Thursday, April 14, 2005

Les Vacances de M. Hulot

(Dir Jacques Tati, 1952, black and white, French with sub-titles - winner Prix de la critique internationale au Festival de Cannes)

Here's me thinking that Jour de FĂȘte was funny. But after spending an hour and a half with the good Monsieur Hulot, I know I was mistaken. I was with a colleague and his early-years teen-aged daughter - right from the opening images, they were simmering with laughter. It took me just a couple of minutes longer than them, and I was away. At two points in the movie, I was on the point of tears, it was so funny - Tati is a master of timing and of developing gags. He just uses small devices but through repetition and building up a large number of small layers of gags, makes something that is enormously funny. I mentioned the bee scenes in Jour de FĂȘte, so that we came to recognise what was about to happen every time somewhere went down a particular stretch of road. In this movie, he had multiple recurring gags - such as the door that made an odd muted clunk sound every time it swung to, except for the one or two times it didn't, or the clunk sound came at the wrong time. It doesn't sound funny on paper, but it is Tati's genius that it becomes funny. And unlike, say, Cleese or Atkinson he doesn't milk these, or work his gags to the extreme, or make them go to any kind of logical end. They were just there as part of the tapestry of the movie, just as the very attractive woman who was obviously amused by M Hulot was, and might have responded to a romantic overture on his part. Some movies would have exploited that plot possibility, whereas she was just there as part of the environment. Then there was the older couple, who were present in most of the scenes, just wandering through, but Tati didn't actually do anything with them, not right till the end. Then, the woman "is bare-footed and looks in the small puddles. "Oh, a shell!" she cries, giving it to her husband. He takes it, looks at it and throws it away behind him. "Oh, another one! Get it, it is splendid!" And he throws it again like all the previous ones. We can hear a tragic "floc". It is funny, it is sad, it has been lived. Nevertheless it is short and Tati is already at the next sequence." There were many of this sort of casual additions to the movie.

In fact, there was no plot at all. There were bits of the movie that didn't even connect, except that they added to the amusement and the theme development. Its a movie about M Hulot taking his annual holiday at Le Hotel de la Plage. So, the movie starts at the railway station, with numerous completely incomprehensible announcements over the loudspeaker (again, not sub-titled to make the point) and potential passengers rushing from platform to platform on the off-chance that's what they heard the announcer say was the right platform. But our friend M Hulot doesn't go on holiday by train - he takes his Mr Magoo style car, that's continuously threatening to simply expire or explode, but only lets him down once or twice.

Once at the hotel, the fun starts. Apparently they just filmed around the actual guests and let them be in the background. M Hulot is as clumsy a fellow as you could hope to meet, walking around in an ungainly fashion (a review in the NY Times in 1954 described him as a "a long-legged, slightly pop-eyed gent" and "the amiable butterfingered nitwit bouncing around a summer hotel") but not very aware that he's causing havoc. There's one great scene where he's playing ping pong, and several times fails to hit the ball, meaning it is out among the guests in the room behind him. Instead of asking them if they've seen the ball, he simply moves them about as if they're furniture. At one point, there are two tables full of guests playing card games - one fellow is tabling a card but thanks to Hulot's moving him about, his card goes into the wrong game, leading to a fist fight. Hulot, meanwhile is back playing ping pong.

Other notable scenes are where Hulot is simultaneously having a raging row with a horse that really hates him and trying to stop pizza dough from stretching out so that it hits the ground, a time when his car really does let him down and leaves him stranded in the middle of a funeral (with his spare tyre-tube, covered in autmnal leaves, mistaken for a wreath and carried off by an officious guest) and the final extravagance, when he manages to set off a shed full of fireworks. I damn near pissed myself, when he was trying to fill a watering can with water, from a garden sprinkler as it went round and round. Oh, and the different ways in which every single guest in the hotel was woken up each night. Oh, and that damn boat - it was a sort of old-school kayak that folds in the centre, and did so with Hulot in it.

So, of course, when Hulot is going off to play tennis, we just know he's going to be crap. Particularly when we have seen him buy his tennis racquet and be given instructions on how to use it - including this very strange action, in which he held it face down and jerked it forward and back again, just as if he's using a trowel to put bread dough in an oven. But he's brilliant - no one can even answer his serves, let alone have an extended volley with him. But there was a point - because in doing this, Tati was skewering the kind of guy who makes a big show about how great a tennis player he is: Hulot should never have been able to beat them.

My over all feeling when coming out of this movie was of how warm-hearted and endearing an account it was. I will probably be buying it.


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