Silent movie, with sound

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards From The New Mex­i­can

M. Hu­lot’s Hol­i­day, com­edy, not rated, in French with a few sub­ti­tles, CCA Cine­math­eque, 4 chiles

IHe an­gles for­ward from the waist and bobs like one of those drink­ing birds that perches on the rim of a glass. His trousers end well above the an­kles of his long, gan­gly legs. A pipe juts from his teeth, a hat perches jaun­tily on his head, and there is an op­ti­mistic spring in his step. He is Mon­sieur Hu­lot, and he has come to the sea­side on hol­i­day.

Hu­lot is the defin­ing cre­ation of Jac­ques Tati, one of the great phys­i­cal fun­ny­men of film. M. Hu­lot’s Hol­i­day was his sec­ond fea­ture, and the one that in­tro­duced his gawky, bum­bling, good-na­tured al­ter ego. Re­leased in 1953, the film quickly be­came a huge in­ter­na­tional suc­cess, par­tic­u­larly in Amer­ica, where it played the art-house cir­cuit for years.

There’s no plot to speak of in M. Hu­lot’s Hol­i­day. It’s a suc­ces­sion of sight gags, some hi­lar­i­ous, some gen­tle. They look sim­ple, but they are the prod­uct of metic­u­lous plan­ning and en­gi­neer­ing. Take the scene in which Hu­lot ap­plies some var­nish to a kayak he comes upon in the sand at the edge of the wa­ter. Why he does this is hard to say, but whys are ir­rel­e­vant in Tati’s world. The kayak is there, the can of var­nish is there, the brush is there, and he sits down and paints. As he ap­plies the brush, the tide laps in and car­ries the can out into the wa­ter, but it floats it back in just as Hu­lot ab­sently reaches out to dip the brush again. This dance goes on, with vari­a­tions, for a while, and it’s both funny and fas­ci­nat­ing. How did he do that?

Things aren’t al­ways so serendip­i­tous for Hu­lot, but he gen­er­ally emerges un­scathed from what­ever may­hem he has in­ad­ver­tently caused. He ar­rives at the sea­side re­sort in a car that even the Joads would scorn, a di­lap­i­dated jalopy so unim­pos­ing that a mon­grel sun­ning him­self in the mid­dle of the road can hardly be both­ered to move to let it pass (it’s a 1924 Amil­car, with tires like bi­cy­cle wheels and a reper­toire of back­fire snaps, crack­les, and pops that sound like Rice Krispies fac­ing a fir­ing squad).

Tati was a cham­pion ath­lete as a young man, and his best gags in­volve phys­i­cal dex­ter­ity mas­querad­ing as clum­si­ness. Re­mem­ber the clas­sic scene in A Shot in the Dark, Blake Ed­wards’ best In­spec­tor Clouseau movie, in which Peter Sell­ers bar­rels through a room and sails out the win­dow on the far side? You’ll find its par­ent here, beau­ti­fully thought out, ef­fort­lessly ex­e­cuted, and side-split­tingly funny.

Tati is heir to the great comics of the silent era — Chap­lin, Keaton, and Lloyd — and M. Hu­lot’s Hol­i­day is es­sen­tially a silent film. There are lit­tle patches of di­a­logue, but the words are not im­por­tant; they have the same qual­ity as sound ef­fects. “The di­a­logue is back­ground sound as you hear it when you’re in the street, in Paris or New York,” Tati once told an in­ter­viewer, “a brouhaha of voices.” In Hu­lot, Tati em­pha­sizes this qual­ity with a bril­liant sight gag at the be­gin­ning of the movie. A crowd of va­ca­tion­ers wait­ing at a rail­way sta­tion be­comes con­fused by gar­bled an­nounce­ments over the loud­speaker sys­tem, and stam­pedes from one plat­form to the other.

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