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.

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