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Monsieur Hulot bumbles through work, play, and four inspired comedies

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With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

It’s a testament to how little traditional character development goes on in the four French classics featuring Monsieur Hulot that, even by the tail end of them, the only truly familiar thing about the man is the way that he carries himself. Pipe in his mouth, umbrella under his arm, and khaki overcoat draped over his frame, the toweringly tall Hulot, as played by onetime music-hall mime Jacques Tati, cuts a larger-than-life figure. But the gentleman, a marginal member of the middle class, nonetheless appears determined to meet the world at eye level.


Hulot’s signature clumsiness, then, springs from his sense of civility—and perhaps also his poor eyesight. From Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) through Trafic (1971), he’s always tipping slightly forward, his hands on the back of his waist so that his arms jut out, elbows poking into the air, like the vestigial wings of a flightless bird. Ambling through a world that’s been invaded by short-circuiting amenities, his ill-fitting pants exposing his banded socks to the exhaust-filled air, Hulot is, however, less memorable for setting off a variety of mechanical malfunctions and social miscues than for skirting around them with a kind of accidental grace.

The picture-framer’s son Tati—the auteur and the actor behind Holiday, Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967), and Trafic, as well as two non-Hulot features—clearly owes more than a little to silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. But Tati’s unconventional sound films are comparatively reticent on the matters of where the character of Hulot has been and where exactly he’s trying to go. Indeed, Tati saw sound as a unique comic element in itself, amplifying post-synchronized Foley effects and overheard non sequiturs while forgoing true dialogue almost entirely. Hulot himself hardly ever forms a full sentence at all.


For all their differences in setting, and their attempts to reflect the changing zeitgeist both behaviorally and architecturally, these four films do present a coherent picture of a new postwar regime of leisure and commercialization, one in which the rabid pursuit of convenience has resulted in the formation of public and private spaces that aren’t very convenient at all. Thus the spotless modern Arpel house of Mon Oncle, the upkeep of which turns out to be a Pyrrhic effort, or the giant glass-lobby intercom in Playtime that has so many buttons it takes minutes to call someone, or the overzealous dual-purpose gadgetry of Trafic’s Camper Car, a mini mobile home so packed with supposed creature comforts that it’s scarcely roadworthy. In Tati, people have a way of coming together once they’ve fried the devices that are coming between them. His great humanist reminder seems particularly prescient in the age of the smartphone: Who we are is not just how we interface.

But despite these strong thematic through-lines, Hulot himself remains the main attraction in Tati’s body of work. In many ways, he might be a sort of man who wasn’t there—Tati biographer David Bellos even likens Hulot to Samuel Beckett’s midcentury non-arrival Godot—and yet all the other “characters” in this populous quartet of movies (most of them gentle parodies of different facets of a self-regarding society) fail to eclipse his presence. And despite all the apparent inconsistencies in the portrayal of Hulot from film to film, a coherent story about the man does emerge. Work and leisure are widely acknowledged to be themes of Tati’s work, but viewing these films as a de facto series (it was, crucially, not preconceived as a franchise) reveals something like a master narrative about those very subjects. Belatedly, Hulot homes in on that ever elusive work-life balance—even as Tati deliberately loses him in the crowd. If viewers of “the Monsieur Hulot films,” as they can only be called, don’t quite get to know him, at least they have the satisfaction of watching him get to know his own capabilities.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the breezy comedy that introduced the character to great popular success, was only the second feature-length film by an already middle-aged Tati. It was not until after the war, in 1949, that he made his debut with Jour De Fête, in which he also starred as a postman who becomes hell-bent on incorporating American methods of speed and efficiency into his work. (The results are predictably disastrous.) In the more free-floating Holiday, Hulot first appears on screen as he’s arriving at a beach resort—although it remains unclear throughout the black-and-white Holiday (Les Vacances De M. Hulot, in the original French) exactly what he’s taking a vacation from.


Once he’s dismounted from his sputtering jalopy, the wind all but paves his way into the Hôtel De La Plage: He leaves the door to the lobby ajar as he collects his luggage outside, sending in a gale that has guests pausing from teatime to hold on to their hats—at which point Hulot enters, fully unaware of the disturbance he’s created. When the new arrival checks in at the front desk, the clerk can only make out his name once he extracts the pipe from his mouth. “Hulot,” he finally says. The patronymic, which sounds like all vowels in its owner’s pronunciation, is evidently the only name he has.

From there, the well-intentioned Hulot continues to upset his fellow guests, who themselves don’t appear to be relaxing much at Saint-Marc-Sur-Mer—it’s fair to say that no one here really seems to be in their element. Hulot’s unorthodox serve turns tennis friendlies into ace-filled drubbings, and he gets under the skin of the hotel’s territorial waitstaff (the muted bass pluck of the dining-room door as it opens and closes being a perfect example of Tati’s ingenious isolation of counterintuitive sounds). Most spectacularly, the solo traveler wakes the entire hotel when he inadvertently sets off a shed full of fireworks. These breaches of the vacationers’ do-not-disturb compact might delight the viewer, but they do not wind up making Hulot many friends—although he does wind up competing for the affections of a blond on holiday with her aunt. (Jacqueline Schillio, who never performed in another movie, plays the love interest. Amusingly, given the professional pratfalls on display throughout his films, the director liked to use non-actors.)


