M. Hulot’s Holiday

The Gentle Art of Peoplewatching

An essay by: Witney Seibold


            I once saw a tow truck towing a tow truck. It was extraordinary.

            At Boy Scout camp, I once left my dinner table to find some condiments. When I returned, I had found that my cup of artificially grape-flavored fruit punch had transformed from that sickly purple shade to a bright red. I later discovered why, but it was very disorienting for a moment.

            I laugh at little tiny dogs that bark as menacingly as possible at larger dogs.

            You ever look for your glasses, only to realize you’re wearing them?

            I remember this time I looked over at a guy reading a newspaper while eating ice cream, and he went to grasp his spoon, but he wasn’t looking at his spoon, so he grasped a space about three inches to the spoon’s right.

Sublime little moments. Moments that didn’t make me shake with laughter, but gave me a quietly amused feeling at the foibles of people. Sit still for a moment sometime. Sit on a park bench, or in some other public place, and just look at people. They will play, they will trip, they will walk in their own funny way, they will laugh, they will argue. They will, essentially, be themselves.

On certain summer afternoons, the world can be a grand comic theater.

The genius of actor/director Jacques Tati’s films are their ability to capture these moments; these cute, funny, utterly everyday moments of comic human vulnerability, to capture the universe which, at first, seems quotidian, but turns into a clever and complicated buffet of amusing human activity. There is nothing dark or unpleasant about Jacques Tati’s universe. The slapstick is never about someone getting whacked in the head, or falling down stairs. The slapstick is gentle. People are inconvenienced, but never outright hurt. People recognize each other, but there are no central players. We do spend a lot of time with Tati’s famed character M. Hulot, and he does seem to be the instigator of much of the films’ action, but we never get any close-ups of him, never get to know him on any dramatic level. There is no drama in a Jacques Tati film. There is little dialogue, and what dialogue we get is entirely incidental. There are just the moments. The calm jazz melody, repeated over and over, that seems to happily hang in the air.

 “M. Hulot’s
Holiday” (1953) is probably Tati’s best known of his Hulot films, and it is certainly his most winsome. His later films like “Mon Oncle (1958), and “Playtime” (1967) are equally brilliant comic masterpieces, but seem to have a sad element to them. As if Tati were mourning the loss of an
Old World in
France, mourning the loss of the small town where people know one another and where beaches and mountains are still beautiful. “M. Hulot’s Holiday” is spent on a beach, in a quaint little seaside hotel, complete with twanging doors, old footprints, echoey living areas, noisy gamerooms, and a wonderful view of the seaside. It is a slightly dilapidated world, yet a familiar one. A calm world of the French beaches, the days of riding horseback, eating ice cream in the sunshine, and flirting with the pretty blonde woman you see year after year. In his later films, you feel modernity begin to encroach upon this world. In “M. Hulot’s
Holiday” we get to bask in it for a while.

It is also very difficult to describe the actual experience, describe that sweet feeling of gentle joy, we get from watching a Jacques Tati film. It’s so perfect just watching it, experiencing it, feeling the waves very slowly break over us, like the calm waves of the sweet little beach that M. Hulot visits.


Gentle Slapstick

The film can, I must warn you, be frustrating for many viewers. We audiences are used to out comedies being a bit more broad and slapstick. Or sharp and witty. Or crass and satirical. We’re used to seeing Charlie Chaplin hanging by his pants or Buster Keaton crashing a train. We’re used to buildups and punchlines. The scattershot comic riffing of the Marx Bros., the sheer absurdity of Monty Python or the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films, the deliberately offensive jokes of “South Park” or the subtle satire of “The Simpsons.” We’re certainly not used to the calm, the uneventful. In fact, many of the shots in “M. Hulot’s
Holiday” seem to contain nothing significant at all. We see extended shots of people on a beach, or someone driving their car down a road. We modern audiences see M. Hulot’s rickety car buzzing down the road, and we’re expecting the car to flip, or to crash, or break down… something. Tati does not give us that kind of payoff. In scene after scene we get a lot of setups, but no actual punchline.

…Until we realize, that what we’re seeing is the punchline. That rickety car has to honk to get a sleeping dog out of its way, it has to swerve, it has to ramshackle along… but it doesn’t have to crash. We’re in anticipation of chaos, but we avoid it. Tati is brilliant in giving us the pending moment. It’s not that he’s denying us our joke, it’s that he’s given us something much more sublime: the moment of anticipation. Followed shortly thereafter by the amusing realization that we don’t need something dramatic as a car crash to enjoy the simple pleasure of laughing at a rickety car. He tries to show us that a joke doesn’t have to be so rigidly structure as setup-then-punchline. A joke can just be a funny event. A miniature anecdote. He brings innocence back into slapstick.

There are very few Big Laughs in Jacques Tati’s films. There is more just a general good feeling. The perfect blend of slapstick and reality. Jacques Tati’s films are the only ones I know of to try something of this scope. He makes comedies, but I feel he deserves to be in a sub-genre of his own.

And there is, in fact, slapstick everywhere in the film. We may not see it the first time we see “M. Hulot’s
Holiday,” as it is sneaking around the edges. There is one scene in which a cook is slicing pieces of meat for the hotel guests’ dinner. A posh woman walks in and stands center frame for a moment. In the foreground, we see the cook slice a piece of meat. Then a fat tourist enters and stands center frame. In the foreground, the cook cuts a rather large slice of meat. Thin for thin. Fat for fat. This is a joke so subtle, I didn’t notice it the first time I saw the film. There are many shots in which you have to be looking, and you still may not see the joke.

