Director: 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)
|Year of Release: 1953
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
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.
Holiday: Criterion Collection DVD|
Dolby 1.0 Monaural|
Video introduction by Terry Jones|
Soigne ton gauche: 1936 short film starring Jacques Tati
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)