Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot leans into the world like a great long-legged bird, making a lackadaisical triangle out of himself in the square frame — he’s a geometry lesson all by himself. In the first Hulot comedy, M. Hulot’s Holiday, Tati insinuates himself none too adroitly into most of the scenes. Polite but awkward, Hulot also sticks his head out like a turtle, his jutting pipe completing the image of an obliviously invasive chaos magnet.
The world Tati creates in M. Hulot’s Holiday — a nice but not-too-posh seaside resort, where people on a slightly comfortable income can still laze away a few weeks — is warmly organic. Hulot is the inorganic ingredient, the sand in the oyster. Yet he gets no particular pleasure out of the messes he makes, nor does he suffer much grief. Deadpan in the tradition of Buster Keaton, Hulot simply ambles from one situation to another, and the people around him generally don’t react much, as if they were used to his mishaps. This is a movie with a whole cast of Buster Keatons.
Alain Romans’ lounge-like score sets the tone: everyone in the movie is out to relax, and the movie is relaxed, too. The slapstick is deftly timed but not mechanical; it has a logic, but not the merciless Rube Goldberg logic of a lot of slapstick. When Hulot lays a spare tire down on muddy, leafy ground, a caretaker from a nearby funeral stops to pick up the tire, thinking it’s a wreath. A short time later, we see it placed on a monument, its air hissing out mildly rudely as a nonplussed mourner passes by.
M. Hulot’s Holiday begins with a child getting smacked by his mother, and there are odd little darts of aggression throughout. Hulot kicks a man outside a changing room, then tries to evade him, detained by a chattering woman. Dogs seem to be in the movie for the sole purpose of nearly getting run over — the first one, determined to flop right in the middle of the road, is almost a spiritual kin to Hulot. In the celebrated tennis scene, Hulot does that weird jabbing thing with his racket before delivering hard volleys that crush all comers. Yet even the aggression is almost passive-aggressive, like the man who runs his arm under Hulot’s nose to grab the salt.
The people here, it seems, come to get away from it all, apparently pretending they’re alone at the resort. Hulot retires to a side room and plays blaring jazz; later, a little kid does the same. In both cases, a switch on the wall takes care of the lights and the jazz. In this near-silent universe, nobody would actually enter the room and ask Hulot to turn down the music; communication is avoided at all costs (foreshadowed in that great scene with the muffled loudspeaker leading the group of vacationers all over the train station). A politician droning on the radio about the state of the nation rapidly devolves into incoherent fragments; for Tati, that sums up such speeches, and might also sum up speech.
It’s a calm and sunny movie, and even when the sun goes down it’s just an occasion for more deadpan humor. When there are loud sounds at night — particularly during the fireworks at the climax — the people don’t rush outside demanding to know what’s going on; we just see a few windows light up in the resort house, one after another, and we’re left to imagine the mild bafflement of those inside.
Despite all this, Hulot seems to be trusted and liked, and he seems to be viewed as an eccentric fixture at the resort, a bit of color brightening the sameness of the restful days. By the end, Tati has evoked the place with such grace and lulling humor that we wouldn’t mind staying there. Even if we end up with fireworks entering our bedroom window, or riding in a car that rolls off down the road by itself, it might be worth it.