Mr Hulot's Holiday

(Jacques Tati, France, 1953)


This enduring and endearing classic of French cinema revealed Jacques Tati, in only his second feature as a director, to be one of the medium's most inventive and original stylists. A virtually plotless and wordless succession of incidents occurring at a beachside resort, the film milks laughter from the most seemingly banal minutiae of everyday life. Alongside the elaborately staged events – such as a pack of travellers racing from one train platform to the next as incomprehensibly distorted loudspeaker messages blare – there are many droll, lovely moments where nothing much is happening at all. People just sit, eat, read and stare, determined to be in holiday-mode at all times. The stoic silliness of it all is extremely infectious.

Tati understood as finely as Hitchcock that mise en scène is not something to be imposed by filmmakers but discovered within the rituals of everyday life: how close people sit to each other in a dining room, the codes governing when people are allowed to look at one another, all the rules of etiquette and public deportment in play during the free-but-structured time of the French holiday period – Tati found the inspiration for his comedy in such acute observation.

The film rigorously controls the comic timing, spatial set-ups and post-synchronised sounds of its brilliantly conceived gags – even the oft-repeated noise of a spring door is funny, due to the way Tati 'musicalises' it. He takes familiar gag forms – like the Keaton-esque way the hero berserkly imitates the movements of an exercise-freak – and then makes them strange through the way he shoots and cuts the action, often quickly switching attention to another gag beginning nearby.

Although in his later films Tati deliberately restricted his own on-screen appearances, here the gangly, awkward figure of Hulot is a major source of charm and hilarity – and there is even the poignant trace of a tentative but missed love intrigue. Forever hesitating before entering any space, forever apologising and politely greeting everyone present once he does, Hulot cannot fail to trigger some calamity with his over-anxious body movements – culminating in the cinema's most inspired fireworks display.

MORE Tati: Playtime

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search