This is a positive evolution in Jacques Tati’s style. The film, much like the previous Jour du Fete, still feels like a series of skits strung together, but they have a common idea that runs through them in much stronger fashion than before. The idea is a simple modest one, but Tati manages to find the humor, absurdity, contradictions, and joy of a typical French vacation to the sea. He’s also changed his central character in performance. The bumbling bicycle postman Francois is gone, replaced by the far more well-known Monsieur Hulot.
M. Hulot (Tati) arrives at a seaside resort alongside a small host of other vacationers. Tati, who had created a distinct character in Francois (all big actions), goes in a new direction with Hulot. Hulot, who walks on his toes, always smokes a pipe, and leans forward as he tries to navigate the world around him, is a Chaplinesque creation made all the more apparent by the fact that the film is effectively silent. I would honesty be surprised if Tati recorded any on-set audio while filming this movie because every word of the limited dialogue sounds recorded over, and the precise use of sound effects (none of which seem like they come naturally from the environment) all sound added on. I say this not as a criticism, but as a note for how the film builds the reality of its world. The relative lack of dialogue (often replaced with indistinct muttering) and pronounced sound effects create an almost dreamlike world in which Hulot exists. This isn’t reality. This is a heightened reality, perfect for a gentle comedy.
The story of the film isn’t much. As I noted before, it’s effectively a series of sketches as Hulot and his fellow vacationers enjoy their few days by the sea. Hulot shows up in his quaint car (a 1924 model) that putters along. He leaves the door open to the seaside hotel too long, allowing wind to blow everything around inside (a subtle and funny moment as these people are at the seaside to enjoy it but protect themselves from the reality of it as they read their newspapers and listen to national broadcasts on the radio). He can’t speak clearly with his pipe in his mouth because both of his hands are holding his bags. He doesn’t realize the length of his fishing pole is causing issues behind him. It’s diverting, delightful stuff.
And the movie progresses in this fashion for a while with Hulot getting into misunderstandings (including kicking someone in the rear because he thinks they’re spying on a woman changing her clothes), accidents (like driving his car into a the parking lot of a cemetery and his spare tire getting covered in leaves, resembling a wreath, and that tire being placed on the memorial), and gentle critique (like the vacationer who keeps running inside to take calls from the office).
A small vacation romance develops between Hulot and an attractive young blonde Martine (Nathalie Pascaud). It’s never more than polite in public, but it’s a nice and warm connection that Hulot shares, filled with comic pratfalls, of course. The best bit here is when Hulot tries to go horseback riding with Martine, and Hulot cannot control his horse before he ever gets on it. Using the most of his mime background, Tati throws himself all around, and often just out of sight so we only see bits of it, as he struggles to climb the saddle. There’s also a nice bit where the two share a pirate themed dance, turning up the music to enjoy their moment which drowns out the broadcast from the politician in power outlining a campaign promise, which angers the other residents of the hotel. Despite being on vacation to get away, they must remain plugged in, even in terms of 1950s technology.
There’s a subtle way the film builds, though, that’s interesting. It becomes more than just a series of comic sketches with a common setting and theme. Hulot himself, his effort to engage with people, to enjoy his vacation and the scenery of the seaside, endear him wonderfully to the audience by the end. There’s no great conflict for him to overcome, but his good nature and eagerness to be polite to those around him is wonderfully winning. By the time the vacation comes to an end, people are exchanging business cards, and Hulot must wave goodbye to Martine, Hulot has become wonderfully loveable. There’s something wonderfully winning about Hulot by the end as he still seems removed from all the contradictions and absurdities of such a vacation, supposedly remote yet still surrounded by masses of people. It’s that sort of endearing quality that Francois was missing that Hulot has in spades. Francois was fun, but he was never loveable.
It’s a sneaky little movie by the end. It’s got a sly sense of satirical humor hidden by the comic pratfalls of Tati. The look at how the French can’t actually seem to enjoy their vacations, the sights, smells, and sounds of their little slice of heaven in the seaside, is amusingly subversive while never meanspirited. Tati, pulling from his own past, in particular his childhood, obviously has no ill feelings towards these people he sees as unable to live in the moment. He just likes to give them a gentle ribbing, and that good natured way of doing things is ultimately quite enjoyable. Tati has found his voice, and I expect wonderful things in the future.