Monday, May 18, 2009

Jacques Tati: The Master of French Film Comedy, Part 2

Bonjour, Monsieur Hulot!

Jacques Tati was hardly a prolific filmmaker. In the twenty-four years between 1947 and 1971, he made only five feature-length movies. The fact that so much time elapsed between films suggests the extreme amount of thought and preparation that went into the conception, filming, and post-production of each of those works.

Tati's second movie, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953), set a pattern that Tati would pretty much follow for the rest of his career. It takes up where his previous film left off (not in the narrative sense, but in cinematic terms) and then makes significant advances in many areas. Tati seemed never to want to repeat himself but always to move forward with his next movie, to take what he had already done and build on it to create something new and more ambitious. Monsieur Hulot's Holiday still has the rather loose structure of Tati's first movie, Jour de Fête (1949), consisting of a series of set pieces not strongly linked by a linear or chronological plot. The title character goes on vacation at the seaside in Brittany, becomes involved in a series of comical misadventures, and at the end returns home. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Yet so fertile was Tati's imagination that within this episodic theme-and-variations structure, he managed to create a movie that is fondly remembered and even loved by nearly everyone who has seen it.

The reasons for the movie's brilliance are two-fold. One is the impeccable conception and execution of each of the many brilliant gags in the movie, whether a brief sight gag or an elaborately detailed comedic set piece. These are done with the precision of a Buster Keaton or Charles Chaplin, and Tati's fusion of the physicality of Keaton and the whimsy of Chaplin is bound to remind the viewer of both of those comic geniuses. But in the absence of a strong narrative continuum, what really holds the movie together is the character of Monsieur Hulot, making his first appearance in this film. M. Hulot, who became Tati's alter ego and the main character of all his subsequent movies, is a unique creation who contains elements of Tati's idols, the trifecta of American silent comedian/filmmakers—Keaton, Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. Like the characters those three greats tended to play, M. Hulot is an oddball whose individuality causes him to be the underdog or the outsider in every situation.

The movie opens with the credits seen over shots of a peaceful, deserted beach, the only sounds those of waves breaking on the shore and mellow music playing on the soundtrack. Without warning, the scene shifts to one of pandemonium. It is August in France, and the entire country is going on vacation. In a train depot we hear loudly amplified crowd noises and see frazzled families desperately attempting to find the right train. Confused by the incomprehensible gibberish coming from the loudspeakers (it resembles the blathering noises of the dignitaries dedicating the monument at the beginning of City Lights), frenzied holiday-goers race from platform to platform.

Meanwhile on a country road we first see M. Hulot puttering along in his tiny, sputtering car as more affluent vacationers in their more powerful cars hurtle past him, leaving him in a cloud of dust. M. Hulot's ancient little car, backfiring like crazy, struggles to make it up a steep hill and comes to a dead stop before it reaches the top. Finally making it down the hill, he coasts at a leisurely pace through a quiet village the other cars have sped through, stopping for a dog sleeping in the middle of the road, and even taking time to pat its head before continuing on. This first introduction to M. Hulot succinctly tells us practically everything we need to know about him. In any competition, he will be last, for competition is not in his nature. Nor is haste or unkindness, even to dogs sleeping in the road. And unlike the other holiday-makers, he travels alone and apart from the crowd.

When M. Hulot arrives at his destination, the seaside Hôtel de la Plage, we get our first good look at him. Unlike the short Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, M. Hulot is a tall, gangly man. He has a way of walking as distinctive as Chaplin's swaying, shuffling gait. M. Hulot walks using not just his feet and legs, but with his entire body, leaning forward and lurching ahead purposefully, bouncing on the soles of his feet with each step, at once both stiff and loose. In his dress, he is also as distinctive as his idols. Like Keaton with his pork pie hat and Chaplin with his bowler, M. Hulot wears a funny hat too. Lloyd always wears glasses; M. Hulot is seldom seen without his pipe. Chaplin's baggy clothes seem too large for such a small man; M. Hulot's clothes seem too small, the sleeves and hem of his jacket and the legs of his trousers far too short for such a large man, as though he has somehow outgrown them.

