Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953)

Director: Jacques Tati                                   Writers: Jacques Tati & Henri Marquet
Film Score: Alain Romans                             Cinematography: Jacques Mercanton
Starring: Jacques Tati, Nathalie Pascaud, Michéle Rolla and Lucien Frégis

In my review of The Artist I mentioned how the French actors seemed to have a better grasp of the silent era acting styles and mannerisms than their U.S. counterparts. Given that country’s obsession with cinema, it makes sense. But that type of homage didn’t begin recently. Jacques Tati, in his series of films as Mr. Hulot, would take the silent era comedians as his inspiration and in turn inspire future comedians like Rowan Atkinson in his Mr. Bean films to keep alive the tradition of comedic pantomime. In fact, his opening sight gag, in which a crowd of people is impossibly going up and down the stairs to catch a train, is as good as anything by Keaton. The entirety of Mr. Hulot's Holiday is built on such finely crafted gags, and this is the thing that sets him apart from most comedies of that or any era. Even without the dialogue--and there is precious little anyway--the film is completely successful. In the aforementioned scene, the announcements over the loudspeaker are unintelligible in the way of the Charlie Brown grownups and it just makes the scene that much more humorous.

The film begins in the crowded city with people trying to catch the train to go on holiday. But there are so many people that it’s difficult even to get on. Tati, on the other hand, prefers to travel in his ramshackle car. The beautiful, blonde Nathalie Pascaud is the first to arrive at the beach resort, full of people enjoying themselves, while Tati takes a bit longer. The car, in this instance, is an extension of Tati himself. Once he arrives he draws the attention of everyone as he bounces around on the balls of his feet, polite to a fault, and completely oblivious of his negative effect on others. One person who does notice, and is extremely irritated, is the hotel proprietor Lucien Frégis who has a number of great gags all on his own. There are also a number of aural gags as well, with the swinging door to the dining room making a peculiar noise and a jazzy theme song that keeps repeating over and over throughout the film. There’s really no story, per se, but simply Tati going on about his vacation and causing any number of hilarious things to happen.

I’ve never seen this kind of silent film comedy after the twenties, and it resonated with a lot of critics. Not only was it nominated for grand prize at the Caans Film Festival that year, but was awarded a French critic’s award, the Prix Louis Delluc, and was also nominated for an Academy Award for Tati and Henri Marquet’s screenplay. In terms of the carefully crafted sight gags, there’s nothing like it in modern cinema. Tati would go on to make three more films featuring Monsieur Hulot and, while equally inspired, none would again capture the brilliance of his first outing. The film was apparently dubbed in English, but it’s really unnecessary as what little dialogue it contains is hardly necessary. As with any silent comedy, his supporting cast is just as important as the star and the large ensemble does a wonderful job of assisting Tati in capturing something quite special. From a cinematic standpoint, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday has to be one of the greatest French films ever made. As far as comedy goes, it’s one of the best films ever.

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