Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot

(1953)
   Film. In the opening credits to Jacques Tati's Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, the audience is invited to relax, take a seat behind the camera, and abandon any hopes of finding a plot. What follows is a humorous series of adventures and blunders of the lead character, Monsieur Hulot, played by Tati himself. Hulot, a creation of Tati based on his personal acquaintances, spends his summer vacation at the beach among other tourists, several of whom are British. With a signature gait in which he angles forward, seemingly on the balls of his feet, he creates disorder wherever he wanders. He is positioned as a curious outsider who is oblivious to the disruption and trouble he inadvertently causes. The cinematic gags that result are reminiscent of classic silent films like those featuring Max Linder or Romeo Bosetti, but Tati's film diverges from the classics in significant ways.
   Although Tati uses comic gags from silent cinema, he infuses his work with unusual sounds that call attention to themselves, such as the muffled drone of the train station loudspeaker, or the odd chord of a swinging door. The sounds in the film take on a life of their own, often emerging independently of the images and creating their own story. Hulot is the main character, yet utters only one line—"Hulot, Monsieur Hulot"—and even this is muffled by his pipe. Furthermore, the conversations of the tourists are heard off-screen and do not always correspond to the action. Viewers must construct their own meaning as Tati plays with audience expectations of sound, image, and narrative.
   Critics have noted that while Tati's film abandons conventional uses of narrative, characterization, and sound, it is by no means devoid of meaning. The character Hulot, who emerged with Les Vacances de Monsiuer Hulot and later appeared as the leading figure in Tati's Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967), and Trafic (1971), brings with him satiric commentaries on modernity, especially the uniformity of modern life brought upon by mass-produced household gadgets. Impressively, Tati managed to craft this commentary partly through the use of bizarre and inscrutable sounds. A radio broadcast in the hotel announces that industrial production has remained stagnant and that authorities have rejected the call for a shorter working week. The announcement is drowned out by the festive, albeit deafening, music of Hulot's record player, though one registers that the demand for increased productivity threatens the delightful frivolity of Hulot's vacations. If sounds in the film can be associated with sounds in reality, those real sounds seem to be mocked through their distortion, creating satire that ultimately must be constructed by the spectator. Hulot, in his old, sputtering car that is passed by newer, sleeker, and faster models, seems to arrive from a different time, a time perhaps when people expected that modern inventions would make life more enjoyable. His attempts to employ new devices often end in chaos, but his spontaneous blunders are welcome alternatives to the predictability of the modern world around him.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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