When M.Hulot walks into the lobby of the hotel to register, we get a preview of his future relationship to the staff and other guests. The lobby is filled with guests sitting and relaxing, reading novels or newspapers, sipping drinks, playing cards, listening to the hotel radio. As M. Hulot opens the door, a ferocious wind rises, and as he props the doors open, stashes his pipe in his mouth, and struggles to get two suitcases, a fish-landing net, and a tennis racquet into the hotel, the wind roars through the lobby, turning the peaceful scene into a maelstrom,

This incident creates a bad first impression from which he never recovers. The other guests, who already seem to have formed a cliquish sort of community, are united in their snobbish dislike and suspicion of the man. Even the hotel staff find him a nuisance, wondering what problem he will cause next and giving him constant dirty looks. Their watchfulness actually distracts them to the point that is causes them to do things like drop a fountain pen in an aquarium, for which, of course, they silently blame M. Hulot.

By the time he reaches the hotel, only a few minutes into the movie, the film's structure is set. The rest of the movie will consist of the comic scrapes M. Hulot gets into and the inventive means he uses not to get caught. Comparing his movies to Chaplin's, Tati once said that Chaplin's Little Tramp makes things happen, whereas things happen to M. Hulot. And he is indeed like the child who is always inadvertently getting into trouble: he may be technically responsible for the problems he causes, but he remains blameless because it is all either unintentional or the result of good intentions gone awry.

M. Hulot quickly becomes a benignly disruptive force on this little community, continually causing mischief and aggravation without meaning to. He accidentally launches a boat whose owner is painting it on the shore. He causes a shark scare on the beach (an incident that seems inspired by the boat gag in Keaton's The Balloonatic). He drives into a cemetery during a funeral, where his spare inner tube is mistaken for a funeral wreath, and to avoid embarrassing the mourners enters the receiving line and shakes hands with those attending. He kicks a man he thinks is spying on a young woman through a knothole in a changing cabin on the beach, only to find the man was really peering through the viewfinder of a tripod-mounted camera taking a picture of his family (a purely cinematic gag based on the two-dimensionality of the movie screen). He exasperates the hotel staff by leaving wet footprints in the lobby without ever being seen doing it. With one brief ill-timed push of a swiveling chair, he causes two tables of card players to believe that everyone else is cheating and to erupt into a heated fracas. His unforgettable and hilariously aggressive tennis serve defeats all who attempt to play against him: "Le tennis, c'est pas ça!" breathlessly exclaims one exhausted young opponent.

Tati links these incidents together with the periodic repetition of certain actions that essentially become unifying motifs. Two of the guests we first meet are a well-dressed elderly couple who apparently do little but take walks—she always leading, he following a few steps behind—and every few minutes we see them taking another leisurely stroll. M. Schmutz is a chubby, rather tyrannical businessman who, even though on vacation with his family, is summoned regularly to the telephone to confer with his company or his stockbroker. M. Hulot is repeatedly seen peering at the beach from the open skylight in the roof of his attic room in the hotel. The waiter rings the dining room bell for another meal. Several people have unfortunate encounters in a dark side room with a loud phonograph that is turned on by the light switch, always at the most inopportune time. M. Hulot repeatedly wakens the sleeping hotel in the middle of the night, and every time he does, we see lights in the windows of the darkened building coming on one by one.

One element Tati added to Monsieur Hulot's Holiday that wasn't in Jour de Fête is a girl, an element he kept in all his subsequent movies except Mon Oncle. The Girl was something always present in the films of the great American silent film comedians. Typically the hero's getting the girl was the motivation for his actions and provided the conclusion for the movie. But in Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, as in Tati's following movies, the girl is not so much a romantic object as a chaste ideal, a representation of tolerance and non-judgment and one of the few people who relate to M. Hulot and whom he can relate to in return.

