Permanent Vacation

11/18/2009 4:00 AM |

M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Directed by Jacques Tati

Simply put, Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) is one of the most delightful cinematic experiences I have ever encountered, and it is now showing at Film Forum in a restored 35mm print. Like the film’s infectious, amiable theme song—whose breezy melody fluidly passes from saxophone to guitar to vibes to piano without interrupting the phrasing—Tati, his camera and his on-screen alter-ego Hulot flit amongst the beachfront tourists like a fellow vacationer. With his perennial floppy hat and a pipe protruding from his lips, Hulot putters into town in his rustbucket and proceeds to join his compatriots in an attempt to enjoy some rest and relaxation under the sun.

While Tati’s light-hearted jabs at bourgeois mannerisms (particularly hats and customary greetings), and the occasional kick-in-the-rear, pay homage to silent comedians like the French Max Linder (or any of his now-more famous American slapstick colleagues), there’s considerably less violence and animosity than in his predecessors’ work. Unlike them, Tati isn’t as interested in farce or satire, and one feels a genuine affection for the multitudes of odd body shapes, moustaches and hairdos to be found at the resort. Further distinguishing his brand of humor is his markedly un-vaudevillian pacing. One never gets the impression that Hulot, or any of the characters, realize they are doing something funny, or at all acting out of the ordinary. There is no theatrical timing worked in; in an age in which sitcom-y laugh tracks are omnipotent even when absent (think about how often even big-screen comedy films are filled with boisterous characters whose outbursts cue the audience when to laugh), Tati’s reticence is even more vital and should be treasured.

There’s something strangely ephemeral yet permanent about M. Hulot’s Holiday. So many of the scenes seem like stolen moments —brief glimpses of characters who soon pass out of the camera’s eye—yet there’s something purgatorial, Sisyphean, about them. Time goes nowhere (there are no hints as to how many days or weeks pass by) yet time is everything to Tati when it comes to rhythm and tempo. A mischievous little boy on the beach attempts to burn a sleeping man with his magnifying glass—but because the man never awakens, the prank is never consummated, and exists forever in an incomplete state. So, too, will the swinging door to the restaurant remain unfixed, endlessly emitting a plucked-bass tone. And then there is Hulot, perpetually obliterating tennis opponents with his jerky, mechanical serve; never able to escape his collapsed kayak, which doubled-over resembles a sea monster; and always on the side of the road, trying to get his derelict car up and running so he can get to where he is going. Thankfully, he never will, and will exist permanently in a cinematic limbo.

Opens November 20 at Film Forum