There is something inherently appealing about physical comedy. Like the classic episode of The Simpsons, entitled “A Star is Burns”, pointed out, there is something amusing about seeing a man get hit in the groin by a football. Sure comedy has evolved over the years, with sharp quotable dialogue dominating of late, but there is still something universally entertaining about seeing a comedian in tune with their physical timing.
It is this familiar, dare I say nostalgic, approach to comedy that makes a film like Mr. Hulot’s Holiday such a pleasure to watch. Considering it was my first experience with the films of Jacques Tati, the homage in the animated film The Illusionist does not count, I did not know what to expect from the film. Having recently watched Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush for the first time as well, I figured Mr. Hulot’s Holiday would be a similar silent film romp. It seems I only got the “romp” part right. While the character of Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) remains silent for the majority of the tale, the actual film itself does not fall into the silent genre. This is not to say that the influences of silent film legends Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are not evident.
Similar to Chaplin’s Tramp, Tati’s Hulot is a walking tornado of destruction and inadvertent joy. Like the gust of wind that initially announces his presence at the beachside hotel, Hulot flows aimlessly through his vacation unintentionally leaving his mark wherever he goes. It is clear from the first few frames that he is no ordinary man. Tati exaggerates Hulot’s large stature by squeezing it into a rather small car. He not only emphasizes the clown car imagery, but takes it one step further by having the car literally fall apart at various points in the film. It is the little details like this that really enhance the appeal of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.
Some of the most memorable moments come from the subtle sight gags Tati sprinkles throughout the film. Certain jokes you can see coming, such as the unfortunate word that ends up being spelled on a boat accidentally sent out to sea, but many stem from visual misunderstandings. A perfect example of this is when the angelic blonde, Martine (Nathalie Pascaud), whose beauty seems to mesmerize every male in the film, is in one of the poolside changing rooms. Hulot believes he sees a peeping tom and gives him a swift kick in the rear…only to realize that the man in question is actually taking a picture of a family who is standing directly behind the changing room. As with many of the gags in the film, this sets off a chain of events where someone else will ultimately be punished for Hulot’s actions.
The fascinating thing about Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is that it breezily moves through its 83 minute running time despite the fact that there is no real plot. Unlike The Gold Rush, which suffers slightly from having too much dramatic plot, the lack of a true plot and substantial characters actually works well for the film. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday merely introduces you to a bunch of characters whose faces you become familiar with over the course of the film, but you never remember anything more than the generic associations like “elderly couple” and “waiter.” This fits nicely with the clueless nature of Hulot himself. He can barely walk into a room without accidentally destroying something so it would make sense that he, and we in the audience, would have little time to recall any of the people he meets throughout his trip.
It is impossible not to watch a film like Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and not think of modern day characters, most notably Mr. Bean, who have been influenced by Jacques Tati. There is a fluidity to the way that Tati sets up his gags in the film, see the dead fox sequence or the broken canoe as proof, that is truly masterful. While Mr. Hulot’s Holiday may not be a laugh out loud kind of comedy you might expect, but it is an immensely pleasurable watch. The film is the perfect lighthearted pick me up we all need every now and then. It serves as a reminder that great physical comedy can still transcend generations.