M. Tati's Holiday
I don't love M. Hulot's Holiday. I guess I like it. As far as comedies go, I've seen better. Maybe that is because it's just not my style. The slapstick is much more subdued than I've seen in any other movie. Without much of a non-diegetic score or dialogue, comedy moments just happen. Nor does the comedy really escalate. Gags never pile to create a greater comic effect. Hulot's car may be a bucket of bolts, but that never goes anywhere. Hulot may be a wunderkind at tennis, but it never goes anywhere after the original set up. Nevertheless, the film is truly wonderful and worthy of awe at every moment.
The most obviously noteworthy element of M. Hulot's Holiday is its sound effects. Like Chaplin before him, Tati knows the value of sounds when there is little dialogue. Hulot's car wouldn't be funny if it weren't for the puttering pops that erupt from the vehicle. The blaring noises from Hulot's record player and the wind coming from outside the hotel serve to comically annoy the normal guests at the hotel. Even the boinging sound of the door swinging in the dining room serves to comically underline every scene in the dining room. But sounds are hardly the only element of the film that deserves praise.
Immense credit for this film should go to cinematographers Jacques Mercanton and Jean Mousselle and (uncredited) editors Suzanne Baron, Charles Bretoneiche and Jacques Grassi. One of the primary visual devices involves multiple layers of action. One person is in the foreground, and something unrelated goes on in the background. This serves to teach the viewer how to watch this movie; every inch of the frame has something worth seeing. In fact, this film serves as a wonderful education to the young cinephile as to how to watch films. Everything is worth noting, and repeat viewings will invariably lead to the revelation of previously unnoticed details. But the cinematography would be merely a pleasant distraction without the brilliance of the editing.
Editing is supposed to bridge gaps. Good editing will create connections. In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang combined sound with editing to make connections between the criminals and police. Here, Tati uses his chief cinematographic trick to transition between characters. Scenes on the beach transition to scenes in the dining room by presenting the audience with a shot of a couple in the dining room looking out their window at the action on the beach. Suddenly, the characters in the foreground have become the characters in the background, which gets at one of the major themes in the film: we're all part of the community. This idea is best presented in one great cut.
The first shot is of a man drying himself off. A beautiful girl walks past him, and he stares. His wife calls to him, but he doesn't respond. In one shot, Tati has set up and executed a wonderful little joke. There is no cut to the wife and her frustration. Only the man watching this girl. The cut is to a God's-eye view of the beach. The girl enters from the lower right side of the frame, but she is just one element among everyone else at the beach. That joke was merely one bit of humanity among a massive group of such interactions. The film may be titled Mr. Hulot's Holiday, but it's really about everyone at that beach resort.
Mr. Hulot's Holiday is one of the best examples of pure, plotless but beautiful and well-constructed filmmaking. Without a plot to distract the viewer, one can soak in the precision and beauty of the cinematography, editing, and sound design. If I were trying to introduce someone to the art of filmmaking, this would be one of the earliest films to teach them about the power of editing and how cinematography can blend with editing to create a rich tapestry of film. I just wish the film were funnier.
For a more modern take off on the character of Mr. Hulot, I present this:
He may not be as good at editing, but he gets the laughs in.