Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
I was a ‘cinephile’ from a very early age.
My Auntie Evelyn was the youngest sibling in my mother’s large family and my mother was the eldest. Evelyn said she was an ‘afterthought’ or a ‘mistake’. When I was an infant, Evelyn was carried away with teenage enthusiasms for pop music and films. With her sister, Auntie Rose, she took me the length and breadth of the land to see such pop idols of the day as Ruby Murray and David Whitfield. I saw Dusty Springfield twice, once when she was a member of the Lana Sisters, and once when she was part of a pop folk trio called The Springfields.
Evelyn took me often to the cinema, or rather ‘the pictures’. In those days, Gloucester had the Picturedrome (later to become the Ritz), the Plaza (later to become the Odeon) and the Regal (later to become the ABC). There was also the Empire but that only showed old films. I would love that today but the cinema became a chapel of the Elim church.
One found out from the Gloucester Citizen what was showing but did not bother about what time the film started. You just went along when you were ready and were shown to a seat in the dark by an usherette with a torch. You stumbled to a seat, tripping over the feet of people who were already in the middle of watching a film. You would pick up the thread of the story from somewhere in the middle. When it was over you would then have an ice cream, watch the ads, Pathé or Movietone News and the B feature before starting the main feature from the beginning. When you got to the point at which you had arrived you would get up and trod on people as you stumbled out in the dark. Hence the expression, ‘this is where I came in’.
When I was around five or six, I saw Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, A Star is Born (the Judy Garland and James Mason one) and countless Esther Williams musicals. With my father, I saw war films like Reach for the Sky, The Colditz Story, Above us the Waves and the Dam Busters or westerns like The Man from Laramie.
When I graduated to going to the pictures with my contemporaries, it was Abbot and Costello and Norman Wisdom or the Boulting Brothers. At one time we all had a crush on Hayley Mills. (There is a special place in my heart for a B movie actress called Gloria Talbot).
In pre-teen years, I was a member of the ABC Minors, a Saturday morning cinema club which featured ancient Flash Gordon (including the villain Ming the Merciless) and Buck Rogers serials starring Buster Crabbe. I recall winning a competition and getting a free ticket to see Forbidden Planet (based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest) starring a young Leslie Nielsen.
In my mid teens, I would go to see a film every Sunday afternoon with my girl friend whatever film was showing. The first one was The Waltz of the Toreadors with Peter Sellers. There were many of those romantic comedies with Doris Day and Rock Hudson or James Garner.
I went to Manchester University at a time before the multiplex (or DVD or internet streaming), when every suburb had several small cinemas, many of which changed their programme every few days. Near Oxford Road station The Classic showed old Hollywood movies. My hall of residence showed a free film every Sunday evening. I remember having a migraine during The Ipcress File and joining in howls of laughter at the ludicrous pretensions of The Sandpiper. In the centre of Manchester there was The Cinephone, which showed mainly French films, where I struggled to appreciate Jean-Luc Godard. The University Film Society showed Bergman, which I liked from the start and Antonioni whom I found hard going.
There was a Manchester Film Theatre which did art house films in repertory along the lines of the British Film Institute. When that failed and it became a porn movie house, the proprietor, Dr Jackson, set up another repertory cinema called the Aaben in the urban wasteland that was Hulme.
In later years, BBC2 and Channel 4 showed excellent programmes of world cinema on a regular basis.
When I moved to London I was a regular at the National Film Theatre with particularly fond memories of a Cary Grant season and a Jean Gabin season. London also had a wealth of repertory cinema clubs.
These days we tend to watch a movie every evening up in our mountain retreat thanks to the miracle of DVD and Amazon and to the fact that one gets the very latest movies on DVD in Sri Lanka very cheap. One would never dream of visiting a cinema here because all they show are Hindi musicals and porn.
I have seen many movies in my time. I have constructed a personal pantheon that includes, Marcel Carné, Ingmar Bergman, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawkes, Billy Wilder, Cary Grant, Terry-Thomas and many others.
It would be very difficult to compile a top ten of my favorite films. However, I would have no difficulty in naming my number one favourite. That would be Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.
I first saw it before I went to university, when visiting a friend who had gone to college in London. I laughed so much. When I was at university and it was on at the Film Society I insisted that my new friends watch it. They sat through it in irritated silence and thought I was mad.
I had the film on VHS and tended to put it on when the weather or my own spirits were gloomy. After coming to Sri Lanka the VHS tape deteriorated because of climate conditions and mildew made it impossible to watch. Have no fear; I now have it on DVD along with other Tati films Jour de Fete, Mon Oncle and Playtime. Traffic, was long forgotten although a recent Criterion Collection edition includes it. None of the others quite has the charm of M Hulot’s Holiday.
Jacques Tati came from a family of exiled Russian nobles called Tatischev. He had a career as a professional rugby player before taking to show business as a mime in the 1930s. He played a few small roles in films and then made a few shorts himself including L’École Des Facteurs (The School for Postmen) which was later developed into his first feature Jour de Fete.
