Sunday, November 17, 2019

Jacques Tati | Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Monsieur Hulot's Holiday)

going hungry
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet (screenplay), Jacques Tati (director) Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) / 1953, revised 1978

In 1953 the actor-director Jacques Tati introduced one of the most likeable, well-meaning, clumsy clowns since the early days of the cinema of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
     Yet, Hulot was something more than these sad-sack comedians; with his constant, unlit pipe, and his strange tri-cornered hat, he was far more dapper than that Chaplin or Keaton, and despite his
slightly pop-eyed visage, was fairly well-dressed and might almost have been accepted by the terribly bourgeoise society in which he was engaged, in this film, located in Sint-Marc-sur-Mer, primarily at the Hôtel de la Plage—if only he hadn’t present a sense of chaos whenever he appeared: massive windstorms arrive just as he does, terrors of sharks occur when even attempts to take a seaside journey out a small boat which, cracking in half, embalms him into his innards, and major fireworks display occurs when he stumbles into a small beach cottage, not to speak of his constantly puttering Citroën 2CV car for which even dogs won’t rise up from their naps in the street and which constantly collapses into a vehicle unable to go any further.
     Although beneath Chaplin and Keaton’s films there was always a deep sense of satire against the society, these figures’ enormous self-pluck, despite their ineffectual gestures, was at the center of those early US works; for Tati and his Hulot the society itself is the true satiric aim, in this case the endless vacationers, who rather like a horde of lemmings move en masse at the whistle-blow of a train or horn of a bus. It all reminds one somewhat of Noel Coward’s song from his musical Sail Away:

                  Travel they say improves the mind,
                  An irritating platitude, which frankly, entrenous,
                  Is very far from true.

                  Personally I've yet to find that longitude and latitude
                  can educate those scores of monumental bores
                  Who travel in groups and herds and troupes
                  Of varying breeds and sexes 

    Indeed, these travelers, taking the renowned French vacation, seem absolutely unable to speak to one another. The boring round-bellied businessman is called repeatedly to his phone (reminding one a bit of the Hollywood producer in Altman’s Gosford Park). The Major (André Dubois) can only recount his war-times experiences—mostly made-up we are certain—to a couple of elderly British women. The hotel proprietor (Lucien Frégis) clearly hates his waiter (Raymond Carl), a socialist and political pair talk only to one another, and an early dining couple escape the trouble of having to deal with any of the others. Yet all are greedy, rushing each time the bell rings to call them to breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
      Meanwhile Hulot, mostly because of his later arrival to these events—not all of them intentional—basically goes hungry. Both the proprietor and waiter obviously perceive him as a threat to the bourgeois community which they serve.

     Nonetheless, Hulot is loved by the most beautiful woman visiting this small town and he has more in common with the often-mischievous young boys (reminding one of Jean Vigo’s slightly older students in Zero for Conduct) and is popular with the young beach boys as well. It is only the tourists who dislike this foolish man, for the locals realize themselves as fools as well, preening to the beautiful woman tourist, and pretending equally clumsy tricks so that they might cover up their voyeuristic pleasures.
     In an important way, Hulot is almost a radical, shaking up whatever notion of what are the proper—and in this case quite boring—demands. Despite going hungry, it appears that the gangly Hulot goes home quite happily after his visually disastrous vacation. He has made things happen that his elderly hotel visitors might never have otherwise experienced, allowing the wind, literally, in to clean out their dusty lives, along with a true sense of politesse and even courtliness, along with the excitement of a shark-sighting, and the wonderment of fireworks.
     Unlike both Chaplin and Keaton, Hulot is not truly a badly treated fool, but a blind innocent who might even be described by someone like Montaigne as a “holy fool,” a kind of remembrance of Christ. Certainly, he cannot control the increasingly fixated economic world we hear from the radio reports, but he can change water into wine, a few slices of meat into a thousand loaves, and a barren vacation into a celebration. Even if he goes hungry, he is filled with belief in the world, and he stutters home in his 2CV car enjoying, unlike all the others, his holiday. The name Hulot, perhaps not accidently, means, if reversed, in several African languages, “to God.”

Los Angeles, November 11, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Reivew (November 2019).

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