Cinema has frequent occasion to ask, 'why do people act the way that they do?' Many movies try to answer this question through character psychology—and they may explore this deftly or clumsily, superficially or deeply. Some films treat this question in a more detached or oblique way. Jacques Tati's movies, for example, are great examples of armchair ethology. They show people acting the way that they do because of their environments. We see the way that architecture corrals and disperses them, we see the mimetic impulse to possess objects or emulate actions, and we see the assumptions that cause rational thinking to reveal itself as magical thinking (or vice versa).
I’m guessing people reading this probably are already very familiar with Jacques Tati and need no introduction to him. If you haven’t seen any of Tati’s gentle dialogue-light comedies, in most of which he plays a character named M. Hulot (who may or may not be the “protagonist”), do yourself a favor and seek them out. This little appreciation, meanwhile, will dip into some of the things that I have found interesting about these movies for the past few decades of my life.
Watching a VHS of Playtime with a friend in high school one evening was a transformative experience and a crucial milestone in my aesthetic education. I’m grateful that’s how I first saw the movie, too. I think some people first learn about Playtime (like so many more or less official classics) as a kind of Work, rather than as something more linked to pleasure and serendipity and discovery. I think I said this about Jean-Luc Godard’s films before, too: I started watching these as a teenager in a spirit of curiosity, interested in a “challenge,” sure, but not as assignments of canonical artwork that were set before me. I studied (and taught) movies academically for many years, but my love of films, inclusive of my interest in learning about them, contextualizing them, or picking them apart, even rigorously, is rooted deeply in pleasure and free play. It is not rooted in the classroom, the curriculum, the syllabus, the canon, or social currency.
I digress. Let’s talk about Tati, and let’s talk about M. Hulot. He is a misfit, a gentle soul out of rhythm, but his actions are so consequential.
Hulot is a great mime of those around him. He is chronically out of place because he doesn't seem to understand gadgets or fashions very well, and he represents a kind of friction with French postwar modernization. Hulot suggests a perfect indeterminacy of intelligence and stupidity. He’s only “stupid” to the extent that he’s not able to catch on to all the ways he’s not quite conforming to the seamless actions and processes of the ideal (modern) life. His socialization is a vestige of a different existence, perhaps an era that never was—gallant, chivalrous, quiet, without neurosis, friendly to any and all, a little curious but in a general, flitting-around kind of way, rather than borne of deep desire TO KNOW and to make the world yield up answers to its mysteries. But before we get there, rather than jumping deeper into the extrapolated Big Themes like modernity, let’s look at this character and these movies. Specifically, let’s look at M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), which I recently revisited and which is one of the most delightful, funny, laid-back masterpieces of the mid-20th century.
M. Hulot’s Holiday is full of actions rendered a little ridiculous by virtue of their cluelessness or pointlessness. When a woman passes a couple, the wife tells her husband, "You didn't say hello to Mme. Debreuil.” The old man turns around to doff his cap silently to the passed woman’s back, a nullified gesture. (But, we might also say, a civil one!)
Or there’s the man who raises his sleeve to retrieve a pen that’s fallen into an aquarium, only to absent-mindedly put his sleeved arm into the water. He was distracted watching Hulot on the other side of the room.
There are a lot of small accidents and close calls, several of them involving cars, like the quick gag where Hulot, repairing a car, moves his legs just in time for a passing van …
… only to casually pull aside the mat which bore the tire marks of that van …
… and then to look at the striped socks around his ankles, perplexed because—well—did he get run over after all?
There’s a disconnect between what’s seen and what’s felt. There’s a disconnect between the normal, expected pattern or protocol or script and whatever accident befalls it. At another point, a photographer is about to take a family portrait, but he gets a phone call, so he tells the family not to move. So they obey him—they just stand there, posing. A man is painting a boat’s name on its hull, but the winch unwinds all the rope, allowing the boat to sail off into the sea, all while a man on the other side of the boat keeps working on it, studiously, unaware or uncaring that he’s now out in the shallows.
Hulot towels himself off at the beach without actually drying himself, because his towel has wrapped around the pole behind him—but, puzzled though he is, he's sure he must be dry now. Right? He just dried off! So he wrings out his dry towel and goes on his way.
Commentators have often linked Tati to other artistic comedy filmmakers; names like Roy Andersson and Elia Suleiman come up a lot. But this play with a character’s lack of bodily and situational awareness can make for really great throwaway gags in comparatively more verbal, more plot-driven contexts, too. We see it, for example, when Lloyd Christmas, in Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Dumb and Dumber To (2014), keeps spraying his breath spray outside his mouth, but continually reacts as though he’s just gotten a minty fresh mouthful.
