Sunday 12 October 2008

Mr Hulot's Holiday (1953)

After Jour de fête, it took Jacques Tati another four years to release a film, and it was a peach. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed Jour de fête but it didn't seem to be as effortless and magical as this one, the first Tati I ever saw and for which I'm now back for my third viewing. Even more so than Jour de fête, it fits my ideal of great sound but little dialogue. In fact it runs that way for quite some time as watch everyone chase out for their holidays. We see a great mass of people shuffling platforms in response to an unintelligible blabber coming from the station's loudspeaker. We see people driving or riding bicycles, but they're all heading out to the beach. Last but certainly not least is the Mr Hulot of the title, in his nigh on broken down car that provides most of the sound for the first ten minutes.

Everything here is set up for comedy and it's very carefully done indeed. Tati wrings cleverly envisioned and masterfully executed gags out a lazy dog, the wind, a swing door, you name it. He even makes stunning use of the tide. Almost everything is without dialogue (but with sound) and even when there is dialogue it often tends to come in a babble, used as much for how it sounds as what it said. Almost everything and everyone has comedic value. In fact I ended up looking at each scene to see if there's something that could be used that wasn't, and I definitely saw things here that I didn't see on previous viewings. Purely from a a physical standpoint, while Jour de fête was obviously the work of a very talented man, Mr Hulot's Holiday is just as obviously the work of a comedic genius.

What makes this even more genius is the realisation that there's so much here than just comedy. All of human nature is here if only you look beyond the gags. These characters, fleshed out by choreography and circumstance far more than they could be with dialogue, given how many of them there are, really define all the different people you've probably ever met on holiday. If Hulot is us, these are all the people we probably met every year and got to know without ever getting to know. We don't know their names or what they do: if they ever told us we'll have forgotten. Yet we'll have fun with them and be back to meet them all again next year.

There's more and more accurate nostalgia here than probably anywhere else in film. What's most amazing, and most to be treasured, is that this is all innocent and shared humour: we're not poking fun at anyone. Mr Bean, the most obvious modern successor, was never that clearcut. Hulot and Bean are frequently both the object of our laughter, but we laugh with Hulot but often just at Bean. There's a world of difference between those two attitudes.

A number of scenes say so much, if you pay attention. There are a couple of static long shots of the Beach Hotel at night with precisely nobody in the picture, the stories being told entirely through sounds and lights. There were many points where I saw as much in the smiles or glances of passers by. There's a scene where the introduction of a simple feather turns a funeral into laughter, without it ever seeming inappropriate. Another has a friendly card game turn into a riot, but the entire transition happens in silent body language. I don't believe the beautiful Nathalie Pascaud ever says a word but she remains utterly charming nonetheless. We especially look forward to seeing her next year.

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