Monday, December 26, 2016

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday

Films in Focus

By Christine

Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) (Discina, 1953) – Director: Jacques Tati. Writers: Henri Marquet (s/p, dialogue), Jacques Tati (s/p, dialogue, story), Jacques Lagrange (s/p, uncredited), Pierre Aubert (s/p, uncredited). Cast: Jacques Tati, Nathalie Pascaud, Louis Perrault, Andre Dubois, Lucien Fregis, Raymond Carl, Micheline Rolla, Valentine Camax, Marguerite Gérard, René Lacourt & Suzy Willy. B&W, 83 minutes.

Every film buff I have known has a special film. 

I’m not taking about a favorite film, for there are usually more than one of them. But a special film, one that they look back upon with a loving remembrance, for it came along at a special time in their lives, or is remembered from an especially nostalgic time, say childhood, when they first watched it at a young age with their parents in the comfortable cocoon of the family, and it has had a magical effect on them since then. 

For me, that special film is Les vacancies de Monsieur Hulot. It was the film my husband took me to see on our first date, and where I not only fell in love with him, but also knew that I would marry him. 

On each anniversary, we would look to find a theater running the movie, after which we had dinner. Then videotapes came along. We would go out to an early dinner, then come home and watch the movie. 

When our children were growing up, we exposed them to the joys of the film. They weren’t as enthusiastic as we were, of course. When they got older we began spending large parts of our annual summer vacations at Saint Marc-sur-mer (St. Marc by the Sea), where the movie was filmed. While they could never be said to be big fans of the movie, they were big fans of St. Marc, as the beach was wonderful. For them, it was paradise and their saddest day was when we packed to leave. Were it up to them, we would never have left.

It’s easy to be drawn to a film such as this, as much of the French moviegoing public was when the film was released. The reason for its popularity, besides the harmless antics of Mr. Hulot, is that Jacques Tati had his finger firmly on the pulse of French culture and its obsession with the summer vacation, which occurs every August. 

As France returned to normality after the years of occupation during the war, the summer vacation regained its central position with a vengeance. The postwar economic recovery had bestowed more largesse on more people, and while class and political distinctions were not entirely erased, more people were able to partake of and enjoy a vacation.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is the film in which Tati introduced his most famous and enduring character, Mr. Hulot, to the public. It has no plot as such, which allows Tati to draw the humor from everyday circumstances, as the film perfectly captures the seemingly endless drifting of a childhood vacation because there is nothing outside to tie it all together. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is a series of vignettes set over the course of a week at a beach resort with the only “beginning” and “end” being in the sense that the film starts with the guests arriving and finishes with them leaving. Tati’s film is a satire, a gentle poke at the newly emerging middle class who are so immersed in getting there that they find themselves trapped in their conventions and rigid social roles to the point that they forget how to relax and have a good time. By unfolding the film in a series of vignettes and using as little spoken dialogue as possible, Tati comes across more as an observer than as an active participant.

Though it has the look of improvisation, each scene has been meticulously planned. When Tati made this film in 1953, the summer vacation had not yet become the institution it is now in France. Workers had only two weeks holiday. Because not many owned cars at the time, they were reliant on mass transportation. Thus, the vacation spot had to be a place they could reach fast and return from just as quickly. For most Parisians, the most popular places were Normandy and the Brittany shore, which was where Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was filmed. Saint Marc-sur-mer had the reputation at the time of being an affordable place to spend a holiday, and as such, was crowded every summer season.

And for those who were city bound because they could not afford to take a vacation, the film did just that for them and at the same time showed them what they were not missing.

One reason for the film’s magical effect on viewers is that it was actually shot in the resort town of Saint Marc-sur-mer. The hotel is a real one, though its entrance was constructed by the film’s crew so as not to disturb things too much. The restaurant scenes were filmed in a studio in Paris.

