Directed and starring Jacques Tati with a script written by Tati and Henri Marquet, Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) is the story of a man going on a vacation to a beach where he unknowingly creates chaos every step he takes. The film is a comedy that has Tati bring elements of silent comedy with spoken dialogue in the background as Tati performs mostly without words. Also starring Nathalie Pascaud and Micheline Rolla. Les Vacances de M. Hulot is a very funny film from Jacques Tati as the titular character.
It’s summertime as people are set to go on a holiday as Mr. Hulot is driving to a seaside resort hotel in his sputtering car. Upon arrival, he makes a bad impression on the guests who seemed annoyed by his presence as all they want to do is relax in the lounge and play cards while eating lunch and dinner as scheduled. Mr. Hulot ends up impress a few people including an Englishwoman (Valentine Camax), a beautiful woman named Martine (Nathalie Pascaud), and various other people. During his trip, Hulot creates a lot of chaos while taking his time to do various activities and bring fun to people by attending a costume ball and bringing some joy to a neglected young boy.
The film is about a bumbling man, who always has a smoking pipe in his mouth and stands in a weird way, who ends up creating chaos during his vacation and making a great impression on the small people he meets. That’s pretty much what the film is about as it’s lack of a strong, conventional plot allows Tati to create a film that is about the memory of going on a holiday. Throughout the film, Tati and co-writer Henri Marquet get a chance to take shots at various people in the film including an intellectual who tries to woo Martine or fellow guests who are more interested in listening to talk radio and playing cards rather than go dancing.
The lack of a conventional script and story, along with very little dialogue, does allow Tati to create a film that feels natural and made up as he goes along with it. Though the approach starts out slow and lags a bit through parts of the film, it’s only because Tati wants the audience to get to know various people including the Mr. Hulot character who makes his first impression driving his slow, sputtering car on the way. Yet, he unknowingly creates chaos from the moment he arrives as if he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. Tati creates some nice framing throughout the film while he knows how to create rhythm for comedy and to set up the moment.
At the same time, he makes sure that the comedy feels real as there’s a consistency in the way he allows the humor to play freely. Whether it’s waiting for Martine to get ready for horse-riding or in the way he ends up creating a mess in the hotel with muddy footprints. It’s Tati just playing it freely while he also creates something unexpected in a very funny sequence where he ends up angering a lot of people while a few are impressed. Despite a few flaws in the pacing, Tati creates what is truly a stellar yet very witty film.
Cinematographers Jacques Mercanton and Jean Mousselle do some excellent work with the film‘s black-and-white photography from the sunny look of the exterior beach scenes to gorgeous nighttime scenes in the exterior setting. Editors Suzanne Baron, Charles Bretoneiche, and Jacques Grassi do some wonderful work by employing dissolves and fade-outs to help move the transition forward while keeping the entirety of the film straightforward despite some moments in the film due to its lagging pace.
Production designers Roger Briaucourt and Henri Schmitt do a great job with the look of the hotel many of the characters are staying including Martine‘s summer home as well as tiny huts in the beach. Sound editor Guy Michel-Ange does a very good job with the sound from capturing the sounds of people talking in the background to the annoying door creek at the dinner lounge. The film’s score by Alain Romans is superb with its jazzy score to play up the film’s humor as well as a couple of low-key orchestral pieces for some of the quieter moments of the film that also includes a loud jazz piece that Hulot loves to play.
The casting is brilliant for its array of appearances such as Rene Lacourt and Marguerite as an aging, strolling couple looking around, Andre Dubois as a former military officer leading the activities, Lucien Fregis as the annoyed hotel manager, Raymond Carl as an overwhelmed waiter, Micheline Rolla as Martine’s aunt, Valentine Camax as an Englishwoman who enjoyed Hulot’s company, and Louis Perralt as the intellectual trying to woo Martine with his views on Marxism. Nathalie Pascaud is excellent in a small but radiant role as Martine, a young woman who enjoys Mr. Hulot as he presents a change to the people she is surrounded with.
Finally, there’s Jacques Tati in a fantastic performance as Monsieur Hulot. A man who means well and tries to be a good person only to bumble in every way from the way he plays tennis to the way he conducts things socially. It’s a performance that is reminiscent of the physical, pantomime slapstick comedy of the works of Charlie Chaplin. Yet, Tati chooses to create his own style from the way he stands while keeping this very minimalist in his approach. It’s truly a mesmerizing performance that is entertaining as the Hulot character would be the inspiration for British comedy actor Rowan Atkinson’s famed Mr. Bean character.
Les Vacances de M. Hulot is an enjoyable yet whimsical comedy from Jacques Tati. Audiences wanting something different that is a bit reminiscent of early silent film comedies will definitely want to seek this film out. Anyone new to the works of Tati might see this as a good place to start. Especially for an actor who takes minimalist pantomime comedy to new heights by infusing it with a modern setting. In the end, Les Vacances de M. Hulot is an excellent yet entertaining film from Jacques Tati.
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