When one mentions France and comedy under the same breath, it usually means that the Jerry Lewis stereotype is right around the corner. Having not seen terribly many French farces, I can’t comment on their overall sense of humor (only that they tend to be remade into horrible American movies — Fathers’ Day, anyone?). But even still, I can tell that M. Hulot’s Holiday is about as good as it gets. It’s a breezy but immensely entertaining affair, one whose genius lies within its simplicity, whose invention knows no bounds, and whose charm works it magic on the viewer from beginning to end.
It’s summertime, and vacationers from the big city are heading out en masse for a few days of fun at the beach. Among those flocking to enjoy the sand and sun is one Monsieur Hulot (director/co-writer Jacques Tati), a quiet, unassuming fellow who soon reveals himself to be a one-man disaster factory. From the moment he steps foot onto the beach resort, chaos reigns supreme, as Hulot inadvertently serves as the source for all kinds of trouble, from letting a nasty draft into the resort’s dining room to driving straight into the middle of a funeral. The other guests try to ignore Hulot’s shenanigans to the best of their abilities, though he does find a kindred spirit in the form of a blonde beauty (Nathalie Pascaud) who keeps smiling at the man’s antics as they grow more and more catastrophic.
For American audiences, the best way to describe M. Hulot’s Holiday is as a cross between Mr. Bean and the Marx Brothers. Like Rowan Atkinson’s most famous character, Hulot is a mostly silent force of nature, moving through life completely oblivious to the havoc he’s spreading around him. But while Bean’s attitude tended to stray to the selfish side, Monsieur Hulot remains a complete innocent through and through, enhancing the quality of the laughs by eliminating even the slightest hint of a mean streak. Still, in the tradition of the works of the brothers Marx, there’s an undercurrent of being anti-establishment here, of sticking it to the more stuffy members of society. While Hulot and the blonde cherish their vacation, the other guests seem to go about it as a chore, as something they have to do; even one of the vacationers is always seen abandoning his brood in order to take a business call. M. Hulot’s Holiday is a modest film with even more modest aims, but if the film does have something to suggest, it’s to actually have fun having fun.
But above all, M. Hulot’s Holiday is simply a very, very funny film. The flick’s humor works on two different layers: that of the more subtle jabs at human behavior I mentioned earlier, as well as on a physical level. But don’t think that Tati is going to spend the entire film mugging for the camera and tactlessly hurling himself into one comedic situation after another. M. Hulot’s Holiday cooks up a string of gags that are both hilarious and admirable for how much care put into them. Tati recalls the work of Buster Keaton (The General, in particular) in how his humorous set pieces are executed with jaw-dropping precision. Take, for example, a scene in which Hulot paints a small boat on the beach, and, unbeknownst to him, the tide keeps moving his paint can around and deposits it in just the right places. You wrack your brain wondering how Tati put it together, but the situation never loses its ability to coax out a hearty chuckle. This process is repeated often throughout the film, from a mob of travelers rushing between train platforms to Hulot’s sleeve being inadvertently used as a napkin. Half the fun of watching M. Hulot’s Holiday is wondering how inventive Tati will become in the name of getting his audience to laugh.
If there’s anything to complain about M. Hulot’s Holiday, it’s that it’s almost a little too frothy for its own good. For as charming and funny of a ride it provides, the film seems surprised that it has to wrap up, sort of throwing its hands up and going, “Well, time to end now, I guess.” It was a move that bothered me a bit, but it definitely isn’t enough to dissuade me from singing the film’s praises. At a time when flotsam like Meet the Spartans rakes in dough like nobody’s business, it’s good to look to the past and pick up a flick like M. Hulot’s Holiday, which proves that comedy can be both artistic and flat-out friggin’ hilarious.