Wednesday, August 05, 2009

“Some people are worse than children.”

I normally hate watching movies on television because they are inadvertently edited to pieces and are punctuated by commercial breaks. However, there is one holdout in cable-land that does neither of these things: the laudatory Turner Classic Movies. TCM, unlike other channels under the Turner umbrella, stands alone as solely dedicated to its mission of providing classic and older films to audiences without commercial interruption. Its truly fantastic, and a rarity in modern television. I say this, because instead of reviewing Blade II like I would very much like to get to, I have to put that on hold once more so that I can talk about Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday in English), a 1953 black & white French film by Jaques Tati, a comedian who has had a profound influence on “tall comedians” like John Cleese, John Lithgow and Rowan Atkinson.

A pipe-smoking, easily distracted man with a car on the verge of collapse travels to a seaside resort for holiday. Various spurts of mayhem and hilarity ensue for the next 114 minutes as the character bumbles along through various situations. It’s a thin plot with a very slow burn of the action, as the spotlight shines on various minor characters having strange things done to them/doing them, but then it always seems to come back to the main character.

Monsieur Hulot: Jacques Tati is the mostly silent, bumbling Hulot, who’s misadventures on vacation provide a very clear spiritual ancestor to Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character and a spiritual successor to Charlie Chaplin and even Buster Keaton. That’s kind of badass to bridge those eras of comedy. Hulot relies on a lot of physical comedy to convey his personality as a character who is somewhat childlike, bumbling and oblivious to the world around him. It isn’t so much that bad things happen to him, but that he inadvertently sets up the bad things that will happen to him. His car is a piece of junk that gets people in a lot of trouble.

Martine: Nathalie Pascaud is a beautiful, tennis loving young woman whom Hulot takes a bit of a liking too and eventually dances with near the end.

The Englishwoman: Valentine Camax is an older British lady who officiates a tennis match where Hulot, completely ignorant on how to play properly, completely destroys everyone he plays. She befriends Hulot because of that.

The Waiter: Raymond Carl is the waiter at the hotel restaurant, a typical somewhat snooty French waiter. He’s not a big fan of anybody.

The Hotel Proprietor: Lucien Fregis is the owner of the hotel, and it becomes clear that he really doesn’t like Hulot, often becoming distracted into sight gags by Hulot’s presence. He gets a fantastic visual gag where he drops a cigarette into a fish tank by accident, rolls up his right sleeve to retrieve it, is distracted by Hulot for a moment, then reaches his left arm into the tank.

Jacques Tati directed the film, and it is a very different kind of comedy. A very subdued kind of comedy. The jokes aren’t laff-a-minute fare common in America. Instead, subtle cues and reactions lead up to and punctuate the outbursts of physical comedy. For instance, a woman is trying to cross a street. Hulot, in his car, stops and waves her across. She crosses and passes off screen, then you hear a loud honking and then see the woman sprinting down the street at top speed, quickly followed by a large bus. Its hilarious, but subtle. You have to be paying attention to everything going on to be rewarded, but the jokes are there. This isn’t to say that there aren’t obvious sight gags. There’s plenty of that. Hulot, in a broken canoe, tries rowing for a little bit, but the whole thing folds up in two with him in it. As he floats to shore in his boat sandwich, his struggles to get out move the top of the boat like a mouth and the people on shore run away, screaming that it’s a shark. You can also see how much of the film owes itself to the Silent Film era, particularly at the end when Hulot lights a match in a shed filled with fireworks. He scrambles around, trying to put them out (or at least not explode himself) and the whole thing spirals out of control.

Tati is also a very good director, framing scenes smartly and even giving a sense of isolation to not only Hulot, but also the other vacationers.

There is very little dialog in the film. You could turn the sound off and not miss a thing in terms of dialog. The pacing, particularly in the beginning, is a little bit off, as the story leisurely wanders from character to character, but it never fails to refocus on Hulot. The team of Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet definitely opt for a “less is more” approach to characterization.

Sound is critical to this film, not only because so much of the humor depends on it, but also because the mood does as well. The score by Alain Romans is sparse and almost minimal. There is one theme that gets repeated constantly, a jazzy little number that often interrupts the quiet goings on of the regular guests. Even more important is the foley work. Hulot’s car can be heard coming a mile away as it putters around. The door of the hotel restaurant has a very distinct and, well, goofy sound effect used whenever it swings open and closed that contrasts with the stuffy nature of the waiter. As much as the film owes to silent film for visual gags, it makes full use of sound to speak more than dialog could in the same circumstances.

This little film took me completely by surprise. The slow beginning was just off-beat enough to keep me sitting around, and the eventual payoff was thoroughly enjoyable. Its probably not something that would appeal to all the masses, but for cinephiles, it’s an interesting slice of foreign comedy made by someone who knew what he was doing that’s surprisingly charming by the end. Tati’s Mr. Hulot character wound up starring in a bunch of other films, and I might just have to look those up eventually. Recommended, with the caveat that it’s a foreign film with different pacing sensibilities to what a casual film viewer would be looking for. If you’re okay with that, there’s a surprising level of subtle craftsmanship waiting for you.

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