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. Continue reading