Silent movie, with sound
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.