Has the cinema ever known the pleasures of a greater humanist than Jacques Tati? Charlie Chaplin, who Tati is generally compared to, comes to mind, but Chaplin at his best could draw fangs. His post-silent productions are nasty-minded masterpieces, works of barely-hidden discontent more than whimsical discovery. Tati could poke fun with the best of them, but never ruefully, and anger may not have been a word he knew. Certainly, it wasn’t a word he wanted to room with, or even walk in the same neighborhood as. Chaplin could love his audience or laugh at them, and he sold both as well as any filmmaker ever did. Tati was never not laughing, but always with us, never at us, and his laughs were laughs of love.
His second full-length feature film, 1953’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, was the introduction of his most famous character, the divining rod for all of Tati’s interests, passions, needs, and impulses: Mr. Hulot, played by Tati himself in a titanic display of physical comedy matched in all of cinema only by Chaplin and Keaton (which is to say, it hasn’t been matched since this film’s release in 1953, except by Tati’s further experiments with the character). The film is virtually plotless: Hulot, a middle-aged, graying man, vacations in a lightly fantastical seaside cottage town, wanders around town, and causes mild havoc. And we smile. The story of Tati is the story of the smile.
Without one ounce of lecherous or salacious intent to use or abuse his characters (even by Tati standards, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is gentle), Tati endorses and indulges in the most unfettered sort of humanism without ever once growing stale or tiring or cloying. Funny, certainly, and an impeccable variety of funny that arrives to audiences so seldomly anymore: a funny that is of an impeccably visual variety, where the jokes ride the coattails of some of the most fastidious mise en scene and humane physical comedy in all of cinema.
There’s nothing in Holiday as death-defying as the best material from Keaton or Chaplin, nor as perversely intellectual and acerbically challenging in its perfected visual critique of modern society as Tati’s later masterwork Playtime. But if the pleasures are lighter by comparison, Holiday wears its lightness like a charm. It is nowhere near as trenchant a social critique as Playtime (indeed, as evidenced here, Tati learned the idea of critique sometime between 1953 and Playtime’s eventual release in ’67). But the lack of larger intention affords this earlier film a spunk and purposeless grace that keeps it fresh and particularly drawn to the perfection of its whimsical havoc and moment-to-moment comic pandemonium.
The film never goes “off” the rails though; Tati is too much a controlling force to give in to his farcical nature, but he attains the appearance of chaos more than the actual fact of it, which is as useful in its own way. Certainly, the off-the-cuff tumult the film provides to conventional narrative structure disguises none of Tati’s hashed-over craft and meticulous detail. It may not look it, but Tati (who certainly knew how to take his time making movies) was the quintessential cinematic perfectionist, and part of his genius was allowing audiences to recognize the attention and the perfection without turning his films into didactic, intellectual affairs that approach audiences from above. For all Tati’s craft, his films are as feather-light, as lithe, as a film can be.
Craft, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday certainly is though, and not only visual craft. Tati’s physical performance is a marvel of judicious physical gestures, movements that manage the unfathomable task of subtlety and exaggeration in equal measure, and impeccable wide silences and pauses that allow us to stew in the wind-up before the hit. Coupled with Tati’s habit for packing his frames with sight-gags and general tomfoolery, his films as a body feel like lightly organized anarchy waiting to burst forth before being lulled into a gentle slumber. Even if Holiday is the least dense of his feature-length productions, moments are frequent yet never hurried, which is part of Tati’s genius. He doesn’t rush from gag to gag; he takes the time to love each one like a favorite child. He savors the moments because he is enjoying them, and he knows the audience will too.
An analysis of the visual with Tati is old-hat however; for the moment, I’d like to call attention to his magisterial use of sound, as important a weapon as any visual in any of his films. Playtime would be significantly less without its hushed disquiet and animals-in-a-cage vocalization of modern urban life as a sort of caustic but sweet distillation of “life in the big city”. In Holiday, Tati wields silence with masterful diligence and a sense of time, modulating noise levels in the fussiest sort of way throughout. But every sound, and in particular, every absence of sound, pays off, with his characters, as would become routine, uttering sounds rather than words. Sounds for Tati were universal and unencumbered by language; the meaning of the sounds is not important, but simply that the sounds happen, that they happen when they do, and that they happen how they do, and with their particular frequency and vibrancy. They’re international, part and parcel with a dialect of physical humanity known to anyone in the world. It may be the perfect movie to dissect the idea of sound mixing, but that is Tati for you. Leave no (craft)stone unturned.
For all its comedy (and the sound is instrumental and unavoidable in Tati’s definition of comedy), the sounds do a remarkable job selling the seaside town locale of the film as a lived-in place rather than simply a set with actors waiting on cue. It sells the confused madman lost in a mundane world appeal of the film like nothing else. Tati’s generosity comes not only from his desire to induce laughter, but from his own palpable infatuation with the odd ticks and tricks of human nature; the film is alive with deadpan prods about how humanity interacts with itself, and with the space around us. Tati is above all a very curious director, and even at this early stage, his curiosity shines through in the way he depicts lived-in life.
It is no secret that cinema was much darker in 1953 than it was decades before, what with the occurrence and foul wound of the colossal world shifting point of WWII (which did more in the 20th century than any other event to clarify that the world was getting smaller by the minute). With the noir still one of the most popular cinematic genres, idealistic science fiction giving way to horror science fiction, and European and Japanese cinema growing increasingly popular with messages of difficulty and trying humanism, Tati in 1953 feels as soothing a salve for the world as it would be in 1967, when the world was in the midst of even more heated conflict. It is as innocent as a movie can be, and for this reason, it will always be necessary, in any time period.