Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A Review of Mr. Hulot's Holiday (Tati, 1953)

Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953)
Directed by Jacques Tati
Starring: Jacques Tati (uncredited), Nathalie Pascaud, Micheline Rolla, Lucien Fregis
Grade: A -

Written for Subtitled Online:

Those reverent of the bane of slapstick British TV comedy, Mr. Bean, may be surprised to learn that the show sprang from much deeper-rooted influences within comedic cinema. In 1953, Jacques Tati followed up his debut film, Jour de Fête, with “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”, the tale of a man who gets himself into hairier situations than the undeniably popular Bean, yet escapes relatively unharmed. "Mr. Hulot’s Holiday" is less straightforward, and rather a damning social commentary from the director at its helm, but nevertheless uses similar techniques to extract amusement from its audience.

Mr. Hulot visits the Hotel De La Plage (Hotel on the Beach) for his summer holiday, and immediately ingratiates himself with the locals at the hotel, despite being more than a tad calamitous during his first meal there. The film follows him as he journeys with the other residents to various events such as beach gatherings and firework displays, and finishes when Hulot’s trip has ceased. The film reads as more of a fleeting montage than a concrete story, but Tati has a lot to demonstrate during the 90-minute exercise to conserve interest.

Although Tati himself plays the part of Mr. Hulot, he is not cited as an Actor in the official credits, which is probably because the film isn’t really about Hulot in the first place. It’s true that he’s a vessel for much of the comedic set-pieces, but Tati’s comedy is more concerned with satirising the mechanisms of society than creating a character that contravenes or alienates his own social standing. When observing the ephemeral chaos generated in the film, one is reminded of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which portrayed the higher classes as clueless, champagne-quaffing bats. The group at the hotel saunter through commonplace holiday activities like clockwork figurines, and their general incompetence towards banal tasks like collecting seashells and taking snaps acts as a critique on the uniformity of social tradition. There are also deliberate attempts to allude to the indifferent philistinism of the group, as Tati intersperses their routine with coverage of political resistance on French radio, and students reciting the work of French philosophers. Young people on street corners profess their love for the music of Fats Waller and Billie Holiday (two musicians who suffered from addiction and died young), before exchanging cigarettes in a matter-of-fact way. The film’s approach reveals a cynical perplexity with regards to the state of society and the increasing influence of popular culture.

And yet, it manages to say all of this with such an ease of vitality, obvious and cutesy with its humour but hotly incisive as it dissects the absurdity of social norms. A rambunctious soundtrack accompanies the farcical failures of Mr. Hulot as a sailor, a diner, and a chauffeur, aiding the deadpan, tongue-in-cheek style of Tati’s visual storytelling. A particular highlight is when Hulot utilises a tennis technique shown to him by a girl at the racquet club, which renders him an invincible opponent. The overtly simple two-step technique aligns with the abruptness of the film’s comedic charm, as well as its canny, minimal use of sound to generate moments of delightful whimsy. There is little-to-no dialogue in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” (and in truth it has more in common with pre-talkie techniques at eliciting laughter), but the sound design of the film is undoubtedly one of its most meticulously crafted elements.

This is not to say that much of it isn’t thoroughly assembled and masterfully co-ordinated; from a game of Bridge descending into chaos, to an upturned canoe sparking fears of enemy invasion. Tati’s social allegory suggests that we aren’t the principal organisms on earth, that we’re governed by objects and symbols, and by imposed iconography, which means that we can’t deal with the unexplained or loosely-bound. These tourists don’t connect with each other on a personal level, and only serve in a regimental capacity, so as to maintain an equilibrium or sense of normality. A final scene sees Mr. Hulot toss the contact details of a departing fellow hotel guest into the sand; a poignant, apt way of saying that sentiment is easily constructed, and not necessarily as honest or meaningful as one might think.

“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is modestly funny and undeniably focused, zipping along with character, style, and an infectiously cheeky demeanour. The stylistic novelty of Tati’s film initially feels like it’s going to be a trawl through cause-and-effect comedy, but emerges as something totally different and eminently more worthwhile. It’s more than an exercise in hazard perception: “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is a piquant jaunt through tetchy social terrain, exhibiting all of the hallmarks of an early Charlie Chaplin picture, and packing more than enough of the punch.

Mr. Hulot's Holiday is now available on DVD/Blu Ray Dual-Format edition.

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