In 1953, director Jacques Tati unleashed his now-iconic character Mr. Hulot upon the world in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. The character and the resulting film come across as old-fashioned, even for its time, and intentionally so. Indeed, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday easily shares more in common with silent-era cinema than any other influence. Anyone who watches the film would have to admit that the plot could be summed up by the title itself and nothing more. The structure ambles along from one bit to the next; in no hurry to get anywhere. And the curious Mr. Hulot, our main character, goes through no traditional arc whatsoever. (What is this – a Charlie Chaplin film? Buster Keaton, perhaps?) In modern mainstream filmmaking terms, this movie would never get made, let alone considered for production. That’s a shame, because Mr. Hulot’s Holiday represents one of those charming films that I think more people should see.
Our story begins as various visitors arrive at a beachside hotel in France where they all long for some rest and relaxation. Then Mr. Hulot arrives. From his first entrance, in which he lets in a howling wind into the hotel, disrupting an otherwise peaceful day, we know he will only create trouble for the rest of the guests and staff. Mr. Hulot may be well-intentioned, but calamity seems to follow him everywhere. While that premise may not excite many people, consider these words from Roger Ebert: “It's not what a movie is about but how it's about it.” That logic certainly applies to Mr. Hulot’s Holiday as the film goes about its business in a unique and delightful way.
As stated above, the film’s use of silent film aesthetics provides the main source for comedy, but it’s the way these aesthetics are used that make the film worthwhile. For example, Tati shoots scenes unlike most any director I’ve seen in regards to mise-en-scene. As opposed to staging one particular joke, Tati fills the frame with various happenings occurring simultaneously. One group plays a game of cards while a businessman makes phone call to work as he tries to vacation, and at the same time a teenager attempts (unsuccessfully) to impress a girl. And while all this activity transpires, Tati does not tell you where you should be looking; he simply allows the audience to roam wherever their eyes want. That’s a bold move for anyone to even attempt, much less accomplish. This style certainly takes some getting used to and a second or third viewing becomes almost unavoidable if people want to catch everything that occurs.
Ultimately, this film will not suit everyone’s taste. But for those who keep an open mind, there’s a lot to enjoy here. I can see this style of filmmaking influencing performers like Rowan Atkinson or Peter Sellers in their work. Mr. Hulot endears himself to audiences the same way Mr. Bean and Inspector Clouseau do. Even though they cause a great amount of grief to those around them, they also possess a certain kind of magic. Their unique way of moving through life allows us to laugh at ourselves and that condition known as being human.