Les vacancies opens with a shot of an empty seashore as the opening credits roll. We hear the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach to the accompanying sounds of Alain Romans’ 1952 cool jazz theme, “Quel temps fait-il à Paris” (“What’s the weather in Paris?”). The music will be the film’s motif, providing a comforting feeling. Tati swiftly cuts to a crowded train station where passengers are being misdirected from one platform to another by the barely legible instructions emanating from a loudspeaker. As the train arrives, it’s packed with other vacationers and the crowd has to scramble to find seating or standing room. A lovely young lady is able to board; we will later get to know her as Martine (Pascaud), and she will become one of the guests the camera follows throughout the film.

As the train speeds along the countryside, we are treated to the sight of a strange car navigating its way along the country road. Inside the car is Mr. Hulot. Though many French citizens drove such a vehicle in the postwar years, by the time Tati was filming this movie, these cars had become fewer and fewer. The choice of Hulot’s car distinguishes him immediately; he is a square peg among the round holes.

As Hulot putts along, bigger cars speed by, at one point raising such a cloud of dust as to force Hulot off the road. As he drives through a small town, the cobblestone street causes his car to shake and rattle so much we fear it will fall apart. A quick sight gag in the town involves a dog that likes to lie in the street. The bigger cars stop and blow their horns impatiently until the dog leaves. But when Hulot comes by he stops and squeezes the taxi horn on the side of his car, causing the dog to rise and come over to greet the driver. Hulot pats the dog and appears to give him a treat before going on his way, giving us the feeling that he’s genuinely sorry for having disturbed the dog. He’s in no hurry; he knows he’ll eventually get there.

Hulot’s arrival at the hotel is marked by his car backfiring with gears grinding. Children run to see what’s making all that noise and upsetting the tranquility of the beach. When Hulot gets out of the car, we get to soak in Tati’s mise-en-scene by observing the picture postcard setting of the hotel and surrounding beach. Hulot enters the hotel to check in, inadvertently leaving the front door open, through which a gust of wind comes through, disrupting everything in the parlor – a sure signal to us that not only has Hulot arrived, but also a hint of what his presence portends.

Hulot is an exaggerated character. Tall and thin, clad in a poplin coat and crumpled hat, striped socks, trousers which are clearly too short, carrying a rolled umbrella, and a pipe firmly clenched between his teeth, Hulot makes an awkward, yet hilarious figure, topped off with his odd stiff-legged gait. His actions are exaggerated, from his walk to his stance, to the way he serves a tennis or ping pong ball, and even to the people he meets. He is polite to everyone and always offers assistance, even if it is not requested. Hulot is so overly polite that when the announcer on the radio in the hotel’s lounge says “Good night, everybody!” he bows and doffs his hat.

If Hulot seems like a mime, there is good reason. Tati began his career in show business as a mime and toured Paris music halls displaying his talents in acrobatics, impersonations and comic drunken waiter and tennis player sketches. His tennis antics later in the film are directly lifted from his music hall days. He also worked as a bit player in movies, which whetted his appetite for feature films after the war. 

There are few close-ups in the film, which is intentional, for close-ups tend to divide a film into stars and supporting players, and Tati wanted to show the totality of the holiday experience; he wants us to see it conceived as a whole, not in parts. His use of medium and long shots instead was specifically to focus our attention on the human comedy that results when people interact and to emphasize that he, along with us in the audience, are observers. The many visual gags Tati employs in the course of the film are designed with just that in mind. 

At first the camera sticks by the hotel, slowly venturing out onto the beach. Later, it will move further about, capturing the life of the vacationers, mimicking what vacationers do on their holidays: at first sticking close to base, then as the vacation wears on and they become more familiar with their surroundings, venturing forth into other areas. Our guide for these excursions will be Hulot himself. Though he is always around, he is the man nobody quite sees. His fellow vacationers live compartmentalized lives, wrapped up in their own worlds, with their companions and plans. They notice Hulot only when something happens to upset their worlds, as it usually does when he’s around. His spontaneity, which can be seen in his gestures (such as his tennis serves both on the court and later while playing ping pong at the hotel), gives him an almost foreign quality unsettling to those hidebound by routine. We see by his gentlemanly manner and politeness that he wants to conform, to accept their unspoken etiquette, but time and again he involuntarily disrupts their rigid protocol.