M Hulot’s Holiday was made in 1953. The Hulot character has an iconic appearance and has even been used in the cover art for a New York Review of Books edition of a Simenon novel, M Monde Disappears.
With his trademark raincoat, small hat, his trousers just a little bit too short, umbrella and pipe, Hulot is among the most memorable comic characters in cinema. Bosley Crowther described him as “a long-legged, slightly pop-eyed gent whose talent for caricaturing the manners of human beings is robust and intense”.
To me M Hulot’s Holiday is the ultimate ‘feel good movie’. The atmosphere is tranquil and sunny. The movie was filmed in the town of Saint-marc-sur-Mer in the Loire-Atlantique region. A bronze statue of M. Hulot was later erected overlooking the beach where the film was made. The sea breaks gently on the beach in Brittany. People stroll around doing very little. There is no dialogue, no intrusive soundtrack, just melodic jazz on a clarinet. Alain Romans wrote the score.
M Hulot is benign and ineffectual. At the beginning of the film, a flea-bitten, decrepit dog is sleeping in the middle of the road but gets up and moves when cars come along. When M Hulot comes chuggling along in his antique vehicle (a 1924 Amilcar), the dog starts to get up but when he sees M Hulot he settles back down again and Hulot has to back up and drive around him.
The Hulot character is almost invisible to other people but his politeness is unassailable. When the announcer on the hotel’s radio says ‘Good night, everybody!’’ he bows and raises his hat.
The comedy lies in the fact that his benign ineffectuality constantly causes mayhem all around him. He is usually unaware of what he has wrought. Tati conveys Hulot’s clumsiness with balletic grace. Tati began his career as a mime and Hulot never speaks except to introduce himself to people who are not really taking much notice of him: “Hulot. Hulot.”
Hulot goes out to sea in a minuscule kayak which clearly too small for his lanky frame. It capsizes and folds up in such a way as to resemble a shark. There is a major panic on the beach, which is completely lost on Hulot who goes on his sublime way.
All of Tati’s movies are meticulously put together rather in the manner of Buster Keaton. This works well in a small-scale setting like M Hulot’s Holiday. Tati’s aim is to focus attention on the comical nature of humanity when interacting as a group, through carefully planned visual gags. Tati’s themes include Western society’s obsession with material goods, particularly American-style consumerism, the superficiality of contemporary relationships, and the cold and often impractical nature of space-age technology and design.
Even in M Hulot’s Holiday there is a workaholic staying at the hotel who would today have a Smartphone and an i-pad. Inanimate objects are malign. The film gently mocks the confidence of post-war Western society that work is more important than pleasure. In his epic satire on modern life, Playtime, the sheer size of the ambitious design rather overwhelms. A whole city called Tativille was constructed for that film.
Roger Ebert wrote: “Sight gags are set up with such patience that they seem to expose hidden functions in the clockwork of the universe. Consider the scene where Hulot is painting his kayak, and the tide carries the paint can out to sea and then floats it in again, perfectly timed, when his brush is ready for it again. How was this scene done? Is it a trick, or did Tati actually experiment with tides and cans until he got it right? Is it ‘funny’? No, it is miraculous. The sea is indifferent to painters, but nevertheless provides the can when it is needed, and life goes on, and the boat gets painted.”
Some people have been disappointed with Tati after seeing Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther and The Party. Although Inspector Clouseau struggles against his own lust and over-reaching ambition rather than a cruel world, Sellers borrowed much of his timing and physical business from Tati. I hope you will not be disappointed and hate me for recommending it. As I said, my university friends were not impressed. It is black and white with no dialogue, no loud music, no sex, no car chases, no special effects. Some cretinous critic who had better remain nameless wrote: “It’s not as funny as what it inspired – which would include Jerry Lewis and Mr. Bean – but it’s better than passable.”
This is so crass. I am all for freedom of opinion but this is taking the First Amendment too far. For all their undoubted talents, Rowan Atkinson and Jerry Lewis do not inhabit the same universe as Tati. The Lewis and Bean personas are malicious retards. Hulot is a decent man struggling against the complexities of the material world and his own incompetence and retaining through it all an indestructible optimism, civility and lovability.
Leaving that unpleasantness aside, I will let Roger Ebert have the last word.
“As well as laughter the film gives us something rarer, an amused affection for human nature–so odd, so valuable, and so particular. When has a film so subtly and yet so completely captured nostalgia for past happiness? The movie is about the simplest of human pleasures: The desire to get away for a few days, to play instead of work, to breathe in the sea air, and maybe meet someone nice. It is about the hope that underlies all vacations, and the sadness that ends them. And it is amused, too, that we go about our days so intently, while the sea and the sky go about theirs.”
On the set of One Eyed Jacks with Brando