September 19, 2017
The first screen appearance of Jacques Tati’s Hulot character is inside of a car: a clattering, jittering wreck making its way to a seaside hotel in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Tati cuts from the sound of a train horn to the pitter-putter of Hulot’s gasping car engine as it turns the corner of a country lane. The train is carrying the middle-class vacationers to their summer home, but Hulot always travels his own circuitous path. He yearns to be part of the group, but is forever getting sidetracked, by everything from funerals to fireworks. The character of Hulot, established here and elaborated on in three more films (Mon Oncle , Playtime  and Trafic ), is baffled by modern technology and remains continually tangled up in it, reaching an apotheosis in the shimmering urban Hulot-trap of Playtime. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a gentler affair, though it establishes the unsteadiness and peculiar launching qualities of his springlike body. Like his car, he is as unsteady as a reed in a wind, and the slightest stumble will launch him into the next zip code. But he will always circle back home, hoping to get a few moments’ peace before getting launched once again.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday was shot in St. Marc-sur-mer in Brittany, on France’s northwestern coast. It was, and reportedly still is, a sleepy seaside resort town – you can still rent rooms in the same (extensively remodeled) Hotel de la Plage, now part of the Best Western chain. Tati shot on location during the summer and autumn of 1952, with the crew staying at the hotel. It remained open to the public, so if you were staying there during that year, you probably made it into the film as an extra. The rest of the cast was filled with relative unknowns (Lucien Fregis as the hotel manager) or acquaintances (Nathalie Pascaud, who plays the young blond Martine, was a friend of a friend). As with Jour de fête(1949), which I wrote about last week, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday doesn’t have much of a plot, but instead is a series of vignettes documenting a day in the town, slices of life that are then shredded by Hulot’s bumblings and stumblings (Tati made multiple edits to the feature, the final cut in 1978 – the original 1953 cut is offered as a bonus feature on FilmStruck).
The film begins, not with Hulot, but with a visual gag at a train station. A group of heavily packed vacationers wait on a middle platform. A noisy unintelligible voice on the intercom starts babbling, and the group, as one amorphous blob, runs to the platform at the bottom of the screen. But then a train starts rolling in at the platform at the top of the screen, and so on and so forth until the rabble finally gets on their train of choice. Shot with a static locked camera, Tati makes the train station look alien, almost inhuman, and the vacationers like a panicked mob. Later, a packed bus ride gets the same treatment – it is so filled with humanity a little boy is sitting inside the opening in the steering wheel. Compared to that, Hulot’s shivering little car doesn’t seem so embarrassing. He putters along at his own pace, breaking down every few miles, sure, but he’s not packed in like sardines. In these travel sequences you can really appreciate Tati’s manipulation of the soundtrack, the cut from a train horn to Hulot’s clattering car immediately emphasizes its fragility and its unconventional nature. The car sounds like it has emphysema, whereas the train is all brawn and strength.
When Hulot finally levers his reedy body out of the vehicle and into the hotel, it is already full with social circles fully formed, and it is near impossible for him to ingratiate himself. And it is here we first see Hulot in full, with the peaked cap, bobbing pipe and that angled, bouncing walk. Biographer David Bellos describes Hulot’s posture as a “‘corporeal structure’ vaguely reminiscent of Giacometti’s spidery lines.” He is spread out in all directions but somehow with a solid center of gravity. Then there is that unchangeable expression on his face which scholar Michel Chion described as “indefinable, somewhere between worry, stupidity, and polite neutrality.”
In the early going Hulot cannot manage the space of the hotel, he is just spilling all over the place. Each door he opens lets in a gale force wind, as if a twister had hit in the lobby. At check-in the tobacco in his pipe is so overflowing the hotel manager has to pluck it out of his mouth so he can speak. This is just the first of endless incursions into other people’s personal space. Even when he’s alone he annoys – during the post-dinnertime lull, he sits alone and plays an absurdly loud jazz record, jolting everyone out of their restful state. Hulot, both by accident and by design, is something of a prankster, so the only people who gravitate towards him are a little boy who gives him a run for his money at ping-pong, and the young beauty Martine, for whom Hulot is a charming respite from incessant male flirtation (from both insufferable Marxists and capitalists alike).
The most moving vignette depicts a scantily attended masked ball – there are a few children napping in their seats, Hulot and Martine. Hulot shows up in an elaborate pirate outfit, while Martine swoops in wearing a mask and skirt. She enters while he is futzing with the record player behind a curtain – and, just before she is about to depart, he emerges, and they giddily dance around the empty room. It is a moment when the two souls in the town seeking adventure have found each other, and Hulot does not stumble or collapse. In fact he is quite nimble as they skip around the dance floor. It is a short-lived moment, but an exquisite one, showing that the Hulot character, though aloof and oblivious to the world so much of the time, is capable of joining it in full when he discovers someone with the same out-of-step sensibility. It is a transitory moment, and Hulot is swept along by his own momentum as he crashes a funeral, and in the final spectacular stunt, sets off a whole shed of fireworks in a display of sublime idiocy. He ends the summer with a bang, but leaves much as he began, alone in that fussy old car. He gives Martine’s empty room one final look (she left without a goodbye), and drives offscreen, leaving us with an image of the emptied out town. It ends with a stamp being placed on a picture, turned into a postcard, a memory Hulot will keep close to his heart during the further solitary adventures that await him.