The film eschews dialogue, effectively transforming it into part of the background noise and limiting it only to a few spoken lines, mainly to satirize the silly, pointless things people say to one another. Hulot himself remains a silent character; his dialogue limited to few words (except to state and spell his name when he checks in). What little dialogue there is between the other characters is simple and infrequent enough that even those who do not speak French can understand the gist without recourse to subtitles. To use dialogue would make for a different film, causing Hulot’s character to adapt accordingly and lose the magic he achieves by making him an active participant instead of a bemused observer. Tati uses these few spoken lines to underline moods and situations, things that by themselves can’t be put into words. In this way, along with the wide-angle shots, Tati is able to say much more than dialogue would allow, and enables us to see the entire situation instead of having it interpreted through the prism of words.

In addition to words, sounds also have a place in Hulot’s world. He arrives at the hotel restaurant to the constant “thunk” the door makes each time it is opened. Hulot is seated near the door, along with what we can surmise are other single men. Does he complain about the door? No, it is part of his world. There is also the bell just outside the hotel’s entrance, which is rung to signify lunch and dinner. The vacationers, upon hearing the bell, drop whatever they are doing and line up to enter the restaurant, unable to break from their routine, even on vacation. The same is true of “Mr. Schmutz” (German for “dirt”), a businessman who is being constantly called to the hotel lobby to answer the telephone. Each time we hear it ring we know it’s for him and we wonder why he even took his family on vacation. When his family poses for a group picture in front of the hotel, he has to pause to answer the phone. Even the sound of a radio is used to good effect for the hotel guests: the end of the broadcast day signals their bedtime.

The humor in the film follows from Hulot’s interactions with his fellow vacationers, who represent the kind that we have come across ourselves during the course of many vacations. Tati doesn’t make a big point of establishing characters, but we gradually come to recognize them. There’s the older couple who seemingly camp out in the hotel’s restaurant, looking at life going on outside the window. The bored, mischievous young boy, busy trying to set fire to the beach dressing tents with his magnifying glass. The army officer who constantly regales his companions with tales of his military career. A young intellectual spouting meaningless Marxist analysis to anyone unfortunate enough to sit next to him. An older wandering couple on the beach with the wife finding interesting sea shells and handing them to her husband, who throws them away when she isn’t looking. We also have a stuffy waiter (Carl) constantly mouthing complaints to himself and obsessed with trying to catch Hulot at something. Tati takes these outwardly clichéd familiar “types,” and presents them to comic effect, transforming the bland and rude into the genial, which makes his disruption of their ordered worlds all the more enjoyable. 

Perhaps no other scene more emphasizes the gulf between Hulot and the other vacationers than when the daily newspapers arrive. People surround the vendor, hungry for news of civilization. Hulot also buys a newspaper, but ignores its contents, instead folding its pages into a silly cap he later wears during his tennis match.

Of the other characters we see throughout the film, one does stand out, the lovely blonde Martine. At first she seems to be vacationing by herself, but later her aunt (Rolla) arrives, complaining about the delays she experienced getting there. Hulot, ever the eligible bachelor, seems taken with her, but her reaction is one of bewilderment as she sizes him up. Though she keeps him at arms length throughout the film, she is still attracted to him, not because he is particularly good looking, but because she senses he is different from the rest. She strikes us as someone who herself wants to break away, perhaps feeling too penned in during a time when she should be able to let loose a little. Maybe that is why she plays tennis with him and agrees to go horseback riding, though the event ends in a disaster of slapstick for Hulot as his horse proves an unwilling partner.

Throughout it all, Tati wants to make sure that it’s Mr. Hulot we laugh at, designing his gags to emphasize the disruption Hulot causes. In one scene, a man stands on the beach next to his boat, painting its name onto the hull. Suddenly the locked winch is released, and the trailer slips into the ocean. The painter’s brush, though, remains stationary, with the result that a long, brushstroke is painted across the ship’s front. The owner asks those nearby if they are responsible. They answer in the negative. As a crowd gathers and leaves, we see Hulot nervously standing in front of a post using his towel to dry his back, unaware that the towel is itself wrapped around the post, not touching him. He pulls it back and forth to dry himself, down his back, to his bottom and then feet, but the towel never touches his body. Nevertheless, Hulot continues, his eyes shifting from the man and looking out into space. A jogger doing stretching exercises while running by. Hulot follows him, copying the man’s motions. Once out of sight, he runs away and ducks behind a tent, clearly the cause of the mishap.

