967), both featuring dystopian views of technology running roughshod over humanity.
Lacking such luddite-driven tut-tutting, M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) is usually seen as lightweight—a delightful soufflé without the anger that, with Mon Oncle, scored him an Oscar and, with the pricey Play Time, drove him to bankruptcy. That view is, of course, wonky. There’s no shame (nor lack of artistry) in lightness and besides, the seeds of the artist Tati was to become are everywhere—and, in some ways, superior form.
Set in lovely Northern France during August, when most of the country is on mandatory vacation, Holiday introduced Tati’s iconic Monsieur Hulot, identifiable by pipe, hat, poor posture, aloof clumsiness, silence and, in subsequent films, trench coat—inspiration for both Mr. Bean and Mr. Heavy Foot. Apropos for a vacation film, there is no plot, just episodes, each set to the same narcotic jazz guitar theme. Hulot breaks a kayak. Hulot unstraightens pictures. Hulot tries tennis. Hulot sets off fireworks while everyone sleeps. After a week of havoc-wreaking, his co-vacationers, smiling warmly, say they’ll see him next year.
Holiday also introduced Tati’s radical view of filmed comedy: a socialist, interactive cinema where the gags and pratfalls aren’t rammed down your throat but occur naturally for you to discover freely. Yes, there are pratfalls—my personal favorite involves a revolving sprinkler and a watering can—but jokes also come in less-expected places. For instance, sounds. Not the dialogue, which, when not mere white noise, is bland chit-chat, but the troubling clangs of Hulot’s jalopy or the guitarlike strum as the overused dining room door swings open and shut. What’s funny about the horn that gets stuck to Hulot’s car tire isn’t the gag itself but the odd squeak it makes. Essentially a silent film with sound, its most famous scene involves not slapstick but a paint can gracefully moved about by the tide. Like the melancholy that only arises as the vacationers head back to their lives, this breezy travelogue only seems madly innovative come the postcard-mimicking final image—when all you want is more.
Overly unusual protagonists and the requisite miserable Swedish locations aside, this is standard detective stuff.