Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot

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(Mr. Hulot's Holiday)

France, 1951

Director: Jacques Tati

Production: Cady Films/Discina; black and white, 35mm; running time: 93 minutes. Released 1951.

Screenplay: Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet; photography: J. Mercanton and J. Mouselle; production designer: Henri Schmitt; music: Alain Romans.

Cast: Jacques Tati (M. Hulot); Nathalie Pascaud (Martine); Michele Rolla (Aunt); Valentine Camay (Old maid); Louis Perrault (Boatman); André Dubois (Colonel); Lucien Frégis (Hotel proprietor); Raymond Carl (Waiter).



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* * *

Les vacances de M. Hulot is one of the most radical films ever made—the Sacre du printemps of the movies. If its radicalism has never been fully perceived—it has entertained audiences around the world, rather than scandalize them—it is because Les vacances is a comedy, and everyone knows that comedies aren't to be taken seriously. But without Les vacances, there would be no Jean-Luc Godard, no Jean-Marie Straub, no Marguerite Duras—no modern cinema. With his 1953 film, Jacques Tati drove the first decisive wedge between cinema and classical narration. To do so, Tati had to return to the prehistory of movies—the age of Lumière, Méliès, Porter, and their anonymous predecessors, before the story-telling priority was firmly encoded in the way films were shot and edited—in order to find a non-narrative way of seeing. The gaze of Tati's camera is, as in the earliest films, almost entirely innocent: it does not make the value judgements, the selections of one element over another, that force a story out of an undifferentiated world. Tati shoots without prejudice, without priorities; he sees (or attempts to see, within the limits of the frame) everything.

Tati pretends that D. W. Griffith never existed. He holds his shots where the classical, story-telling grammar would demand that he cut away to another; he prefers long shots over close-ups, the embracing overview to the significant detail. One of the opening gags in Les vacances involves a group of passengers running back and forth from one train platform to another, misled by the unintelligible announcements on the P.A. system as to which track their train will arrive on. Griffith would film the scene with insert shots of passengers' panicked faces, and perhaps cut back and forth between the two tracks to emphasize the suspense—will the passengers make their train or not? But Tati simply mounts his camera on the roof of the station, where he has a clear, downward overview of the whole scene, and films the action in a single, continuous shot. As the group of travellers dashes from the far track to the near, from background to foreground, the shot becomes a kind of warm-up exercise for the film that is to follow: the viewer is led to explore the entire field of the shot, from near to far and from side to side, top to bottom. The viewer learns to direct his attentions for himself; Tati will not make the choice for him.

The English version of Les vacances is preceded by a warning: "Don't look for a plot, for a holiday is meant purely for fun." The disingenuous wording disguises a serious challenge to the audience— what regular filmgoer would agree that "plot" and "fun" were contradictory terms? For Tati, the renunciation of narrative is a liberating act; M. Hulot's holiday will also be a vacation for the viewer, 93 minutes in which we are free to follow our own impulses, and not submit to the boss's orders. The story-teller is no longer in charge; there's no one hurrying us from one event to another, telling us where to look, when to laugh, what to feel. Tati's film is the exact opposite of "escapist" entertainment, in the sense that it doesn't relieve us of our own emotions and perceptions. It offers another kind of escape, perhaps a more profound one—an escape from domination, from regimentation—a cinematic flight to freedom.

Les vacances has no plot, but it does have a structure. The film begins and ends with images of waves washing onto an empty beach—images of permanence, steadiness, rhythmic motion. The steady, natural rhythm embodied by the waves is echoed in the film's pronounced alteration of day and night; the film thus acquires a powerful and unique sense of real time marked by natural events. This rhythm is never monotonous—there is also a strong sense of an ebb and flow of energy, of movement giving way to inertia and then regenerating itself. The day belongs to the outdoors—the open spaces of the beach, the sea, the countryside. Morning is announced by the beautiful blonde girl, Martine, standing on her balcony and looking down at the world below. She confers a sort of blessing, and the world comes into motion, energized by the lovely saxophone line of Alain Romans' theme music. Night belongs to the hotel, with the guests crowded into the tiny lobby, silently reading, playing cards, or listening to the radio. Overlaid on this natural rhythm is the human rhythm of habit—exemplified by the ringing of the noontime dinner bell, but reflected in a dozen specific ways in the behavior of the minor characters—the businessman continually called away to the phone, the English couple out for their promenade, the student lecturing on radical politics. Repetition is a traditional comic device, but in Les vacances, it acquires a transcendent, poetic quality; Tati seems to have captured the heartbeat of the world.

The film's other structuring principle is psychological. The early sequences are concentrated on the beach and the hotel, but as these locations lose their novelty for the guests, they wander further and further afield—to the tennis courts, to a picnic, even (accidently) to a funeral. Sheer boredom—the chief danger that a plotless film invites—is thus incorporated into the film; it becomes a kind of ally, pointing the movie in new directions. Both of these forward impulses— repetition and boredom—are exceedingly subtle; because they operate both on the level of subject (the repetition and possible boredom of a resort vacation) and of style (traditional comic techniques, the need to move to a new situation when the first has become exhausted), they are almost imperceptible.

Tati's own character, the tall, angular, perpetually astonished M. Hulot, is as often a straight-man to the other characters as he is a comedian. Tati doesn't want to foreground himself as a star or as the center of the humor, because doing so would mean intruding too much on the spectator's freedom of choice (by the time of the 1967 Playtime, Hulot has almost disappeared). Hulot does not embody the freedom of perception that the film strives for as much as he points the way to it, through his own spectacular failures of perception. Hulot does not see (or hear—many of the film's most imaginative gags involve sound) the same way the other characters do; his curse is to constantly perceive either too little (as when he lights a match in a storeroom full of fireworks) or too much (as when he's paralyzed by the fear that a wad of taffy will drop too low on its pulling hook). Hulot is unable to control this attention—to focus his look. But in this context, where the other characters have learned to focus their attentions so tightly and narrowly that they are no longer able to see and enjoy the world around them, Hulot's handicap is a privileged gift; in the land of the one-eyed, Tati suggests the blind man is king. Hulot's under- and over-perceptions pose a threat to the established social order, which depends on a cramped restricted way of seeing. His misadventures attract those few among the guests—a young boy, an elderly gentleman, and briefly, the blonde girl—who aren't part of that order, who haven't yet lost their innocence of vision or who have been able to regain it. With Les vacances de M. Hulot, Tati tells us how we can join them.

—Dave Kehr