Monday, November 24, 2008

The Great Movies: "Mr. Hulot's Holiday"

Mr. Hulot's Holiday
Jacques Tati, 1953

The first time I saw Jacques Tati's Mr. Hulot's Holiday, I didn't laugh as much as I thought I was supposed to. But I didn't forget the film, and I saw it again... and saw it a third and fourth time, and by then it had become part of my treasure. But I still didn't laugh as much as I thought I was supposed to, and now I think I understand why. It is not a comedy of hilarity, but a comedy of memory, nostalgia, fondness, and good cheer. There are some real laughs in it, but Mr. Hulot's Holiday gives us something rarer: an amused affection for human nature -- so odd, so valuable, so particular.

I quote Roger Ebert's introduction to this 1953 art-house hit at length to be fair to a movie that is undeniably quite gentle and well-intentioned. But like Ebert, I did not laugh while watching Mr. Hulot's Holiday as much as Jacque Tati might have hoped. Except, I didn't laugh at all. The film consists of a long string of episodic misadventures and sight gags, all of them relying on either physical humor or the very broadest kind of social parody ("The old man is checking out the beautiful girl, and it pisses his wife off! Awesome!") Obviously, a lot of people like this kind of thing -- witness Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Benny Hill, and so on up to the present -- but it has always left me cold.

But let me back up a minute, because I fibbed a bit when I said I didn't laugh at all. I actually did laugh a few times at and/or with the lovely Mrs.5000, who seemed to find the movie charming and even perhaps a bit funny. Since regular readers will have gathered that Mrs.5000 is no dumb cluck, I have to concede that maybe this is a nice enough movie and that I am just a humorless bastard. Can Mrs.5000 and Roger Ebert both be wrong?

Plot: A bunch of French people, including the eponymous Mr. Hulot, go for a holiday at a seaside town. They hang out for a while, often acting in an unnatural fashion so that something nominally amusing can occur. Then they go home.

Visuals: Very competently shot in black and white.

Dialog: Minimal. Mr. Hulot's Holiday could be adapted to a silent film without losing a thing. Far more prominent than human speech is the main theme, a jazzy little number that sounds hip and swingin' when you first encounter it, but makes you want to hurl something at the screen by the six hundredth repetition. I could not help but note, eventually, that it is more or less "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" rendered in 4/4 time.

Prognosis: If you are fond of slapstick, I have reason to believe that this is top-of-the-line slapstick.


Anonymous said...

I think you're selling the Marx Brothers short by including them in that context.

Michael5000 said...

Good point. I'm definitely selling Groucho Marx short, anyway.

Michael5000 said...

In fact, I went back and changed it.

Anonymous said...

It is, for slapstick, quite remarkably free of cruelty--everyone in the movie is slightly absurd and no one gets hurt. Watching it is a bit like playing crazy eights with a six-year-old and a friend's grandmother--you may be a bit bored but it's kind of sweet in its pointlessness, and everyone's pretty decent about the whole thing. I am kind of a fan of Tati's later movie Mon Oncle, a gentle send-up of some of the pretentions of modern architecture.

Unknown said...

This is the first and certainly the best of the Mr Hulot films. The later ones never recaptured the same sense of innocent whimsy. This film stands out as one of the funniest movies ever made.Great comedy always needs that kind of restraint and flawless timing.

Michael5000 said...

@oliviaharis: Thanks for pitching in. I'm glad a fan of the movie checked in to give the view from the other side of the fence.