Jacques Tati introduced his signature character, Hulot, in Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot, which won the Prix Louis Delluc and is surely one of the most fondly remembered film comedies of all time. Full of visual invention and wit, punctuated with hilarious slapstick, and warmly disposed to humanity, especially toddlers and children, it depicts Hulot’s seaside vacation in Brittany. The event is almost wholly unpleasant, and one imagines that all of Hulot’s holidays are similarly unpleasant, as are the holidays of all the world’s Hulots. But you know what fools we mortals be; once home, we declare what a good time we had, fall for the fiction ourselves, and try to revive the pleasure by repeating the event. Our vacations, you know, are a form of romance.
While others board a train for their holiday, loner Hulot travels in his rickety old car, which is armed for the occasion with a fishing pole and net; filmmaker Tati contrasts the sounds of both conveyances. This is a film of sparse dialogue, most of which exists on the fringes; but, because of the plentitude of sound effects, it is also a cacophonous film—in this regard, the equal of Dziga Vertov’s industrial Enthusiasm (1931), which Tati may indeed be parodying. (Or is Tati taking a swipe at Chaplin for his exaggerated championing of Vertov’s first sound film?) We hear lots of loud noises and sounds inside and about the seaside hotel where Hulot checks in, including from a radio, hotel guests and hotel staff—this last, a reminder that one soul’s vacation is another soul’s labor, that every breath we breathe is at somebody else’s expense.
Unlike Chaplin, Tati doesn’t hog his film; his Hulot is merely the slightly more prominent character in a dense complex of characters. Hulot is missing from whole vignettes. However, we are always glad when the camera finds its way back to him. One of Hulot’s key traits is his obliviousness to environment, his incapacity to see the calamitous things that he causes without meaning to, such as when he enters the hotel and leaves the door open, through which a wind blows in that upsets staff and guests. However, bad things also just happen to Hulot, such as when the tiny rowboat he is in on the water clamps shut around him like a mussel shell: my biggest movie laugh from childhood (Hulot is often childlike himself), in part precisely because we cannot see him through the pistachio nut shell-like slit. The image, beauteous, encapsulates Hulot’s impassivity—and it therefore implies a particular cosmic vision.
Tati, of course, allows Hulot moments of pure grace, such as when Hulot silently, politely bows to a few tables of guests upon first entering the hotel. But my favorite grace note of Hulot’s occurs earlier, on his trip to the hotel. A lounging dog blocks his car from proceeding. Hulot patiently honks his rudimentary horn; the dog finally rises. Before Hulot takes off, he extends his hand through the open window to give the dog, a stranger, a kind pat. The animal may have taken up some of his time, but Hulot takes the time to be a human being—and the universe, stopping, allows him the time in which to do this.
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