These notes accompany the screenings of Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday on July 24, 25, and 26.
When a director acts in his own movie, it’s almost like he’s automatically on third base in his bid to score as an auteur. The most obvious examples in America are Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, and Erich von Stroheim. Sacha Guitry is comparable in France, but even Jean Renoir acts in two of his most important films (A Day in the Country and The Rules of the Game) and appears on screen in his last, The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir. Similarly, Francois Truffaut plays major roles in The Wild Child, Day For Night, and The Green Room. I expect Jacques Tati (1908–1982) never saw a third base, and, if he had, he would have either tripped over it or inadvertently picked it up as a souvenir, especially if a game was in progress. (Actually, before he went into film, Tati’s stage act was built around parodying sports stars of the era.) He, of course, played the lead in all five of his features.
Although I admire Tati, I’m at a loss to credit what seems to me Andre Bazin’s extravagant praise for M. Hulot’s Holiday. Surely, Tati is clever and inventive in creating his visual and aural gags and awkward situations, but my feeling is that Chaplin and Keaton, in addition to being funny, are dealing with matters more cosmic than comic, and that Welles and Stroheim, too, are operating on a plane beyond entertainment. Perhaps Harold Lloyd is America’s closest equivalent. Seldom giving an engrossing performance, Lloyd seems to be defined primarily by his outfit and physical appearance. He lacks the grace of Chaplin and Keaton, although he also doesn’t suffer from Tati’s abnormal gawkiness.
Leslie Rodier makes the point that Chaplin and Keaton essentially create their own special universe, derived from their personalities. Tati inhabits our universe. As Rodier says, “Hulot, rather than creating the comedy in his films, adds a counterpoint to the other characters and to filmic elements in his films to provide the audience with a new comic perspective on banal, commonplace events.” To quote Pauline Kael, “It is Jacques Tati’s peculiar comic triumph to have caught the ghastliness of a summer vacation at the beach…Tati is sparse, eccentric, quick. It is not until afterward—with the sweet, nostalgic music lingering—that these misadventures may take on a certain depth and poignancy.” It is this depth and poignancy, however, always front and center in Chaplin and Keaton that, in my opinion, makes them a cut above Tati. We are amused by, and see our reflection in, M. Hulot, but we love Charlie and Buster, whom the cinema has turned into gods. We are more like Tati’s description of Hulot: “He is just a fellow in the road…a little head-in-air, thinking about other things.”
No one has written more admiringly of Tati and M. Hulot’s Holiday than Dave Kehr, who says that Tati “is one of the handful of film artists—the others would include Griffith, Eisenstein, Murnau, Bresson—who can be said to have transformed the medium at its most basic level, to have found a new way of seeing.” Kehr’s view is that by rejecting plot, Tati “drove the first decisive wedge between cinema and classical narration.” He traces the emergence of “modern cinema” to this film, and includes such moderns as Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, and Robert Bresson as among Tati’s progeny. I would add Andy Warhol to this list (and probably question the inclusion of Bresson), but, by my personal boorish bourgeois standards, I confess to confusion as to whether this is reason to celebrate Tati or condemn him. Kehr, for his part, suggests that Tati’s innovation results in “sheer boredom,” but he cites that as virtue. Perhaps I’ve sat through too many hours of self-indulgence by Godard or Warhol in the service of “purity,” to not wish that somebody would, at least, trip over third base and perhaps even bleed a little. I like Tati (and I like Dave too), and I’m not sure he deserves all this intellectual baggage.
As William Faulkner told us, the past is never dead or even past. In 2010, Sylvain Chomet (director of the lovely animated feature The Triplets of Belleville) dusted off Tati’s unrealized script for The Illusionist, featuring a Hulot-like character as an itinerant stage magician. The resulting animated feature was nominated for an Oscar.