Manners and gestures, the small and often automatic techniques that move and lubricate our everyday world, have their own concrete reality and logic. But sometimes those techniques fall out of alignment with their objective context. It’s funny! (Have you ever said sorry after bumping into furniture?) M. Hulot’s Holiday, like Tati’s films more broadly, shows us this by holding these kinds of behaviors in front of us, allowing us to draw our own conclusions. How many of us have looked at footage of ourselves when we didn’t know we were being recorded and wondered, “why am I moving in that way?” It’s an intriguing, sometimes an unsettling or stirring thing, to see our own behaviors repackaged, ever so slightly, so that we appear as symptom or statistic.
But this is where finesse comes in. You can’t be too heavy handed about it. It has to be depicted with grace and levity. Let the audience fill in gaps as it makes sense to them. Otherwise, social-observational humor gets heavy and stale in a hurry. It tries to buffalo the viewer into a monolithic response, suffocating the spontaneity of the apprehension. You can be forceful, broad, goofy, or vulgar—but you must have a sense of when to leave off and trust your audience.
M. Hulot's Holiday is peopled with all shapes and sizes, with a straightforward eye and no moral shorthand (e.g., “these are ugly characters, so they must bad”). Everybody is capable of being a little ridiculous.
An intellectual, wearing socks in sandals and a jacket on the beach, tries desperately to reach the attractive blonde woman who draws everyone's eye at this vacation spot. He’s fixated on philosophy and politics and seems to think not only that everyone else should be so fixated, too, but that they all are.
Hulot contorts and tries to reach a book but the shortpantsed, mustached gentleman doesn’t seem to grasp quickly that he’s in the way.
Sometimes Tati will compose the frames so that key actions or people are bunched up to one side; although you could describe M. Hulot’s Holiday as “twee” or something like it, there’s also a kind of unfussiness about it—no “one perfect shot” syndrome, here. Less notice this!, more what do you notice?
Noticing things! Notice, too, there’s some humor derived from the apathy of some characters to certain kinds of sensations—a mischevious boy tries to burn a sunbathing man with a magnifying glass, but the man just brushes at his torso as if there’s a fly. Women are rocked or lifted in chairs without seeming to notice. These things don’t move or bother these people; the comedy comes from exaggerating their lack of response but I think it also reflects, subtly, a different and less anxious way of inhabiting one’s body. (Damn, what’s that like?) This manifests as a more plastic, perhaps more cartoonish screen-body. It’s as if one trusts that a little momentary pain, discomfort, or disorientation isn’t anything to be concerned with. It’s only real when one becomes aware of it, i.e., when objective reality forces its way back into alignment with the automated logic of gestures—that’s also, I think, why Wile E. Coyote falls off the cliff only in mid-air, after he stops and realizes he’s in mid-air.
There’s Jacques Tati's own body, as a performer, which is graceful in its lanky clumsiness. Many of the gags stem from his movements, or his movements are motivated by the actions of those around him—people in his way, people he doesn’t notice are in his way, people doing things he decides to imitate (such as the formidable tennis swing he learns).
Then there are the bodies of the other actors, whom Tati directs and directs around, who like him populate the film with close calls and near-accidents, contortions, unnecessarily tight spaces and roundabout paths. But these are done, for each actor, are in their own ways! Without many close-ups, the film provides a real and nimble appreciation of its actors’ individual bodies, how they are shaped, how people rest and recline, how they demonstrate interest, how they may be graceful or agitated. The general spirit of a film like M. Hulot’s Holiday is eclectic, pluralist, democratic.
Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1973 interview with Tati explores this some implications of this dimension more fully. Tati himself claims, specifically in reference to his 1967 Playtime: “The images are designed so that after you see the picture two or three times, it’s no longer my film, it starts to be your film. You recognize the people, you know them, and you don’t even know who directed the picture. It’s not a film you sign like Fellini’s Roma. Playtime is nobody.”
This, in turn, suggests a picture of the social body, more broadly. Of course, M. Hulot’s Holiday, whatever it feels like, whatever aleatory elements it contains, was made with meticulous care and coordination by a large number of collaborators. But if I can follow my instincts and even take a cue from Tati-the-Author’s suggestion, I can describe a little of what “my” M. Hulot’s Holiday is, and what it implies. In an important if indirect way, it feels like a picture of harmony. All things are in accordance with one another. But, crucially, and more to the point, the film offers an experience of what harmony might specifically be. I don’t think this is a kind of harmony achieved through the elimination of error or stain in pursuit of a kind of perfection. Harmony is not the perfect absence of friction or waste; rather, harmony requires some amount of friction and of inefficiency. It requires living with differences, it requires translation, it understands that miscommunication is both inevitable and necessary. Harmony is not instrumentalist. There will be accidents.
Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes, you might need to remember not to turn to wheel but instead to sit with the inefficiency in your lap, and recognize it, in fact, as more than an impediment.