My high school French teacher, Madame Haradon, would occasionally show her students classics of French cinema in her effort to bolster our grasp of her primary language. We saw some great films, including the creepy original version of Diabolique. The best, though, were the nearly wordless comedies of director Jacques Tati that focused on the hapless Monsieur Hulot. Play Time remains my favorite, but Tati's 1953 M. Hulot's Holiday is a close second. A newly restored cut of the latter opens today at the Landmark Nuart Theatre in LA for a special one-week engagement.
Tati was a notorious perfectionist and would often tinker with his films even after their initial release (George Lucas wasn't the first director to do so, contrary to what fans of the original Star Wars series might think). Tati played M. Hulot himself — to hilarious effect — in addition to writing and directing. The downside of such extensive involvement apparently meant that there was little of his work Tati was truly satisfied with initially. Tati re-edited and even re-shot parts of M. Hulot's Holiday at least twice, first in the early 1960's and again in 1978 (Tati passed away in 1982). The current version, which premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, is considered the filmmaker's definitive vision.
The M. Hulot films follow the title character, who was something of a predecessor to Peter Sellar's Inspector Clouseau, through various French locations and the chaos he leaves in his wake. Well-described in the restoration's press notes as a "bull in a China shop," Hulot inadvertently turns funerals, tennis matches, beaches and fireworks displays into opportunities for riotous laughter.
Almost entirely reliant on sight gags, M. Hulot's Holiday and Tati's other productions benefit from a visual and comedic-timing precision rarely utilized today. Then again, trying to imitate the masterful Tati would likely prove a foolhardy exercise.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.