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Is It Really a Great Movie? Part Twenty-Four: Mr. Hulot's Holiday

by dan heaton

Using Roger Ebert's Great Movies book as a guide, this series of articles will focus on all films included on his list that previously have escaped my notice. Since all lists are subjective, I am not treating Ebert's choices as the essential selection of films. However, his essays offer the perfect chance for me to explore both classics and lesser-known pictures from around the globe.

Mr. Hulotís Holiday is one of the films that I knew virtually nothing about prior to the viewing. This 1953 French picture was directed by Jacques Tati, who filmed and starred in five movies as the nearly silent title character. Although this entry does not seem to be a prime contender for a great movies collection, it was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar and the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It also won the Prix Louis Delluc, which honors premier French films. Along with Ebertís acclaim, this quirky story earned recognition from Director Richard Lester (A Hard Dayís Night) as the best film of all time in the 2002 Sight & Sound poll. It is loved by many, but also draws considerable ire from viewers expecting a much grander picture. Numerous versions have been made available over the years, with a broad difference in lengths. I viewed the U.S. VHS release, which lasts only 85 minutes, nearly a half-hour shorter than the French version.

The picture begins with text making it clear there is little plot of any kind. In slightly condescending fashion, it asks that we enjoy the characters and their similarities to actual people. The thin structure loosely follows a group of travelers on holiday at an old beachside resort. We observe individuals performing typical summer activities, including swimming, beachcombing, and relaxing in the cafť. The activities are hardly notable and give us little perspective on the inner feelings of the shallow individuals. Tati plays the title character as a quiet buffoon who fails miserably when he tries to interact with the other guests. An example involves a friendly tennis match with some novice players, who Hulot treats like deadly enemies. His whipping of a series of opponents draws some mild laughs, but it also goes on for much too long. This drawn-out atmosphere pervades the entire film and lessens the overall enjoyment.

Mr. Hulot exists in the mold of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, who create havoc and are often oblivious to the chaos. While he bungles fireworks during the finale and sets them off everywhere, Hulotís attempts to solve the problem only make things worse. These antics are meant to be hilarious, and while they do generate a smile, the effect wears off with each successive event. His inept wooing of the attractive young blonde (Nathalie Pascaud) is mildly amusing, but it also becomes tired pretty quickly. Her character receives considerable screen time (and male attention), but she never moves beyond feeling like a one-note character. The characters appear intended as simple because they match the limited perspective a person can achieve while on holiday. Tatiís approach is understandable, and it works during the first act, but he fails to maintain the interest during the feature film.

Roger Ebert describes Mr. Hulotís Holiday as a ďcomedy of memory, nostalgia, fondness and good cheer.Ē While I cannot disagree with any part of this description, these positives do not warrant Great Movie status. There is a certain charm to this picture, which celebrates the minute aspects of a summer vacation on the beach. However, it also begins to feel redundant after the first 30 minutes and cannot maintain the early success. Supported often by a melodic tune that refuses to leave your head for several days, Tati crafts a unique film that has inspired many viewers throughout the years. However, the casual tone did not resonate with me very much beyond the time of the actual viewing. Hulot is worth seeing for a low-key experience, but it lacks the unforgettable aspects needed to become a classic film.

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