There are moments a bit broader than the ones mentioned, of course (I don’t want to make the film sound totally inert). As when M. Hulot tries to wrangle a horse, and is thrown about, partially obscured by a barn, the horse unseen. Or when he drops his spare tire tube into some wet leaves, and it is mistaken for a funerary wreath. And, of course, the film’s finale when M. Hulot unwittingly lights off an entire shed full of fireworks. The broad moments are just as beautiful as the small ones, and we do laugh at them.

(…A brief aside: Consider how difficult is must have been to shoot and orchestrate some of these scenes. Everything feels so natural in “M. Hulot’s
Holiday,” but when you study it, hundreds of takes must have been necessary. The paint can scene (see below) was either painstakingly constructed with wires and special effects, or deeply studied with tides and experiments. Either way, it’s an amazing effect that required immense amounts of work. The sounds, of the door, of the sea, of the fireworks, of the blaring phonograph, of the ping-pong table, and of the gentle wafting jazz riff, are all dubbed in perfectly, and give us the universe more wholly. The timing and stunts are sublime…)


Consider the scene in which a young boy gets a pair of ice cream cones from a vendor. He returns to the hotel’s door, and turns the knob with an ice cream cone still in his hand. The cone tips, and tips, and tips… in fact, it turns all the way upsidedown before the door opens. Miraculously, the ice cream does not fall off of the cone. We wait for it, it never comes, we breathe a sigh of relief, and then smile.

Consider the structure: M. Hulot sets off small chains of events that end up causing big noises. He goes to bed and rests. The final night he does his usual thing (in this case playing music, interrupting a card game), that eventually cause a fight that wakes he himself up for the night.

Consider the scene, mentioned above, in which M. Hulot is painting the inside of his boat. His head is dipped entirely inside the kayak, and he absentmindedly replaces the paint brush to the paint can. A wave washes the paint can out to sea. When Hulot reaches for the brush again, the wave brings the can right back to where it needs to be. As if nature, usually a chaotic thing, sometimes works in our favor. No one sees this floating paint can but us, the audience. We have become voyeurs to the strange cosmic synchronicity of this event.


The All-Seeing Eye

Indeed, this cosmic synchronicity is another way Jacques Tati’s films are so brilliant. All films turn us into voyeurs, but usually in a dirty sort of way. As if we are allowed to see what’s on the screen without the permission of anyone in the film; we become uninvited spies in many ways.

Jacques Tati does turn us into voyeurs, but the same way we are voyeurs in life. We are watching other people doing funny things, but we feel oddly connected with them, as if this could easily be a real event, a real vacation that we ourselves are on. We don’t really get to know any characters’ names, but we do start to recognize them and their personalities. We ourselves are now at that beachfront hotel, and we know all about that one couple that’s always bickering, and those little kids who are always running around, and that one really sour waiter, and that pretty blonde woman, and that one really amusing M. Hulot who never comes with anyone, but is always fun to hang around with for a few moments and play ping-pong. Where do these people go during the year? Will that door always make that twanging noise? Will we have to go horseback riding again this year? Can we come back next year?

We see everything, but we are invited to be a part of everything. We are an audience watching funny jokes, and we are vacationers. By the end of the film, when everyone is giving their farewells, there’s a feeling of melancholy. That our vacation, too, has ended. But there’s the halcyon hope that we’ll be coming back again next year, and it will be just as eventful, just as fun, and we’ll breathe just as much clean sea air.

Few films involve us in this manner. We’re often invited to absorb the drama of another’s life, but we’re rarely invited to be the invisible, so to speak, of the same drama.


 According to a little Internet research, “M. Hulot’s
Holiday” played for years in arthouses and repertory theaters, and was wildly successful. It won an Academy Award for best screenplay, and brought Tati world-wide fame.

“M. Hulot’s
Holiday” was shot in color, but then transferred to black-and-white film. Some critics believe this was a subtle tribute to silent comedies, but this transfer give the black-and-white a very subtle shimmer of beauty. It makes most of the shots look themselves like picture postcards. The angles of the hotel, the shots of the beach, the quaint beauty of the place itself.

Jacques Tati started as a mime, and acted in a few short silent films, along the lines of Keaton and Chaplin. All of his features kept their distance from Tati, allowing the situation to thrive. He is sweeter than Keaton and not as sappy as Chaplin. His later films all captured this feeing, and began to add in commentaries about modernity, until “Playtime,” a film which took him nine years to complete, finally showed the world as completely modernized and gleaming buildings. “Playtime” was a box-office failure, and signified the end of Tati’s career. “Playtime” is just as brilliant as any of his other films, however, and is now being critically recognized as such. Tati died in 1980.

If his later films were fearful of the future, and its encroachment upon the small communities of
France, “M. Hulot’s
Holiday” seems kind of hopeful. We do get the melancholy of leaving the beach behind, but we get a picture postcard (the last shot of the film), a memento, a reminder that it will still be there. In fact, the fireworks display in the finale is almost like a blitzkrieg attack on the little hotel, an attack on all the stuffiness of some of the people inside, including those picky old people and that snippy waiter. The future will be better, as the old stuffy people will loosen up a bit.

 Was Tati himself hopeful about the future? It’s hard to say for sure. I think he did resent that the world seemed to be becoming more and more modernized, and, seeing as a lot of jokes were at our expense at the hands of technology, that we would simply be making fools of ourselves in more complicated ways. But at the end, our characters, including Hulot, are all still having fun, and escaping the world for a moment. I think that Tati believed that these small human moments, the funny, the sublime, the ridiculous, the revealing, the embarrassing, the affirming, would never perish. No matter what form the world took, be it a high rise or a sweet beachside hotel, we would still be humans, and we’ll still be a good show for other humans. 

Published in: on May 25, 2007 at 9:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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