When people talk about the great comedians of silent film, they'll mention Charlie Chaplin (whether they have seen any of his movies or not), and then maybe Buster Keaton, and then maybe Harold Lloyd. The hardcore movie buffs will bring up Jacques Tati, who is technically disqualified because his movies weren't silent, but who's certainly a spiritual descendant of the others. Tati is acclaimed enough to have placed on Entertainment Weekly's list of the all-time best directors despite having only made five theatrical features in his career, the fewest of anyone on the list. What was the big deal about the French clown? And how did Mr. Hulot's Holiday get things started?
The praise: Despite its eventual status as a classic, Mr. Hulot's Holiday didn't get much in the way of official recognition upon its release. Its only Oscar nomination was for its screenplay. In France, it won the Louis Delluc Prize for best film of the year. Empire magazine recently named it No. 49 on the list of the 100 best movies not in English. (Empire mistakenly reports the the film won the Gran Prix at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. It was in competition, but it did not win.)
The context: Jacques Tatischeff, born in France in 1907 to a Russian father and Dutch mother, was a successful performer in the French music halls before moving to film in the 1930s. His 1947 short film L'École des facteurs (School for Postmen) was the basis for his first feature, 1949's Jour de fête (Festival Day), about a small-town mailman who tries to increase his efficiency. Tati (as he was calling himself now) played the postman, a precursor to the character that would make him famous.
This fellow arrived in Tati's next film, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, aka Mr. Hulot's Holiday. Portrayed by Tati, Mr. Hulot is a tall, stiff-legged, pipe-smoking, unfailingly polite middle-class Frenchman. In the tradition of his cinematic forebears, Mr. Hulot doesn't talk much, and he is frequently the unwitting source of mayhem and disruption. But it isn't his fault. He isn't clumsy, rude, or self-absorbed. Things just happen when he's around.
Tati made three more theatrical films after this, and Mr. Hulot appeared in all of them: Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967), and Trafic (1971). In 1974, Tati made a movie for television, called Parade, in which he played a circus clown. The mailman in the first movie was a bit of a clown, too. Jacques Tati was a clown, and I mean that in the non-evil, non-unfunny sense.
Even in the faraway year of 1953, Mr. Hulot's Holiday must have felt like a relic. Music and sound effects are integral to its humor, but dialogue isn't, making it quite a switch from the talky comedies of the era. Tati was paying homage to a style of film that had stopped being popular 20 years earlier, emulating performers whose legendary careers were essentially over.
But Mr. Hulot's Holiday is a nostalgia piece not just in form but in content. Set at a quaint seaside resort during the vacation season, it evokes the same wistful feelings as all summertime movies, even contemporary ones: fond memories of summers that were as pleasant as the one depicted in the film, mingled with sadness at the fact that those summers couldn't last forever. Alain Romans' musical score, a simple melody repeated throughout the film, is a perfect accompaniment. (You can hear it here.)
The movie: Mr. Hulot is one of a couple dozen vacationers at a charming seaside hotel late in the summer. Sorry, I just spoiled the entire plot.
What it influenced: I believe it would be literally impossible for someone who has seen any of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean character to watch Mr. Hulot's Holiday and not be reminded of him. The personalities are different -- Mr. Bean can be rather nasty -- but the influence is obvious. There was even a Mr. Bean's Holiday a few years ago.
Paul Thomas Anderson has cited Tati's films as a source of inspiration for his Punch-Drunk Love.
What to look for: Not only does Mr. Hulot's Holiday not have a plot, it doesn't even pretend to. It is, quite simply, a series of vignettes set over the course of about a week at this beach hotel. The only "beginning" and "end" is in the sense that it starts with the guests arriving and finishes with them leaving.
Somewhat surprising is the fact that Mr. Hulot is not in all of the scenes. I'm not even sure he's in most of the scenes. It's an ensemble piece, with a variety of character types strolling around, getting into various predicaments, not all of them Hulot-related. Hulot is not the focus. At the Bright Lights Film Journal, Bert Cardullo makes this observation:
Hulot is not a comedian in the sense of being the source and focus of the humor; he is, rather, an attitude, a signpost, a perspective that reveals the humor in the world around him.
Tati almost never uses close-ups. He keeps us at a medium distance, as if we were fellow vacationers observing the action. As a result, it's up to us to pay attention to the frame and notice the gags when they appear -- they are seldom underscored.
Further reading: Normally I suggest not reading these until you've seen the film, but not in this case. There's no plot to spoil, and these essays do a fine job of summarizing what's so lovably pleasant about the movie.
David Ehrenstein's essay at Criterion.
Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" entry.
Andre Bazin's extraordinary analysis of Tati, one of the very first essays to take him seriously as a filmmaker.
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Eric D. Snider (website) has a birthday this week, which should count as a holiday.