Sunday Film Series
#6: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (France, 1953)
By Dale D. Dalenberg MD
I have to confess—I didn’t immediately take to Hulot when I first discovered him over 30 years ago. This was one of my beloved high school teacher Fred Hanley’s all-time favorite films, so it came highly recommended, and therefore I felt an obligation to watch it. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is the second feature film by French comic director Jacques Tati (1907-1982, whose first feature film, Jour de fete, was #1 in this series.) It is the first film where Tati played his signature character, Monsieur Hulot, a simple but loveable man of few words with a jaunty walk and an ever-present pipe. I remember thinking that Hulot was not very funny, because you could see the set-up of his jokes a mile off. The humor seemed droll and over-calculated. But nowadays, I have a new appreciation for Tati and his creation Monsieur Hulot. It is probably the difference between me (an American) watching Tati (a Frenchman) in my 50s as opposed to in my 20s. The charm of Hulot is irresistible after all.
Tati is obsessed with the timing and mechanistic details of comedy. He meticulously sets up situations which are funny, if predictable, in their denouement. You know what it going to happen ahead of time, but you sit enthralled by the geometric details of the set-up, and when it comes time for the punch-line, Tati’s jokes play out a lot like setting up a row of dominos, then hitting the end domino and watching what happens. There is a tension and release effect, even if you don’t laugh. Much of the hilarity comes from repetition. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday there are recurrent funny bits involving hats—hats getting caught on things, getting hooked like fish on poles, getting accidentally exchanged with other hats, and so on. Hulot’s automobile, a rickety tin can of a vehicle that works only intermittently, gets stalled on hills, loses pieces on the roadway, is another recurrent joke that runs through the film. The repetition is funny, even if not all the jokes are. Even a squeaky door in the dining hall becomes a running gag as you anticipate who is going to go through the door, then who is going to forget something and, having squeaked the door once, have to turn right around and go back through and make it squeak right away again.
But there is much more to Jacques Tati’s masterwork than is apparent on the surface. This charming tale of a loveable misfit who creates merry mayhem in a beach-side vacation resort is also a social commentary. In context, the film shows France not long after the Second World War relaxing and trying to enjoy itself at the seaside, getting back to leisure and fun after a truly trying era. And yet, Tati depicts numerous characters who can’t seem to settle into the mood–men making deals around tables, an intellectual with his nose in a book spouting Marxist nonsense.
It is pointless to argue that Jacques Tati was the spiritual successor to Charles Chaplin, because they were each individual artists with their own visions unto themselves. However, they do share a common thread. Their films are full of charm and pathos. They draw on vaudeville and pantomime for much of their humor. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is not a silent film, but there is really no line of dialogue that carries the plot forward. It is almost as silent as Chaplin’s Modern Times, which is and isn’t a silent film also. My favorite moments in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday are sight gags that are quite devoid of sound. The camera pans to the hands of the chef cutting slices of the roast for dinner as the diners file into the dining hall. He cuts thin portion after thin portion, but then the fat guest walks in, and you see the chef alter his routine and slice a really thick slice. The juxtaposition of the fat guy in the background and the alteration of the pattern of the chef slicing the roast is Tati’s visual comedy, subtle but at its best hilarious, at its most mundane still an expression of his meticulous study of the timing and geometry of comedy.
But don’t ever be fooled into thinking that Tati is just a vaudevillian who made some funny French movies that are too subtle for many Americans to find funny anymore. Tati is an incisive social commentator. Hulot is full of characters who are stereotypes from French society. The seaside resort is a microcosm of that society. In future films, as we gradually revisit the works of Jacques Tati, we’ll encounter Tati’s greatest theme for commentary: man vs. modernity (Chaplin hit this one as well, again singling out Modern Times.) Stay tuned.