Friday Editor’s Pick: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

by on July 1, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Friday, July 1 at Dusk at Tompkins Square Park [Program & Tix]

Tonight, plan a trip to Tompkins Square Park, for the wonderful French comedy Mr. Hulot’s Holiday will be playing starting at Dusk (around 8:30).


Roger Ebert provides an excellent introduction to this humorous film that conjures up tender emotions and laughter:

Let me try to explain my relationship with Hulot. The first time I saw it, I expected something along the lines of a Hollywood screwball comedy. Instead, the movie opens with its sweet little melody, which is quite pleased that life goes on. Hulot arrives (inconveniencing a dog that wants to sleep in the road) and tries his best to be a well-behaved holiday-maker. He is so polite that when the announcer on the hotel’s radio says “Good night, everybody!” he bows and doffs his hat. Because there were no closeups, because the movie did not insist on exactly who Hulot was, he became the audience–he was me.


I met all the people Hulot met, I became accustomed to their daily perambulations as he did, and I accompanied him as he blundered into a funeral and was mistaken as a mourner, and when he was accosted by a rug, and when a towrope boinged him into the sea. And then the holiday was over, and everyone began to pack and leave, and there was the hint of how lonely this coastal village would be until next summer, when exactly the same people would return to do exactly the same things.


When I saw the film a second time, the wonderful thing was, it was like returning to the hotel. It wasn’t like I was seeing the film again; it was like I was recognizing the people from last year. There’s the old couple again (good, they made it through another year). The waiter (where does he work in the winter?). And the blond girl (still no man in her life; maybe this is the summer that . . .)


When has a film so subtly and yet so completely captured nostalgia for past happiness? The movie is about the simplest of human pleasures: The desire to get away for a few days, to play instead of work, to breathe in the sea air, and maybe meet someone nice. It is about the hope that underlies all vacations, and the sadness that ends them. And it is amused, too, that we go about our days so intently, while the sea and the sky go about theirs.



Carrie Rickey,, pins down Director Jacques Tati’s humor:

Tati is not laugh-out-loud funny like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin; he is a grin-in-recognition-at-life’s-foibles kind of guy. As Hulot, the man who motors to Brittany in what resembles a tuna tin with bicycle wheels, he affects a self-conscious gait, that of one who tries to get from Point A to Point B by doing a clumsy box step. You can’t believe this guy can make it across the hotel lobby, but he does, politely doffing his cap to all, including empty chairs…


Thus Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is concerned not with character, but with how the unreliability of nature, human nature, and mechanical objects makes human actions and interactions awkwardly funny.



Jonathan Richards, In the Dark

Tati is heir to the great comics of the silent era, Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd, and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is essentially a silent film. There are little patches of dialogue, but the words are not important; they have the same quality as sound effects. “The dialogue is background sound as you hear it when you’re in the street, in Paris or New York,” he once told an interviewer, “a brouhaha of voices.” In Hulot, Tati emphasizes this quality with a brilliant sight gag at the top of the movie, where a crowd of vacationers waiting at a railway station becomes confused by garbled announcements over the loudspeaker system, and stampedes from one platform to the other.


Hulot has some stylistic traits in common with Chaplin’s Little Tramp, particularly his chivalry, his politeness, the tipping of his hat. But where the Tramp is clever, aggressive, and mischievous, Hulot is blithely clueless. He leaves the door open as he wrangles his bags into the hotel, and never notices the havoc wrought by the seaside wind howling through the lobby. His obliviousness puts him closer to Keaton.


If Tati learned from and paid homage to the masters of silent comedy, he also bequeathed stylistic concepts to the generation of filmmakers that followed him. His device of scattering varied sounds and areas of visual interest across his frame, rather than directing the audience’s attention, influenced other directors, notably Robert Altman. Like the best of Altman’s films, Tati’s can be seen again and again with new discoveries to be made at each viewing.


Matt Prigge, Philadelphia Weekly:

[Mr. Hulot’s Holiday] also introduced Tati’s radical view of filmed comedy: a socialist, interactive cinema where the gags and pratfalls aren’t rammed down your throat but occur naturally for you to discover freely. Yes, there are pratfalls—my personal favorite involves a revolving sprinkler and a watering can—but jokes also come in less-expected places. For instance, sounds. Not the dialogue, which, when not mere white noise, is bland chit-chat, but the troubling clangs of Hulot’s jalopy or the guitarlike strum as the overused dining room door swings open and shut. What’s funny about the horn that gets stuck to Hulot’s car tire isn’t the gag itself but the odd squeak it makes. Essentially a silent film with sound, its most famous scene involves not slapstick but a paint can gracefully moved about by the tide. Like the melancholy that only arises as the vacationers head back to their lives, this breezy travelogue only seems madly innovative come the postcard-mimicking final image—when all you want is more.



Cal, Filmlair:

Although Tati himself plays the part of Mr. Hulot, he is not cited as an Actor in the official credits, which is probably because the film isn’t really about Hulot in the first place. It’s true that he’s a vessel for much of the comedic set-pieces, but Tati’s comedy is more concerned with satirising the mechanisms of society than creating a character that contravenes or alienates his own social standing…


And yet, it manages to say all of this with such an ease of vitality, obvious and cutesy with its humour but hotly incisive as it dissects the absurdity of social norms. A rambunctious soundtrack accompanies the farcical failures of Mr. Hulot as a sailor, a diner, and a chauffeur, aiding the deadpan, tongue-in-cheek style of Tati’s visual storytelling. A particular highlight is when Hulot utilises a tennis technique shown to him by a girl at the racquet club, which renders him an invincible opponent. The overtly simple two-step technique aligns with the abruptness of the film’s comedic charm, as well as its canny, minimal use of sound to generate moments of delightful whimsy. There is little-to-no dialogue in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (and in truth it has more in common with pre-talkie techniques at eliciting laughter), but the sound design of the film is undoubtedly one of its most meticulously crafted elements.


And to end, howzabout some words from Tati himself?


I’m not so interested in dramatic situations. I like ordinary situations. People’s seriousness when they are having fun is funny. In the case of ‘Les Vacances de M. Hulot,’ why do they approach the holiday so seriously? They make it seem like a new job to be undertaken every year…Most of the people in ‘Les Vacances de M. Hulot‘ aren’t very gay. They don’t want to stop their work. The businessman talks on the beach about his business. The luscious girl is slaving not to look the same as another luscious girl. M. Hulot is from another world. Of course, it is not at all practical of him, but a holiday is not a practical situation. He won’t make arrangements. He causes trouble when he’s playing tennis. He is always making conditions break down. In ‘Mon Oncle‘ he is a menace. He is a very good friend, however….


Of course, Hulot doesn’t alter anything. ‘The Great Dictator‘ didn’t stop Hitler. But films can affect things a little.

New Yorker, Jan 27, 1973, as told to Penelope Gilliatt (our bolds)

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