Tati’s gags are made funnier because they are rooted in the reality of the situation, but there are times when he rejects the easy gag. He wants us to laugh, but he also wants something more. For instance, we see a little boy buying two ice cream cones from the vendor. Carrying both cones he ascends the stairs to the hotel where he comes to a door. He has to reach up and turn the handle 180 degrees to enter, which would turn one cone upside down. We cringe as we anticipate the young boy’s trauma when the cone spills out the ice cream. But Tati surprises us, the ice cream cone defies gravity and stays in place. Our tension is broken as he walks to the ballroom, hands the cone to a friend, and we observe them happily munching on their treats as they watch the room being prepared for a masked ball that will take place.

One of the best scenes in the film comes as an anti-climax of sorts. We saw earlier that the hotel has posted notices for an upcoming masked ball. As we read the poster we begin to wonder what Hulot is going to do to upset this event. But then we are surprised when we discover that the only people to dress for the occasion are Hulot, Martine, and a few children. Everyone else is in the lounge listening to a politician blather on over the radio. From the snatches of sound we hear that the politician is speaking in cliches. Hulot plays “Quel temps fait-il à Paris” on the record player and invites Martine to dance. They dance alone, shut off in the room while through the glass we see the other guests intently listening to the radio. Hulot turns up the volume on the record player to drown out the politician.

The last night of vacation finds Hulot being chased by a small dog. He runs into a shed to escape. Lighting a match to get his bearings, he inadvertently ignites the fireworks stored there, which blaze forth and awaken everyone in the hotel. 

The holiday comes to a bittersweet end, with people shaking each other’s hand, collecting addresses and promising to stay in touch. The man (Lacourt) of the old strolling couple seeks out Hulot, who is playing with a couple of children in the sand, and makes it a point to shake his hand, telling him how much he enjoyed himself and asking if Hulot will return the next year. When Hulot answers that he will, the man is thrilled; he has been enjoying himself vicariously through Hulot during the entire stay. As everyone leaves, Hulot’s car is the last to drive off and the film ends with it’s only color insert – a red stamp marked with the location from where the postcard was sent. We know however, that the vacationers will meet again the next summer.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is a film that subtly, yet completely, captures our nostalgia for happy days gone by. It’s about nothing more complicated than our desire to get away for a few days of play, breathing in the refreshing sea air and not having to worry about what tomorrow will bring. That’s the hope that animates all vacations and makes their ending so much the sadder. And yet, when we watch it again, it’s like going on vacation once more. The same place is there along with the same people. Therein lies the real beauty of the film: it’s as though we could come back again. That’s what gives the movie its special appeal. 

As for myself, after my retirement, our family took up roots and moved from Paris to the town where Hulot worked his magic. We still find it magical every day, no matter what the weather is in Paris. 

NOTES: Next to Tati, the character most noticed by viewers is the beautiful Nathalie Pascaud. She has an interesting backstory. Born Jacqueline Schillio, she and her businessman husband were friends of Tati. Tati cast her as Martine, and to overcome any resistance her husband might have to her participation, he cast him as Mr. Schmutz, the telephone-bound businessman. Not being a professional actress, her only other credit is Le temps des copains (Time Buddies), a 1963 film adaptation of a television series about three young men in Paris that ran from 1961 to 1962. 

Shooting on the film began in July 1951 and was supposed to end in September, but that August was cold, rainy and gray on the Brittany shore and the production finally wrapped in October. Sand was a particular problem, getting into the camera, ruining the film and necessitating retakes.

Although the car Mr. Hulot drives looks as if it was cobbled together especially for the film, it is an actual car. To be specific, it’s a 1924 Amilcar, made by a company that existed from 1921 to 1940. They made passenger cars but later specialized in racing cars. 

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