Hulot is back to being an eternal bachelor, though, by the opening scenes of the somewhat more conventional Mon Oncle, which won the 1959 foreign-language Oscar, for a time allowing the principled perfectionist Tati to reject overtures from Hollywood. The film finds its protagonist living in a hard-to-access walk-up, periodically riding his bike over to the brand-new residence where his sister (Adrienne Servantie), brother-in-law (Jean-Pierre Zola), and nephew (Alain Bécourt) reside. Tati contrasts the quaint, comfortable village life led by Hulot with the headache-inducing bells and whistles of the Arpels’ proto–smart home, where a fish-shaped fountain spits out what appears to be blue food coloring, a vacuum scoots across the floor on its own, and the designer furniture is altogether too uncomfortable to sit on.

Bellos writes that the Hulot presented in Mon Oncle is notably “less bashful and less dumb than his seaside predecessor.” But it’s not much of a stretch to imagine these two protagonists as the same person: Perhaps the more mysterious Hulot of Holiday was on vacation not from an unknown occupation but from the constant meddling of his sister, who in Mon Oncle tries to set her brother up with a neighbor, and convinces her husband to get the layabout a job with a manufacturer of plastic hoses. In a terrific comic sequence reminiscent of Modern Times’ assembly-line hiccups, Hulot quickly makes a mess of things once he’s finally installed on the factory floor—a piece of equipment under his care winds up spitting out a length of hose that, crimped at intervals, resembles a chain of sausages. Hulot’s amused colleagues help him smuggle the links off the premises.


He’s amply demonstrated his unfitness for employment in the company of machines, but perhaps he’s not so unemployable after all: Hulot boards an airplane at the end of Mon Oncle, packed off by his brother-in-law in pursuit of a sales-job prospect in some far-flung corner of the country. By the time the curtain rises again, on the extraordinary vision Playtime—a financially ruinous 70mm film that took three arduous years to shoot, eventually showing before the French public nearly a decade after the release of Mon Oncle—Hulot is no longer necessarily front and center.


In an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Tati said he sought to create “a democracy of gags and comics,” showing Hulot dissolved among the masses in a kind of reverse Where’s Waldo? exercise. In practical terms, this necessitated the construction of what came to be known as “Tativille,” a built-from-scratch studio complex featuring two skyscrapers and its own power plant—an extravagance the filmmaker would later justify by saying it cost less, at the end of the day, than Sophia Loren would have. Before production had even wrapped, the government was dismantling Tativille to make way for a clover-leaf interchange—deconstruction also happens to have a central role on screen, albeit in a less literal sense. In a beautiful short book on Tati, French critic Michel Chion continues the great tradition of talking about the director’s best work in negative terms, writing that Playtime is “a film made through a process of elimination,” including that of “the main hero and the plot.”

Playtime is, indeed, as radically funny a film as there will ever be about the phenomenon of mixed-use developments, their square footage—as spick-and-span as the space stations of the then-in-gestation 2001—both primed for and safeguarded against the human stampede. Yet the familiar old Hulot doesn’t get entirely lost in the shuffle: There’s still much more of him than estimations of the film as a departure would suggest. Playtime finds Hulot touching down at a newly minted terminal of Paris’s Orly airport, evidently for the purpose of the very same interview he set off for at the end of Mon Oncle. Not surprisingly, Hulot winds up missing the appointment, getting lost amid the sparkling structures and roundabout traffic ringing the airport.


His work trip begins to look a lot like leisure as he winds up on the same closed circuit as a guided tour of American women “seeing the sights.” In this simulacrum of Paris that’s been erected in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Coeur, and Arc De Triomphe are glimpsed only as reflections in windows, and the ladies “ooh” and “ahh” most enthusiastically on the floor of a gadget exposition where most everyone happens to speak the universal language of useless commodities—i.e., English. Hulot manages to attract the amused attention of one of the Americans (Barbara Dennek), but he also has a friendly run-in with Giffard (Georges Montant), the executive who was supposed to interview him back at the corporate HQ. Perhaps something might come of the trip after all.

Here there is also the first mention of a job Hulot was able to hold down just a couple of decades ago: On the street, he gets hailed by two army buddies whom he scarcely seems to recognize in turn. One invites him into his glassed-in apartment for a drink, a situation Hulot keeps trying to duck out of (Tati underscores the body language by shooting these indoor protestations from the remove of the street). Another such acquaintance works the doors at a nearby restaurant, and he warmly invites Hulot inside. During the sequence at the hoity-toity Royal Garden, which takes up most of the last third of Playtime, Hulot manages to shatter the front door and collapse part of the ceiling. Neither of these mishaps are necessarily his fault, though. The film, which captures a nation that seems unsure of its identity in the wake of the recent Algerian conflict, finally softens the presentation of the man as an exceptional maladroit—the poorly planned fine-dining establishment clearly wasn’t ready for the hard launch in the first place, and the drunks who toddle through this riotously entropic sequence create more consternation than Hulot himself.


