Monday, June 28, 2010

Movie Review: Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Directed by Jacques Tati. 1953.

Mr. Hulot's Holiday, or Mr. Hulot's Holidays, is crafted with such subtlety and affection one cannot help falling in love with it. I say falling because while it worked its charm on me during my first viewing it grows on you more and more over time. My fondness for this movie is part nostalgia for the curious patrons of the Hotel de la Plage and part excitement to see Mr. Hulot and his antics, perennial in their freshness, grace, and charm. What exactly is this movie though? In his introduction to the 2001 edition Criterion DVD, director Terry Jones summed it best this way, that Mr. Hulot's Holidays is sort of a series of postcards from a vacation.

Postcards indeed, and you could pause this movie at any moment and find a little gem of a postcard from Mr. Hulot's seaside vacation. The gags and scenes are impossible to summarize and we would do violence to the film to dissect them. We can say though that each one takes delight in life's little incongruities. Mr. Hulot looks at everything with a pure curiosity, neither cynical or skeptical. He simply looks on and says, "Hmm. Funny that this is so. But how did. . . Did I. . . hmm."

Mr. Hulot is often the cause of the curious incidents he so quizzically looks upon. These "little holidays" are attended by the movie's musical score, a short, lilting, jazzy little theme. Sometimes the music is dubbed over and sometimes it is diegetic, started by one of the patrons. The effect of this, sometimes showing the source of the music and sometimes not, is that we feel the music is always going on. Someone is always starting some little adventure somewhere, someone is always getting the ball rolling. Sometimes we start it rolling, sometimes we keep it rolling, but don't let it stop! Likewise the theme varies in instrumentation. Sometimes it is orchestrated, sometimes it is on a piano, once someone whistles it. The effect is that of theme and variation: all of these little diversions, digressions, and variations on the main theme, i.e. Mr. Hulot's joyful outlook.

Of course they are only variations on a theme, little treasures, if we adopt Mr. Hulot's outlook. Otherwise they are inconveniences and trifles.

The hotel patrons are almost as colorful as Mr. Hulot: the commodore recounting his exploits from the war to whoever will listen, the touring couple who seem to be inspecting everything as they walk through, the perpetually exercising fellow with his goofy squats, the pretty girl and the host of youths courting her attention. The old generation of guests at the hotel cling to their habits, their cards and radio and regular meals. They show up to eat when the lunch bell rings and they go to bed when the radio signs off. Hulot shows up and literally blows them out of their habits.

Terry Jones also aptly said Mr. Hulot's Holiday was Tati's most forward-looking movie. I agree, and Hulot's jazzy version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" sets the tone. Mr. Hulot does not bring chaos and modernity. He just adds a little pizazz and an appreciation for the beauty that is already there. In Mr. Hulot's Holiday the patrons realize what Hulot brings, though they might outwardly be annoyed with the inconveniences of his antics. The people of Mon Oncle (except for the children) and Playtime (except for the party scene) do not see what Hulot brings. He is lost on them and among them.

Yet here Mr. Hulot is not lost, this is his world and we are glad, grateful, to accompany him on his holidays. For all of their complaining, the patrons all make plans to return. They tell Mr. Hulot, "Glad to have met you" and "same time next year." Absolutely.

In the spirit of Terry Jones' observation about the film. . .

Postcards from Mr. Hulot's Holidays.
click to enlarge

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