Here the girl is called Martine (Nathalie Pascaud), and she is staying in a very picturesque traditional timbered house across from the hotel. As the most attractive young woman around, she receives a lot of attention from the young men, but it is in M. Hulot's company that she seems to feel most comfortable. She appears to be amused by his child-like enthusiasms, his imperviousness to the patronizing attitude of others, and his innocent ability to deflate pomposity and self-importance. During that memorable tennis game, only Martine, looking on from the side, is amused by M. Hulot's good-natured ability to exasperate all his opponents. She even allows him to walk her home afterward.

It is M. Hulot she allows to take her to the costume dance at the hotel, one of the most delightful sequences in the movie. What a comically odd couple they make. He looks absurd in his corny pirate's costume with a bandeau, eyepatch, and one gold hoop earring. She looks lovely in her diamond-patterned Harlequinesque party dress, high heels, and Harlequin mask. And the way he dances is indescribably unique, and indescribably funny.

One of the big advances of Monsieur Hulot's Holiday over Jour de Fête is Tati's ability to succinctly define minor characters in just a few visual strokes—their clothing, facial expressions, body language, and above all reaction to M. Hulot. Martine, the strolling couple, M. Schmutz, the vacationing Englishwoman who befriends M. Hulot, the other guests at the hotel, even the hotel staff are vividly limned in no time at all, so carefully does Tati select the few details about them we're shown.

Another big advance over Jour de Fête is the refinement in Tati's use of sound. In Jour de Fête Tati was almost like a child so enamored of a new toy that he was quite unrestrained in his use of sound, at times saturating the soundtrack to the point that it threatened to overwhelm the images. In Monsieur Hulot's Holiday he takes a very different approach, one he would continue in later films. Here sound is used selectively and very deliberately. There is little dialogue, and what there is often occurs in the background; the primary means of telling the story is always visual. M. Hulot himself speaks only three times in the movie and even then utters little more than a single word. Tati once explained to an interviewer why he preferred to use dialogue so sparingly. He observed that because it's easier to be funny in one's own country using dialogue, humor based on speech tends to be national, whereas humor based on situation and movement tends to be international.

But it is Tati's use of non-spoken sounds that constitutes the most remarkable advance over Jour de Fête. The contrast between the beach and the train depot in that opening sequence, M. Hulot's car backfiring and sputtering, the phonograph suddenly blaring out the "Tiger Rag" at high volume, the frequent ringing of the dinner bell, the distinctive sound of M. Hulot's ping pong ball as he plays table tennis in the room next to the crowded but otherwise completely silent hotel lobby, the metallic "bong" the door to the dining room makes every time it is opened, even the sound of the waves breaking on the shore—all these noises are used to create specific atmospheric and comical effects. This targeted use of sound effects within silence is something Tati would continue to do with great effectiveness in the films made after Monsieur Hulot's Holiday.

The most brilliant use of sound and the most brilliant set piece in the whole movie takes place just before the end. The entire hotel decides to go on a group outing for their last day together, and M. Hulot is part of the carpool that will ferry the revelers to the picnic spot. Car trouble prevents him from arriving on time, delaying the group's departure and upsetting all their careful organization. Then on the way his car has a flat tire and while he is trying to fix it slips off the jack and rolls away, taking his two passengers with it, and leaving him stranded.

That evening he has still not returned to the hotel. In the middle of the night, still trying to find his way back to the hotel, he wanders into a storage shed on the beach and lights a match to get his bearings. The shed happens to be packed with fireworks, and as the various fireworks explode in the otherwise soundless night, they fizz, crackle, boom, whiz, and squeal. They shoot into the air, burst in spectacular patterns, cascade through the night sky, whirl in circles, and bombard the hotel, wakening the entire hotel and throwing it into a panic.

