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Criterion: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday

MONSIEUR HULOT’S HOLIDAY, JACQUES TATI, 1953

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Summer vacation is a time to get away, to adventure, relax, and get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Jacques Tati plays with this logic, as some of his characters make the most of their vacation, while others bring their city lives with them. At the center is the theatrical debut of Monsieur Hulot, who aligns with and is arguably the catalyst for people enjoying themselves during their time off.

From his first appearance as he is driving his meager, sputtering and backfiring, tine Samdon A3, Hulot is introduced as a different type of character. He’s odd, clumsy, sometimes uncomfortable in his own skin, and his unconventional behavior and tastes make him an outlier compared with the traditional vacationers. He barely speaks, and is the center of the comedic gags that take place. He is also the embodiment of the central theme of Tati’s film (and those to come) of tradition versus modernity. Hulot initially seems not to belong because he awkwardly interacts modern technology, but he ends up belonging in his own way.

Holiday is ultimately a comedy, and bears a strong resemblance to the silent comedies that inspired him. He does pack in quite a lot of big gags, the type of which would be familiar in a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd picture. One example is the shark scene, which was added to the 1978 version in order to satire the recently released Jaws. There are other big laughs, like in his unconventional method of tennis playing, where he trounces his opponents by playing by a different set of standards and rules, not unlike how he behaves during personal interactions.

There are plenty of little laughs as well, like him painting a boat and the paint can rolls away from and towards him without his noticing. Or the older man who casually throws away seashells as his wife collects them. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as there are countless subtle oddities that Tati throws into the scene, many of which are humorous and sometimes are hidden. He rewards people for paying attention to the details.

There are plenty of other scenes that are not funny, nor are they intended to be, and this is what separates a Tati film from plenty of other comedies. He slows things down and lets the film breathe. This is, after all, a vacation, and he conveys the sense of getting away.

Not all of the characters participate in the vacation. The businessman is constantly taking calls about his stock purchases. A young political idealist is consumed by continually talking about intellectual matters. The characters who interact the moat with Hulot, however, appear to leave life’s trappings behind them. The children take to Hulot, and they are at home away from home, caring only for enjoyment, music and treats. A number of females also take to Hulot, although not so much in the romantic sense. One young, attractive lady finds herself a dancing partner that keeps a comfortable distance. Another older Englishwoman is delighted by the klutzy Frenchman, and she embraces his quirkiness. Even the older couple adore Hulot,and they spend most of their vacation walking around quietly and peacefully.

Those who accept and enjoy Hulot get the most out of their vacation, and that’s because they challenge their comfort zone. They don’t just follow the herd of modern trappings, but they embrace being outsiders and distant from this quagmire of a society.

Film Rating: 8/10

Supplements:

Terry Jones introduction. The Monty Python member gives a short introduction by Criterion standards and basically highlights his favorite scenes. His presence on the disc speaks more for the influence of Tati. His influence on people like Rowan Atkinson is obvious — the Pythons less so.

Clear Skies, Light Breeze: Critical essay. This is a French critical essay by Stéphane Goudet. She talks about Tati’s art and his comedy, how he embraces the middle class and ridicules bureaucracy and technology. One example is the untillegible speaker at the train station, which people follow blindly. She compares many of these same themes to Tati’s later films.

Sounds of Silence: Interview with Michael Chion. He talks about Tati’s use of sound. The sounds in the film do not fill up spaces, but they are used to complement the space. Tati uses sound to guide our eye to the object (like the swinging door in the restaurant). It enhances the silence. There’s actually quite a bit of sound in Tati films, like the sea in Hulot and the music, and there’s lots of dialogue, but it seems to be primarily in the background.

Cine Regard. This is a French TV program where Tati watches clips from his films and discusses them. He begins by telling a funny story about how he went to a screening of Holiday anonymously, entering in the dark so that nobody would recognize him. He sits next to a man who laughs throughout the film, nudges Tati and constantly calls the director an asshole, not realizing the object of his ridicule is sitting next to him. Tati shares a bit of insight into his films, but it is clear during the discussion that he is protective of their integrity. They are like his children.

1953 version of the film. This original version is not the primary version on the disc, because Tati was a proponent of adapting and improving his films over time, which in my opinion he succeeded with Holiday. Many of the changes are cosmetic, especially with the sound. The older version is busier and slightly more political. The older version is also about 10 minutes longer. Unlike a lot of directors, Tati didn’t mind cutting things out to increase the flow, and he did the same with Jour de Fete.

Criterion Rating: 9/10

Criterion: Jour de Fete

JOUR DE FETE, JACQUES TATI, 1949

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Jacques Tati’s debut feature film would be a sign of things to come. It was about a goofy, clumsy individual (played by Tati) in a small, provincial Franch town, going about things in his own, charming way, while being threatened by progress and pressure from overseas.

