Comedy

The Charming World of Monsieur Hulot

Monsieur Hulot surveys the French seaside. Image: festival-entrevues.com
Monsieur Hulot surveys the French seaside. Image: festival-entrevues.com

Did you travel to the French seaside for your vacation this year?

No? Sadly, neither did we.

However, there is a way to experience a holiday on the French coast without cramped flights and awkwardly-managed security lines.

Voilà! Here is Mr Hulot’s Holiday (Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot), a 1953 French comedy about a bumbling man who goes to the seaside for a vacation. Then he goes home.

That is the plot.

Wait – don’t leave! Hear us out.

This is not a movie with an intricate story, although there are lots of goings-on at the seaside Hôtel de la Plage. Nor are there complex characters, although there are plenty of amusing ones.

It doesn’t have much dialogue, either. This is basically a silent film, where snatches of dialogue serve as background noise, like bits of conversation you overhear while at the beach.

That’s the beauty of Mr Hulot’s Holiday, as strange as it sounds. You have to approach the film like you yourself are on vacation – you know, watching the other tourists and elbowing your companion as if to say, “Get a load of that guy.”

Naturally, it’s best to sip a tropical fruit drink while viewing this film.

Monsieur Hulot has arrived for his holiday. Image: Unsung Films
Monsieur Hulot has arrived for his holiday. Image: Unsung Films

Mr Hulot’s Holiday was filmed at Saint-Marc-sur-Mer, on the west coast of France, and two versions were released: French and English. It was the seventh highest-grossing film in France in 1953, and was nominated for the Grand Prize at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. It also received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

Monsieur Hulot (pronounced OO-low) is the creation of Jacques Tati, who wrote, directed and starred in the film. Tati is still regarded as influential filmmaker even though he directed only six feature films, including three other Monsieur Hulot adventures: Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967) and Trafic (1971).

In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Tati presents a charming and loving view of middle-class holiday-goers. These folks are delighted to take a break from their everyday lives, although they can’t quite forego the everyday. For example, one evening the hotel radio broadcasts The Engineering Report, as a favour to guests.

They are a delightful bunch, these guests, and we immediately feel we know them. Look, over there, is the woman in the floral-print dress who addresses her husband as “HEN-ry”.

And look at the small boy who buys two ice cream cones from the vendor and carries them back to the hotel in his tiny hands. There he clomps up the steps, through the door, and into the main room where he hands one cone to his brother and did not, as we feared, spill either one.

Hulot is not a ladies' man. Image" DVD Classik
Ahoy! Monsieur Hulot, Ladies’ Man. Image: DVD Classik

Monsieur Hulot himself is a fellow who, like Mr Bean, innocently and consistently causes chaos everywhere he goes. If disaster is to occur, it will involve Monsieur Hulot. It’s one of those things that can’t be helped, like gravity or a second helping of pie.

However, we (as in, yours truly) don’t find Monsieur Hulot, the man, all that funny.

Despite his comical wardrobe (too-short pants, striped socks, floppy hat), Monsieur Hulot’s countenance is too savvy to be the ungainly character he is. Despite his good-natured clumsiness, he carries a faint authoritative air, like the school principal or department supervisor.

That’s not to say Monsieur Hulot is never funny. For example, when he goes sea kayaking, he gets no further than the pier before the craft folds in on itself. And when the newspaper vendor arrives, Hulot buys a copy and, without even glancing at the headlines, promptly makes himself a paper hat.

Now, we adore Tati as director. He knows what makes a scene funny, and he knows human nature. He really is a clever filmmaker; we just don’t buy him as Monsieur Hulot.

However, if you haven’t seen much French cinema, and you’re in the mood for a lighthearted foreign classic without subtitles, we think you’ll enjoy Mr Hulot’s Holiday.

Monsieur Hulot's statue at Saint-Marc-sur-Mer. Image: macotedamour.com
Monsieur Hulot’s statue at Saint-Marc-sur-Mer. Image: macotedamour.com

Notes:

  • For an academic overview of Jacques Tati’s films, read the Criterion essay here.
  • Read Roger Ebert’s review here.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday: Jacques TatiNathalie PascaudMicheline Rolla. Directed by Jacques Tati. Written by Henri Marquet & Jacques Tati. Cady Films, 1953, B&W, 83 mins.

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31 thoughts on “The Charming World of Monsieur Hulot

  1. Sorry, Ruth, but I love the character of M. Hulot.

    The weakest of the four movies is, I’d argue, Playtime, yet it has the strongest opening sequence — set in a dehumanized airport which seems like any other dehumanized airport until suddenly we hear a clatter and focus in on it to discover that M. Hulot has dropped his umbrella. It’s an amazing cinematic coup, and possible only because of the way that the Hulot characterization had by then impressed itself upon viewers. (In this context, your comparison with Bean is a very good one.)

    I first saw Trafic in its first London run. I have never known a cinema rock so loudly with laughter, not least at the late scene of drivers stuck in a jam, when their windscreen wipers personify the people within the cars. Afterwards, my beloved Linda and I stumbled out onto Charing Cross Road and discovered a traffic jam,with a drizzle falling, and . . . you guessed it. We were lucky to get as far as the tube station.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would have been a real treat, to see any of these films on the big screen. And I loved your story about seeing Trafic in London, in a rainstorm and a traffic jam.

      I’ve yet to see Playtime, but I’m looking forward to it just for the opening sequence you described.

      Like

  2. I love this movie. I’m also a big fan of Playtime, which was my introduction to the world according to Tati.

    Despite its occasional uneven moments, Playtime was a great combination of slapstick and satire on modern living. Both this movie and Playtime emphasize the almost frenzied way people try to relax while on vacation (or holiday, if you will).

    Mon Oncle is also a good one.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As with others, I find M. Hulot hilarious, especially in this film (Tati’s best, so far as I’m concerned). I find his “authority” to be deliberately contrived, like Chaplin when he tries to imitate royalty in “Caught in a Cabaret” and “The Count.” His attempt to seem dignified just makes his clumsiness all the funnier.
    Each to their own, of course!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds like a film that would grow on you the more you watch it. I didn’t get to France this summer either, so maybe I should give it a try! 🙂 The tropical drink would probably help with the enjoyment as well! I like the idea of watching it as if you are the one looking around at all the other vacationers. Thanks for the recommendation, Ruth!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a delightful film. It’s the next best thing to being at the seaside in person, in my opinion. The people are delightful – they make you laugh because they’re folks you recognize from everyday life. Hope you get the chance to see it, tropical drink and all!

      Like

  5. Ruth! This sounds like a marvelous films, that I’ll want to watch right away. Tati is amazing and the idea of a film that you experience as a voyeur yourself is wonderful. Thanks as always for the thoughtful overview and another terrific recommendation! Cheers Joey

    Liked by 1 person

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