M. Hulot has impeccable manners for an agent of chaos. The creation and alter ego of beloved French director Jacques Tati, Hulot resembles a cross between an ostrich and a young Stephen Fry. Or perhaps a vintage New Yorker cartoon come to life, with angular elbows, oversized feet and an outthrust pipe perpetually intruding on other people.
In films such as M. Hulot's Holiday, Tati put a distinctive Gallic spin on silent-era slapstick stars like Buster Keaton, inspiring a new generation of masterful stumblebums such as Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean, and even the Kids in the Hall's Mr. Heavyfoot. But where Clouseau's pratfalls deflated his aggressive pomposity, and Mr. Bean acted out boyish mischief, Hulot remained the paragon of an innocent, well-meaning klutz capable of sowing confusion among French post-war complacency.
M. Hulot's Holiday introduced the character in 1953, although Tati tells us nearly everything we need to know about him before even showing him. As French urbanites flee the cities for the coastal beaches, Hulot putters along in a flatulent jalopy, with a horn like a quack and nonstop backfiring, his slow pace vexing his fellow vacationers. Holiday primarily takes place at a seaside hotel, where Hulot befuddles familiar French types, including a windbag war veteran, a fiery young Marxist, and a young blonde (Nathalie Pascaud) who titters at Hulot's awkward attempts at chivalry. Viewers will wonder whether Hulot will get the girl, in spite of his meek clumsiness.
Presented in a restored 35 mm print, M. Hulot's Holiday avoids conventional plotting and significant dialogue to provide a series of gags and whimsical situations involving kayaks, tennis, horses, dance parties, and other mainstays of French vacations. The jokes mostly elicit polite chuckles rather than tearful belly laughs. Some setups take awhile to pay off, such as the running joke of everyone at the hotel switching on their lights every time Hulot accidentally awakens them. Audiences used to the raucous, painful physical humor of Jackass and Will Ferrell movies will need to adjust their expectations for Tati's droll, elegant wit. It's as if Tati spends the film constructing one delicate sand castle after another, and M. Hulot steps on all of them.