Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Seeking a tonic for a lingering illness, my wife and I watched Mr. Hulot’s Holiday last evening. The movie, one of the few DVDs in our library, was a gift from a friend. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Mr. Hulot, Jacques Tati’s masterpiece. The first was in a high school gym. My brother, twelve years older than I, drove us forty minutes through countryside on a dense humid summer evening to the screening. I was sixteen. I thought Mr. Hulot hilarious. But the comedy was also enveloped in a cultural strangeness, transporting me to an emotionally alien place. My laughter was tinged slightly with adolescent anxiety, defensive laughter of release. I sensed, but could not articulate, my discomfort with a world that so badly needed Mr. Hulot.

Tati filmed Mr. Hulot less than eight years after the end of the Second World War. Eight years was a very short step forward in France’s recovery from the war. Those years included one of the coldest winters in memory, with severe fuel shortages, and a severe economic crisis. The French also witnessed the decline of political power. The United States excluded France from intelligence information shared with the British during postwar reconstruction. Worse, Britain emerged as a nuclear power. It may have seemed to the French that DeGaulle’s efforts to restore the glory of France was being limited to the achievements of his cultural minister, Andre Malraux, who was rehabilitating Paris’s historic buildings. Not an inkling of these difficulties is present in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

Midway through the movie my wife remarked, “Nothing is resolved.” An old man opens a window to see what is causing a racket on the beach. Mr. Hulot, turning, holds a rocket like an umbrella under his arm. The man closes the window, which blossoms into a bright flash. The next morning he’s among the crowd saying goodbye. Mr.Hulot’s entry into the fireworks’ shed; the rocket’s effect on the man and the hotel room—all irrelevant. The beach hotel and its guests are setups for Tati’s pratfalls. They are the straight men to Tati’s jokes. There is no need for resolution. The joke is the point. So I thought all these years. Blinded by Tati’s brilliance, I saw only half of what he had achieved.

Mr. Hulot’s is a world of play. Among the first people we catch sight of when Hulot arrives at the seaside resort is a couple leisurely walking through the town. We soon discover that throughout Mr. Hulot’s holiday, they stroll up and down, back a forth, greeting fellow vacationers, like weavers creating the warp and woof of the resort’s social community. The other visitors to the resort swim, sunbathe, picnic, dance, and play tennis, ping pong, and card games. Above all, card games occupy their time in the hotel’s dayroom. Work has no place in Hulot’s world. A man who places a business call from the hotel has difficulty making a connection and, later in the movie, misses a ride to a picnic when asked back to receive a call.

Repetition, a characteristic of play, is prominent. The same song recurs from a variety of sources, at various times, and places. The young beauty occupying the corner hotel room opens her window to look out onto the beach the same way each morning, and we see Mr. Hulot amusingly pop his head up from his skylight each time he returns to his room. In the dining room, Mr. Hulot discovers that guests who have dined once are expected by other guests to sit in the same place for the rest of their visit.

This is an idyllic harmonious world, a world of slow rhythms and expected recurrence. It is significant, I think, that one of the most vocal characters in the movie is an English woman who speaks no French yet clearly understands and is understood by other vacationers who never speak English. She seeks out Mr. Hulot and presides over the absurd tennis matches that he wins against all odds. Her inclusion in the movie extends the world Tati portrays beyond what might be seen as French provincialism. There are no barriers among the people of Mr. Hulot.

This world demands no resolution to Mr. Hulot’s pratfalls. Mr. Hulot stumbles and bumbles along in a world impervious to harm, a world which, one feels, has never experienced it. Watching Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, we laugh and laugh and laugh and, at the end, declare, “Yes, there is balm in Gilead.”

No comments: