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M. Hulot's Holiday
(Les vacances de M. Hulot)
Director: Jacques Tati
Screenplay: Jacques Tati
Stars: Tati (Monsieur Hulot), Natalie Pascaud (Martine), Louis Perrault (Fred), Michéle Rolla (The Aunt), André Dubois (Commandant), Suzy Willy (Commandant's Wife), Valentine Camax (English Woman)
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 1953
Country: France
M. Hulot's Holiday Poster

Jacques Tati's cinematic alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, is long-limbed and gangly, polite and friendly, and a disaster waiting to happen. With his white pants pulled up about a foot too high, giving the impression that he is three-fourths legs and only a quarter torso, his foppish hair, striped socks, and slightly sleepy eyes, he is a strikingly funny sight, someone who inspires laughs even before he does anything. He walks with an absurd, but charming spring in his step, which continually re-emphasizes the ridiculous length of his limbs, which is also visually mimicked in the long, slender pipe that is permanently affixed to his mouth.

Monsieur Hulot was first introduced to audiences in M. Hulot's Holiday (Les vacances de M. Hulot), which Tati both wrote and directed. He enters the film tooling down a French country road in his ancient, clattering automobile, a 1924 Amilcar, which is so old and feeble that it has trouble making it up hills. We get an understanding of what Hulot is all about long before we actually see him on-screen, as this silly excuse for a car becomes a visual stand-in for the man himself. Tati must have had a special affinity for Hulot's car, not only because it plays a role in many of the film's early gags, but because it works as a symbol for the film itself, which plays according to the conventions of silent comedy, which had been largely forgotten in the 25 years since the introduction of sound. Not only that, but the car is a precursor to the satiric images of modernization that would dominate Tati's later Hulot films, Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967), and Trafic (1971).

The plot of M. Hulot's Holiday is disarmingly simple; it's really no plot at all, but a series of comical incidents in which we observe a group of people going about their holiday. When the film was first released in the United States the mid-1950s, it came with an opening disclaimer that read: "Don't look for a plot, for a holiday is meant purely for fun." However, as critic Dave Kehr has pointed out, M. Hulot's Holiday is much more than just fun (although it is that, as well). In fact, Kehr has argued that the film was nothing short of revolutionary, paving the way for French New Wave directors like Jean Luc Godard by driving "the decisive first wedge between the cinema and classical narration."

The film takes place in a modest, old-fashioned seaside resort in Normandy, the kind that is populated with elderly British women, military officers, and trouble-seeking kids. Much of the film is a gentle parody of the conventions of the European vacation, with Alain Romans' jaunty, melodic score enhancing the comedy on-screen. We get an immediate sense of what Tati is up to when he juxtaposes the opening credits sequence, a romantic view of crashing waves on a deserted beach, with the sudden cacophony and confusion of a train station overflowing with tourists and travelers, the air filled with distorted announcements over an intercom.

Hulot arrives at the resort, and in keeping with the tradition of so many blissfully unaware screen clowns, commences to wreak havoc everywhere he goes. Yet, the havoc in M. Hulot's Holiday is much different than most movie slapstick in that it rarely gets laughs out of violence and clumsiness. Rather, Tati's comic rhythms are graceful and almost elegant, heavily reliant on strict timing and careful composition. He gives the film a slow, deliberate pace with a complete reliance on wide shots and long takes (there is not a single close-up or reaction shot in the entire film), which allows his sight gags to build up over time and refuses simple and quick punchlines. Tati doesn't try to force your eye toward what's funny in each scene; rather, he lets you find it on your own.

Tati has the luxury of leisurely pacing because the story isn't really going anywhere, thus there's no rush. There are no plot points to follow or problems requiring resolution; rather, Tati is content to follow Hulot and the other amiable hotel guests in their daily activities, which are not that far removed from everyday life. Tati brings a kind of simple realism to his comedy; Hulot is a clown, to be sure, but he is a clown who you wouldn't be surprised to run into in a hotel lobby or in a restaurant. In fact, Tati based Hulot on a real person, a French soldier whom he observed while serving as a sergeant in World War II.

M. Hulot's Holiday is a rare film that seamlessly interweaves the tropes of silent and sound comedy. Although there is dialogue in the film, the vast majority of it is unnecessary. Tati was extremely studious in the film's sound design, however, and many of the jokes are enhanced by Romans' score and the various sound effects, from the clattering of Hulot's car to the use of the natural sounds of birds and the ocean as a background.

Of course, most of the jokes are visual in nature, and play out as they would on the silent screen (some of the best involve Hulot trying to bring a resistant horse out of a stable and the difficulties he encounters while attempting to straighten a picture on a wall). The end gag is the broadest, as it finds Hulot setting off an entire shed full of fireworks and trying to fill a can of water from a rotating sprinkler. Here, Tati shows that he is just as adept in the broad slapstick as he is in the more subtle comedy, which is more than enough to point up just what an inventive and assured comedic performer he was.

M. Hulot's Holiday: Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio Dolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesFrench, English
Supplements Video introduction by Terry Jones
Soigne ton gauche: 1936 short film starring Jacques Tati
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision

Given its age, the visual quality of M. Hulot's Holiday is outstanding. Transferred in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio from a 35-mm interpositive, the black-and-white picture is absolutely gorgeous, with solid black levels, fine contrast and shading, and a high level of detail that give Jacques Tati's careful compositions their due. A few scenes come off a little bit soft, but the vast majority of the film is razor sharp. Most surprisingly for a film that is going on 50 years in age, there is almost no damage whatsoever in the form of nicks, tears, or dirt. With the exception of the occasional, barely noticeable vertical line, the image on this disc is flawless.

M. Hulot's Holiday also features one of the better Dolby Digital monaural soundtracks I've heard. It is completely free of any hiss or distortion, which is crucial because so much of the film is either silent or features very limited sound effects. The effects sound very good throughout, from the incessant clattering of Hulot's car, to the recurring thwank of a swinging restaurant door, to the ambient sounds of birds chirping and waves crashing on the beach that form the backdrop to so many scenes. Alain Romans' fun, upbeat score also sounds excellent for a one-channel mix. Also included on the disc is a rare English soundtrack prepared by Tati himself, which is somewhat different from the French soundtrack in both dialogue and effects.

As part of the new Janus Films Directors' Introduction Series, the film is introduced in a brief segment by Terry Jones, former Monty Python member and director of several films. Jones reminisces about his first experience with the Hulot films, and tells us what he loves about M. Hulot's Holiday.

Also included on the disc is Soigne ton gauche (Watch the Left), a 12-minute 1936 film directed by René Clément and written by and starring Jacques Tati (this short film was previously available on the Criterion laser disc edition of Tati's last film, 1973's Parade). Tati got his start doing routines in music halls, and he used the money he earned there to finance several short films, including this one. The film is amusing in its own right, but it's more interesting as an example of Tati's early, formative work.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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