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.
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?