If Playtime suggests, however faintly, that Hulot’s haplessness might stem at least in part from the trauma of the Second World War, Tati’s subsequent film, the partly Dutch-funded Trafic—the last hurrah for Hulot—finds him on a firmer social footing. Surely this can’t be the same Monsieur, many critics have pointed out, as he’s all too suddenly able to withstand the demands of high-pressure employment, working up detailed designs for the fictional French car manufacturer Altra. But perhaps Hulot did eventually have that meeting with Griffard in Paris, and perhaps from there he’s spent the last few years falling up the corporate ladder. For the Hulot of Trafic is ready to make his own waves on the exhibition floor, planning to unveil the all-purpose station wagon he’s conceived at a marquee auto show in Amsterdam.


In one of the more famous gags of Holiday, a group of mourners mistakes a flat tire of Hulot’s, covered with wet leaves, for a funeral wreath. Car culture proves much more widely disruptive to the social order in Trafic, which pokes fun at the idea of driver etiquette on a number of scores: There are a couple of screeching pile-ups here, the aftermath of which Hulot bounds through like a traffic cop gone mad, as well as less imaginative, apparently candid footage of well-dressed men furtively picking their noses behind the wheel. Meanwhile, flat tires continue to dog Hulot. The caravan headed to set up the Amsterdam display keeps getting delayed as one automobile after another must go in for repairs.

Trafic is widely regarded as the least buoyant of the Hulot films, a comedown after the densely packed canvas of Playtime, and this assessment isn’t off base. Yet Trafic also serves as a fitting terminus for Hulot—certainly a happier ending for the man than the one Tati, no doubt sick of the commercial necessity of including the beloved figure in his films, had kicked around before his own death in 1982. In his final years, Tati had collaborated on a script called Confusion with his erstwhile Film Comment interviewer Rosenbaum, who has written about watching the director riff out loud on the character’s death, imagining him done in—accidentally, of course—at a TV studio.


As it stands, the last Hulot film finds him in the driver’s seat of a particularly curious project. Not only is he finally (and somewhat miraculously) in possession of steady work, but this position allows him to create a sort of Swiss-army home that’s both more and less than the sum of its gizmos. Each of these is cleverly demonstrated for the viewer as customs officials inspect the vehicle: the mattress that inflates in the rear bed of the hatch back, the grille that’s also a grill, and the horn that becomes an electric shaver with the flip of a dashboard switch.


Not unlike the Arpel house or the crystal-palace office blocks of Playtime, this automobile is so relentlessly practical that it becomes a nuisance. But there’s also something almost utopian about this prospective product. The audience never sees Hulot truly at home—even in Mon Oncle, the camera doesn’t travel past the window of his top-floor flat—and he appears reluctant as well to enter the homes of others, often stalling at the threshold and fidgeting restlessly once inside. The Camper Car, then, might well be the kind of liminal space where he’d finally feel a sense of belonging: an infinitely convertible home that he can take on his wanderings, one that he never really has to leave behind at all. And if it malfunctions, so much the better—he will have used his work to create a place for play.

The public’s emergent auto mania allows Hulot to bring this private dream to public fruition, but go figure that the model never actually makes it to market. A PR rep and a few other colleagues in tow, Hulot pulls up to the Amsterdam convention center just as the car show closes—at which point he gets sacked by an angry Altra executive. But Hulot doesn’t look like a man who’s just been left in the dust. No defeated slouch detectible in that leaning-tower posture, he descends into the subway—only to be driven back up the stairs by a flood of exiting commuters. So, changing course, Hulot joins arms with the publicist, who’s still milling about aboveground. And as it starts to rain, he finally finds a use for that not-so-newfangled contraption he’s been carrying all along, opening his umbrella to offer shelter to his companion. One wonders where they’ll go once they’ve navigated the vast maze of the parking lot. Having turned in some hard work—however futile—perhaps Hulot will head back to the beach.


Final ranking:

1. Playtime
2. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
3. Mon Oncle
4. Trafic

Outside life: Monsieur Hulot, played by longtime Tati double Jacques Cottin, makes a cameo appearance in François Truffaut’s Bed And Board (1970), itself part of the five-film saga of that other beloved recurring character of New Wave-era French cinema, Antoine Doinel. At one point Tati did indeed dream that Hulot facsimiles might waltz through others’ movies, and Truffaut, a great admirer of Tati’s, presumably was aware of this. Meanwhile, The Illusionist (2010), adapted from an unproduced Tati screenplay by The Triplets Of Belleville’s Sylvain Chomet, would no doubt have made the control-oriented director apoplectic. The protagonist here is a magician named Tatischeff (the filmmaker’s real name), but he’s nonetheless highly Hulot-like—right down to the hems of his pants, which fall right around his ankles. Near the end of The Illusionist, the protagonist even stumbles into a theater playing Mon Oncle. For a moment, the screen within the screen becomes a kind of mirror, as the viewer watches Tatischeff watch Hulot, who tiptoes along a circuitous garden path like a first-time skater proud to have remained upright on the ice.