Long before ”The Artist” Jacques Tati made his own tribute to the silent comedy. Or more specifically to Charles Chaplin. That reference is never far away when you watch “Les Vacances de M. Hulot”. Jacques Tati himself is a Chaplin-like character, Monsieur Hulot, whose well-meaning clumsiness causes all sorts of mishaps and trouble and this in an environment that is straight out of a Chaplin universe. There is no real dialogue in the movie, but a sound background similar to what Chaplin used in “City Lights” and “Modern Times”. Yes, people are talking, but none of it is consequential and the movie is essentially silent.
Apparently this film exist in both a French and English version and at first I was disappointed to find out that I got the English version, but I soon realized that that mattered not. French or English, the voices only set the mood and even in the English version there is a great deal of French, representing the variety of holiday makers on the beach.
All the comedy is physical, completely in line with Chaplin’s concept and mostly it is instigated by the Hulot character. This in turn means that everything depends on Tati’s own performance and whether or not Hulot as a character is funny.
Fortunately he is. At least most of the time.
The story is almost absent. Instead the movie is a series of tableaux centered on Monsieur Hulot’s holiday on the beach. He arrives in his silly little car, messes up everything and finally leaves. So much for a synopsis. His holiday takes place in a small seaside village, which I at first thought would be in Normandy (the train station is Caen), but it later turns out it is Saint-Marc-sur-Mer near St. Nazaire. Never mind. It is the kind of place with a single beach hotel, where all the guests eat their meals together, hang out in the lobby and go on picnic together. Almost like a modern day school trip. The guests are different representatives of the middle class who despite their different nationality and civil life have that in common that they are fairly new at this sort of vacation but tries to uphold a tradition seen as upper class. That makes it all rather stiff and pretentious, borderline ridiculous and into this world enter the walking disaster Monsieur Hulot.
Hulot is very polite, very insecure and very clumsy. He often has little idea of the trouble he causes and the figure he makes and when he does notice he is so eager to fix things that he just makes them far worse. The comedy is in the way he moves, his facial expressions, his poor timing or, in some case, exceptionally good timing. Mostly his seemingly harmless quirks triggers events that always gets far worse than he deserve. Like when he gently moves a card player to reach a ping-pong ball so the player plays his card on the wrong table causing both tables to erupt in fury at the unfortunate card player.
To a modern viewer the pace is a little too slow. Chaplin at his greatest was better at that timing, not to mention Keaton, but it is compensated by the subtleness of many of the jokes. Of course there are a lot of very obvious gags: people falling, things breaking, his silly car and so on, but “Les Vacances de M. Hulot” is best when it is subtle. The replacement tire with leaves stuck to it that is mistaken for a funeral decoration, only to let out air as the mourners pass as if they were farting, or the English (I presume) middle, but wannabe upper class, couple led on by the enthusiastic, but oblivious wife, always keeping her husband in tow. At the end when everybody seem ready to denounce Hulot, he alone thanks Hulot for saving his otherwise miserable vacation. The small gestures are everywhere. The head waiter’s quiet exasperation, the wonder of the older woman who takes a liking to Hulot, the children, who for once are not a menace to the movie, but seem to be utterly in the way of the propriety of guests and hosts at the hotel.
This is the movie that made Tati and he went on to make several very successful movies, though, as I understand it, rarely featuring himself as Hulot. “Mon Oncle” is the only one I could find (Maybe “Trafic”?). That is actually a shame. I could easily see his Hulot character become a franchise: M. Hulot in the army, M. Hulot gets a job, M. Hulot wins in the lottery. As Chaplin did or Chevy Chase with the National Lampoon. The most obvious descendent of Hulot however is Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean franchise. I feel almost certain I have watched an episode or maybe a combination of episodes copying “Les Vacances de M. Hulot”. I like Mr. Bean (or even better Blackadder, but that is another story), but he harks back to Tati, which in turn tried to emulate the great Charles Chaplin. This format has a long history.
“Les Vacences de M. Hulot” gets a solid recommendation from me. It was fun to watch and never boring. It is great to see physical comedy done well and as a little bonus we get a musical riff that set the tone for summer vacation scenes in movies for next two decades.