In the 1953 film, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr Hulot’s Holiday), Jacques Tati introduced the character of Monsieur Hulot to the world of cinema-goers. Over the next 18 years in a sequence of four widely spread out movies, Tati reprised Hulot who became the emblematic face and profile (if not the voice) of the idiosyncratic Parisian’s cinema. In the features made by Tati between 1950 and 1971 Hulot was the central figure and yet at the same time he was peripheral to the ‘action’ of the story, “the man nobody quite sees” as Roger Ebert described him [R Ebert, ‘Mr. Hulot’s Holiday’, www.rogerebert.com], until something goes “pear-shaped” as a consequence of Hulot’s habitual clumsiness.
Physically M Hulot cuts a tall, distinctive figure, a sort of “prancing, myopic giraffe” (a reference to his characteristic springy, long-striding gait) as one collaborator noted [Peter Lennon, ‘My holiday with Monsieur Hulot’, The Guardian (23-07-03, www.theguardian.com/film]. Stanley Kaufmann described Hulot as “a creature of silhouettes” [S Kaufmann, ‘The Second Mr.Hulot’, New Republic 139(23),1958]. The Hulot silhouette was put to good use in the various film posters for the Hulot movies. Hulot’s standard garb, the fedora hat and long-stem pipe, long trenchcoat, long pants (not quite long enough to cover his ankles) and umbrella, were all well suited to the dark outline of Tati’s form. The personality of Hulot is avuncular, benign, friendly, forever curious, but he is also gauche and prone to misadventures.
The storyline of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot is, as always with Tati, a simple one. M Hulot visits a resort in the north-west coast to get a taste for himself of the new, post-war passion for spending summer at the seaside. He wanders round with no particular object in mind, just checking out the human ‘wildlife’ that is drawn to the beach resort. There is no plot to speak of, just a series of amusing, whimsical escapades, eg, a ping-pong game in which we see only the figure of Hulot running flat-chat from one side to the other desperately trying to return the ball. The location for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday was the French seaside town of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer which today has a bronze statue of the man who put it on the tourist map (depicting Hulot in appropriate stance, tilting forward, observing the human interactions on the beach).
Mon Oncle (My Uncle) (1958) was the second in the M Hulot series, this time Tati’s attention was directed towards the modern suburban home and mania for consumerism of the Parisian middle classes. The story has Hulot, living in the city and unemployed. He occupies his day visiting his sister and her family (the Arpels) in the new suburbs on the outskirts of Paris, to look after his young nephew. Their ultra-modern house and garden are geometrically designed and fully automated, everything is push button, gates, doors, everything precisely mechanised. Hulot’s sister wants him to adopt their chic lifestyle so she gets him a job at her husband’s firm and tries to match him with her neighbour, both ventures prove comically disastrous. The plastics factory is a soulless and sterile environment, like the Arpels’ antiseptic home, and the female neighbour is too bourgeois in her tastes for Hulot who is in any case a confirmed bachelor.
In Mon Oncle more than in any other of his films we are left in no doubt of Tati’s preference always for humanity over technology! The Arpels live in an ugly modernist style home with a pristine yard. The home’s arsenal of whiz-bang gadgets are not only coldly impersonal, but Hulot discovers that their functional effectiveness is not up to scratch. The gate is practically entry-proof, the garage doors malfunction, the small parking space is totally inadequate for the Arpel’s very long car, and so on. Hulot brings his own brand of disorder to the house but this only serves to accentuate the original folly. Tati is a dab hand at noting all of the modern inconveniences of contemporary Western society. Mon Oncle is a sharp commentary on the way “modern life traps humanity within its contrivances” [James Quandt, ‘Scatterbrained Angel: The Films of Jacques Tati’, From the Current – Criterion Collection, www.criterion.com] Mon Oncle won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1959.
A feature of Jacques Tati’s cinema is that he is forever casting a questioning eye at the craze for modernity. With Playtime, the focus turns to the ultra-mod architecture that has come to dominate a modern city like Paris. As always, the plot-line is coincidental, dialogue is incidental. The insouciant M Hulot wanders round the city visiting the airport and various buildings, in doing so he continually crosses paths with a group of wide-eyed American tourists. Hulot peers inside busy offices to expose dispiriting scenes of workers in their own depersonalised little boxes shut off from human interaction. The movie like all of Tati’s films has a slow, leisurely build-up and it is a very long film (originally around 155 minutes but cut to 124 minutes for commercial release in 1967).
