When you watch enough comedies, you begin to get a sense of what they are like. And sooner or later, those ideas congeal into something approximating what a comedy should be like. So it is a pleasant surprise when you come across something that does’t quite fit the mold.
I had that experience while watching M. Hulot’s Holiday yesterday. It is a French movie made by (and starring in the title role) Jacques Tati in 1953. There is no plot per se, not even one of those contrived madcap inventions that keep you occupied through the running time but defy description afterwards. A man (Hulot) who makes Captain Klutz look organized comes to a vacation spot and brings chaos with him. That’s it. When the vacation ends, so does the movie. But what a trip!
Holiday is reminiscent of all those silent comedies I watched as a kid. What sets it apart, however, is two things:
- It is less fractic, and more observant. Funny things happen whenever Hulot is around, but the level of attention paid to the fringe characters — the hotel staff, the other vacationing guests, the kids — is far more than average. You get a sense of what their holiday is like as well, not just Hulot’s.
- It isn’t a silent movie, but it is mostly concerned with actions and expressions, not words. Tati, who had a career in mime before he got into the movies, adopts an interesting strategy while shooting the movie — he cuts out most of the dialogue and turns up the sound of the background noises. Like the door to the dining room that creaks every time it swings open. Or Hulot’s car. The effect is curious: at some level, you are aware that this isn’t a silent movie, so the “silence” Tati creates is all the more effective. I am fairly certain that his work was one of the inspirations for Kamal Hassan’s Pushpak.
As a performer, Tati is magnificient. I read recently that Fellini used to play music in the background while shooting, so his actors seem to dance through their scenes. Tati plays Hulot as if he always has the film’s theme tune playing on his invisible ipod while he is on screen. The other characters seem to have normal movements — Hulot, on the other hand, is like choreographed random walk. He seems to make up his mind mid-step as to where his feet should land next, and yet it has an inescapable rhythm.
If one had to make a comparison with some of the stars of silent comedies, I’d say he’s more like Keaton than Chaplin. But again, he adopts an interesting strategy when it comes to close-ups and reaction shots. Chaplin would use it to convey his character’s emotional state. One of the funniest things about Keaton’s performance was his experessionless visage. Tati, on the other hand, seems to focus on the reactions of the people around him. It enhances our perception of his obliviousness to the chaos he causes.
Most classics come with some baggage. The commentary on the DVD mentions how the movie was supposed to be an indictment of the interaction between various social classes. Frankly, I know little of France’s social classes and understood even less about how this movie lampoons their interaction. But simply as a comedy about a man who goes on holiday, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a fantastic watch.
ps: Roger Ebert’s wonderful essay has a different but very interesting take on the close-ups in Hulot. Check it out.