Jour de Fete also showcases what would become Tati’s trademark, charming style. Through his bumbling persona, we see hints of what would become Monsieur Hulot, and we see the inspiration of the silent slapstick kings like Keaton, Lloyd, and of course, Chaplin. We also find that the film is genuinely pleasant and comedic, which for the time, was a welcome reprieve from serious films such as Melville’s La Silence de la Mer and Cocteau’s Orpheus. In this regard, Tati was an outlier, a renegade, who made fanciful and silly films, yet they all had similar themes about the encroachment of technology and bureaucracy.

At its core, Jour de Fete is humorous and delightful, nearly silent physical comedy. There are plenty of voices and dialog, but not so much is heard from the protagonist, Francois the mailman. He is clumsy and is constantly the butt of jokes, especially from the visiting carnies. He is terrible at his job as a mailman, mostly because his priority is with helping out the townspeople their troubles and activities. He helps fix a fallen pole in the town square in one scene, while graciously delivers a cake out of his way in another. Even though he is a mischievous and troublesome character, he is endearing both to the audience and inhabitants of the small town. They enjoy joking about his hopeless ambition to deliver the mail in the American style, knowing that he will not succeed, but they are not malicious. His failings are part of his makes him such a charming character to us and them.

While Francois can be seen as a bumbling idiot a lot of time, at other times he shows remarkable ability and intelligence. In one hilarious sequence, he manages to re-arrange stakes in the ground so that a cross-eyed man can hit them correctly. In another sequence, he hitches his bicycle to a truck and does his paperwork on the rear flatbed. When he attempts to do his work quickly and efficiently, he finds brilliant ways of delivering the mail to people who are not in a hurry to receive it, such as fastening it to an animal’s behind, placing it into grain machinery, or sticking it onto a rake that someone is carrying. However goofy, he cannot be disregarded as a complete idiot.

A prevailing theme, which was prescient given the upcoming technological advancements, is tradition versus progress. Francois is happy to deliver the mail inefficiently with his bicycle, and he even curses at a speeding car that passes during one scene. He’s an advocate of a slower life. His mind is blown when he sees a video of aerial postmen in America, and how that sort of speed and efficiency will someday make its way to his country. With his livelihood threatened, he does his best to do his work “American style,” which means fast and with barely any social activity or engagement. Even though these scenes are funny, he loses his humanity and becomes merely a tool.

Even though he excels at first, the “American style” is not for him, nor is it for his townspeople. In one of my favorite scenes, he even loses his bicycle and it practically rides itself through the country roads until it conveniently comes to rest at the bar. “Even Americans take a drink, don’t they” he asks as a motorist beckons him to resume his American style. He ends up pedaling into a lake, and a lot of mail gets ruined. His experiment failed, but the movie is a delight.

Film Rating: 7.5/10

Supplements:

There are two other versions of the film on the disc:

1964 version. Tati was not pleased that after shooting with color cameras, he had to settle on a black and white film due to technological problems – how ironic given the themes of his films! – so for a later version he used rotoscoping to give his film a hint of color. He introduced a character of an artist in order to bring color into the story. Flags would be painted, as would the balloon he sees in the tavern and the rear light of his bicycle. In addition to the color additions, the film was re-cut, re-edited and had a different soundtrack. The dialog sounds more artificial than the original version, and while the color additions are a nice novelty, this version does not quite measure up.

1995 version: Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, obtained a negative of the color print and was able to get it developed. This color version was the result. While it is interesting to see how Tati originally envisioned the film, the color quality is poor, not nearly up to par with the quality of his later color films, and probably not up to the standard that he envisioned. Again, this is more of a novelty and not the ideal way to view the film.

In Search of the Lost Color. This is an episode from a 1988 French TV show that documents the process of filming in both color and black-and-white, and how the negative was discovered that would eventually lead to a color print being released. It shows two cameras on set during the shooting, both side-by-side. This was to be the first French film in color using a Thomson technology, but it failed due to competition from Technicolor and Agfacolor, and the development factory was never built. The shoot was a lengthy 6-months to accommodate both filming techniques, and we are fortunate that they had the black-and-white cameras as backups, otherwise this film and may have never seen the light of day. That may have also meant that Tati’s career would not have continued since his debut film was among his greatest successes.

A L’Americaine. This is almost an hour and a half documentary about the film. It again goes into the history with the color cameras and the multiple release versions, and then it goes a lot further. A lot of time is spent demonstrating the anti-technology themes that would materialize again in Tati’s work. The clips of [i]Playtime[/i] make for quite a contrast in what Tati was going for. It talks about about the comic inspiration from silent film stars such as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd and how some scenes were homages to their work. That said, Tati in some respects resented being compared to the old masters like Chaplin, because he felt it reduced his films to mere imitations while he was creating something he thought of as original. On that point, I agree.

Criterion Rating: 8.5/10