The next day is the end of the vacation, and the holiday-makers gather in front of the hotel to say good-bye to one another—exchanging addresses, promising to keep in touch, expressing hopes of seeing one another next year. But for M. Hulot there are no fond farewells, for the fiasco of the night before has been the last straw, and he is pointedly excluded from the fulsome camaraderie. Shunned, he makes his way to the beach and sits with the children, with whom his temperament has more in common than with their uptight parents. Two people, however, do make a point of saying good-bye to him: the Englishwoman who has never really been part of the group and the henpecked little man who has been strolling with his wife the entire time. M. Hulot's friends are dogs, children, and the other pariahs of the group. At the end of the movie, the beach concessions are being boarded up, the beach is once again deserted, and M. Hulot drives away alone in his little car, the last to leave. We don't know where he came from, and it will be five years, until Tati's next movie, Mon Oncle (1958), before we learn where he is returning to.


Allan Fish said...

The one word that could certainly apply to Tati is meticulous, and your piece is suitably meticulous in turn.

Sam Juliano said...

Well R.D., he worked at a snail's pace for certain. But we have seen the same with Bresson, Kubrick and even with Chaplin in the feature film years. And Bresson lived to be 99! Most recently, we have Malick, who squandered 20 years at one point. But we can safely say that in each case here (including Tati's) we are dealing with a supreme perfectionist who is prone to endless re-shoots and tireless preparation. (the latter point acknowledged by you in the first paragraph)

I know you value MONSIEUR HULOT'S HOLIDAY above all other Tati films, and it is the trendsetter here for sure, and the one that has the most emotional resonance, even if PLAYTIME is probably his most brilliant film on balance. HOLIDAY is a series of set pieces, but Tati imbued the proceedings with such a sense of humanity that the finished product is dear to so many film goer's hearts.
I agree that timing (execution) is flawless and the central character are the key ingrediants to success here.

The beautifully descriptive writing here that informs the beginning of the film is stellar, and the comparison with the gibberish heard at the beginning of CITY LIGHTS is dead-on.

Two most interesting subsequent points: Tati is tall and gangly as opposed to the three great silent comedians, all of whom are short, and with Tati (as opposed to The Little Tramp who "makes things happen") thinks happen to him.

All of those priceless moments you describe, like the shark scare (borrowed from the Keaton), the funeral wreath/tire spare segment and the "peeking" section are all vintage Tati, and I agree that the major improvement of this film over JOUR DE FETE is the economy of deliniating minor characters and the use of sound, especially for the non-spoken sections.

And yes, that final set piece culminating here:

"The shed happens to be packed with fireworks, and as the various fireworks explode in the otherwise soundless night, they fizz, crackle, boom, whiz, and squeal. They shoot into the air, burst in spectacular patterns, cascade through the night sky, whirl in circles, and bombard the hotel, wakening the entire hotel and throwing it into a panic".....

is most unforgettable.

R. D. Finch said...

Allan and Sam, thanks so much for your comments. I originally thought I would cover "M. Hulot's Holiday" and "Mon Oncle" in the same post. But as soon as I started I realized that "Holiday" needed a whole post to itself. I hope to have the next installment on Tati ready within the next few weeks. Comedy is so rewarding to watch and so difficult to write about!

Anonymous said...

Great piece! Really captures the elements that make this film great!

For me, Hulot's Holiday is like nostalgia brought to life. Not that I ever experienced a summer beach vacation on the coast of France...but the film makes me feel like I have.

And what a lovely gentle time it captures.

I think your article overlooks only one significant contributing factor to the success of Hulot's Holiday: the music.

I find the music simple and hypnotic -- and perfect. The musical theme helps set the mood, and the repetition of the piece(s) of music helps keep us in the mood.

BTW, who wrote the music?


Tom Ruegger

R. D. Finch said...

Tom, thanks for your kind comments. You're absolutely right about that captivating jazz score. It sets a mellow mood and is used for continuity as the film moves from episode to episode. Is that a vibraphone that is used so prominently to get that mellow sound? According to IMDb, the music is by Alain Romans, who also wrote the score for Tati's "Mon Oncle." Wikipedia has a very brief entry on him. I certainly agree that Tati uses his locations so vividly that after watching the movie, you do feel like you've been there yourself.