Although Hulot is the thread that runs through Playtime, Tati deliberately does not allow the popular character to dominate proceedings (as tended to be the case in Mr Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle)[Kent Jones,’Playtime’, From the Current – Criterion Collection, www.criterion.com] putting the focus back on ‘everybody’, ie, the observed cross-section of humanity. Tati eschews the use of close-up shots and the camera panning in for exactly the same reason.
There are many small gems in Playtime – like the blissfully unaware Hulot boarding a crowded bus grabbing on to what he thought was a handrail, immersing himself in his newspaper only to find himself again out on the footpath at the next stop because the mistaken handrail was actually the tall floor lamp of a fellow commuter who had alighted the bus. Or the spiral neon arrow on the nightclub sign which guides the drunk straight back into the Royal Garden from which he has just departed … both of these sight gags are pure gold!
So much of Tati’s art is about messing with the impersonality of modernisation which he disapproves of, sabotaging it to bring the dehumanising folly of it into the spotlight, this is his narrative. As Ebert precisely describes it, Tati “discovers serendipity in a world of disappointment”, ‘Mon Oncle’, www.rogerebert.com]. In Play Time, “an obstreperous cityscape whose supposed modern conveniences conspire to trip, bewilder, and ensnare the hapless populace gets violently reshaped as a vast play area” [David Cairns, ‘Jacques Tati: Things Fall Together’, www.criterion.com]. The film turned into something of an epic saga, being eight years in the making! Play Time was the most expensive French film to that point ever made, in no small measure due to Tati’s insistence on constructing a horrendously expensive mini-city, a set of glass and steel, nicknamed Tativille. To finance the film Tati had to sell his own home and eventually the rights to all his films – a clear indication of Tati’s commitment to his artistic vision!
Tati’s fifth feature, Traffic (or Trafic in French) was the last to include M Hulot. Traffic’s plot is as threadbare as Playtime: Hulot is a car designer who invents a new automobile, a gadget-packed camper car, the film tracks Hulot’s attempts to transport it to Amsterdam for a motor show. The trip, as any trip would be involving M Hulot, is not without incident. Hulot and his companions experience various vicissitudes including breakdowns, customs inspection hold-ups and a multiple car pileup, in the end arriving at the destination too late for the auto show.
In the laughs department Traffic is a bit light on even compared to the earlier Hulot pictures. But Tati films do not create “belly” laughs, no real LOL moments, the humour generated by him is more of a gentler, subtler style of comedy, giving rise to a wry reflection on an amusing situation. There is one scene in Traffic though where the director draws comical comparisons with the Apollo 11 moon mission (happening concurrently with the making of Traffic) with two of the characters mimicking the low-gravity motion of astronauts.
The Tatiesque film: a throwback to a lost cinema
In Traffic, as in all of Tati’s features, he was criticised for the weakness of the dialogue. Tati would have been indifferent to this objection because it was inconsequential to what his (idiosyncratic) cinema was about – to him the visual had primacy, whether it be man versus road, man versus building, etc.[James Monaco, ‘Review of Trafic by Jacques Tati’, Cinéaste, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Summer 2009). As a child Jacques grew up on a diet of silent cinema, Keaton was his idol, but he devoured the work of Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, all the great silent comics. His strain of comedy harked back to that era. As Kaufmann noted, Tati in the postwar period was “the only performer attempting to recapture the immensely more imaginative and abstract comedy of silent days” [Kaufmann, op.cit].
Entering the cinema from a background as a mime in music-hall also grounded Tati in the art of the visual and the physical. Tati’s films are not strictly silent pictures, sound does play its role but it is as background, complimentary but subordinate to the visual. Stylistically, dialogue in a Tati movie is a device for sound effect [Jonathan Romney, ‘Jacques Tati’s Playtime: Life-affirming comedy’, The Guardian (25-10-14), www.theguardian.com/film]. It never distracts from the central preoccupation of his cinema, observation of the interaction of human nature with the environment.
At the time of Tati’s death (1982) he was working on a project for a new Monsieur Hulot film entitled ‘Confusion’ with its theme being western society’s obsession with television and visual images. As James Monaco observes, it would have been fascinating to have seen what Tati would have made of today’s virtual world, the internet, social networking media and digital devices [Monaco, op.cit.].
Footnote: before there was Hulot, there was Francois. Francois was the eccentric comic creation in Tati’s debut feature, Jour de Fête (The Big Day) (1949). The storyline has Francois, an over-zealous and maladroit postman (sort of a precursor to M Hulot), watching a US postal training film and trying to replicate its efficiency in his provincial post office operation. The results however go disastrously haywire. Tati employs this premise to satirise contemporary society’s slavish devotion to technological progress, especially it’s eagerness to adopt American innovations [‘Jacques Tati Facts’, www.biography.yourdictionary.com].