M. Hulot’s Holiday

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #110: Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Hol­i­day.

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I have a the­o­ry that the qual­i­ty of a country’s com­e­dy is inverse­ly pro­por­tion­ate to the qual­i­ty of its cui­sine. Thus, the genius of Mon­ty Python and the hor­rid dish known as Toad in the Hole have the same sort of rela­tion­ship that M. Hulot’s Hol­i­day has with an exquis­ite Aile de Raie aux Câpres. The well-fed have lit­tle to joke about. Watch­ing Tati’s films [sev­er­al of which have received the Cri­te­ri­on treat­ment] are only exceed­ed in appre­hen­sion by the Cas­savetes col­lec­tion I’m going to have to even­tu­al­ly wade through. To many and most, M. Hulot’s Hol­i­day is one of the best slap­stick come­dies of all time, so my opin­ions are more sus­pect than usu­al in this review. I found myself actu­al­ly look­ing for­ward to watch­ing Play­time again as I saw this film, and that’s say­ing some­thing.

Now the film isn’t as bad as it may seem that I’m mak­ing it out to be. But since com­e­dy is meant to be the main moti­va­tor and I find the film uncomedic, it lacks a cer­tain punch and comes off a bit bor­ing. M. Hulot’s Hol­i­day is a satire of vaca­tion­ers who are con­sis­tent­ly aggra­vat­ed by the obliv­i­ous Hulot [played by Tati]. He’s con­stant­ly knock­ing things over, get­ting caught on things, trip­ping over things, and this con­sis­ten­cy and his lanky frame make it seem as if he’s a bit too big for the world he inhab­its. Not larg­er than life, but just wear­ing pants two sizes too small.

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Con­sis­ten­cy is prob­a­bly the film’s great­est strength; time and again the view­er runs into the same char­ac­ters doing the same things in dif­fer­ent sur­round­ings. An old cou­ple is con­stant­ly strolling, and the old man seems to think that Tati is delib­er­ate­ly prank­ing the oth­er vaca­tion­ers. The rhythms of the vaca­tion­ing life imme­di­ate­ly fall into a rou­tine for most of the folks at the beach, and Tati and a young woman seem to be the only ones who aren’t treat­ing the vaca­tion as just anoth­er type of work. The satire is very present, it just doesn’t make me want to laugh.

I think this is because French humor is a com­pas­sion­ate humor, where my taste runs to that which cuts to the quick. There is also the pos­si­bil­i­ty that M. Hulot’s Hol­i­day hasn’t aged well. Shot in the ‘50s, the humor may now be more or less sophis­ti­cat­ed than a con­tem­po­rary audi­ence expects. Per­onal­ly I just think the French aren’t very fun­ny. These sort of gen­er­al­iza­tions are dan­ger­ous of course; the next thing you know I’ll start talk­ing about the eru­di­tion of French phi­los­o­phy and the French predilec­tion to cute­ness that is only sur­passed by the Japan­ese. For every Hel­lo Kit­ty there is a Ten­ta­cle Mon­ster, so I’m going to keep my eye open for a French com­e­dy that cracks me up. There’s got­ta be at least one, right?

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Cri­te­ri­on Essay by David Ehren­stein
Guardian anec­dote about Tati as Hulot and Hulot as Tati.