Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Jacques Tati | 1hr 27min

The social satire of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a little gentler than his later films, but that matters little – Jacques Tati is not a cynical intellectual at heart, but rather an artist with an adoration for the simpler things in life. If some cultural or political force comes along to threaten that innocence, he may bite back with good humour, but his focus never strays from the sweet, childlike love of beaches, dress-up parties, ice cream, fire crackers, and those long summer vacations where you briefly become best friends with total strangers. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is essentially the cinematic equivalent of a postcard, preserving a nostalgic moment in time where the rest of the world ceases to matter for a few short weeks.

Of course, at the centre of it all is Tati’s titular comic buffoon, Mr Hulot, who himself gets caught up in a series of slapstick hijinks. In carrying on the tradition of silent comedies, Tati maintains the importance of framing in his visual gags just as much as his physical performance, playing with our perspective by obstructing shots with doorways, furniture, and buildings all through this beachside and hotel setting. With a simple cut from one angle to another, a man who we suspect of peeping into a sauna is revealed to simply be taking a photo of his family, though without this secondary context Hulot takes it on himself to give the stranger a good kick on the backside.

A lovely frame here, watching Hulot and his new partner dance the night away.
Another handsome frame, this one constructed carefully out of tennis racquets, shells, and most importantly, postcards, foreshadowing the final shot of this film.
Hulot is rarely so comfortable as he is hanging out with children.

Hulot is not a passive holidaymaker, as much of the time the situations he finds himself are set in motion by his own naïve actions, but once he is caught in a gag there is no escape until its final punchline hits. His own clumsiness leads to him accidentally snapping a boat in half in one sequence, but when he takes it out in the water and both sides fold up to consume him, he is forced into an awkward position beyond his control. As he tries to get out, it snaps its way towards the shore, and around him sunbathers run away shouting “Shark!” Of course, anyone with a good set of eyes can tell that it is not, in fact, any type of sea creature, but to apply such logic to Tati’s world is redundant. Later, a tyre covered in leaves is mistaken for a funeral wreath, and the mouth of a taxidermy fox rug improbably opens wide to latch onto Hulot’s spurs. Every object in this world is reduced to a vague impression and shape, with their actual functions overwritten by whatever comic purpose Tati decides might throw this tall, lurching mime off course. It all makes total sense when filtered through the mind of a child, and who is Mr Hulot if not an overgrown kid?

Tati possesses are remarkable talent for executing these imaginative gags both as a director and actor.

For all of his light teasing of Hulot, Tati holds the awkward man in great esteem, especially when compared to all the other vacationers around him. Among the other adults staying in his hotel are fat capitalists and self-absorbed intellectuals, and most of the dialogue we hear in this film comes from the amorphous background noise of their dull conversations. On a themed night, Hulot makes his way down to the lounge area dressed as a pirate, only to discover everyone else in ordinary clothing, playing cards, and listening to a political report over the radio, unable to switch their minds off to enjoy their holiday. For a brief moment, we feel a little pang of sadness that this evening will go to waste for Hulot. But just as he is about to give up hope, a young blonde woman and a boy also turn up in costumes, and suddenly a small family forms between them. Together, they dance to the music, so wrapped up in the moment that they are oblivious to the heads they’re turning.

The attention Hulot garners from others isn’t always so positive, as in a recurring visual gag, Tati sits his camera at a wide shot of the hotel while lights flick on one by one, disturbed by whatever commotion the bumbling man has accidentally created. Tati himself is as kinetic as ever in his performance, bolting away from stray fire crackers in one scene of utter chaos, but even in quieter moments, he maintains a magnetic presence in his lurching long steps and slight lean forward, naturally becoming the first thing our eyes are drawn to in any shot he is present.

Outside, total chaos as Hulot loses control of his fire crackers.
And back at the hotel, lights slowly flick on, one-by-one.

In a lazy, swinging theme of saxophones, pianos, and vibraphones, Hulot is encased in a gentle, unwinding motif, recalling an era that doesn’t so much belong to a specific point in history as it does to a period that can only ever exist in our memories, where moments of joy are associated with sweet nostalgia and humiliating accidents are simply turned into funny stories. In the very final shot, when Hulot and all the other vacationers have left, Tati freezes on an image of the empty beach, and at the same moment, the first bit of colour appears in this black-and-white film – a red postage stamp, stuck in the upper right corner. With this tiny, elegant touch, Tati effectively condenses everything that we have watched into a single snapshot in time, tying off this cinematic postcard as a charming ode to our reminiscences of long-gone, but deeply-treasured childhood vacations.

A touch of colour to end the film, essentially reframing its black-and-white palette as a nostalgic, dreamy filter.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is currently available to stream on SBS on Demand and the Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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