See You Next Year: Rewatchable Impermanence in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday

An illustration, done entirely in red, of Jacques Tati as the titular role in MONSIEUR HULOT'S HOLIDAY. Tati wears a hat tipped on his head, smokes a pipe, and looks down to his right.
illustration by Tom Ralston

One of the things that makes the vacation film a distinct genre, with its own consistently paced and faceted visual language and its own schema of stock types and arcs—the widow and widower who meet at a beachside resort; a family cross-country road trip in a vehicle seemingly custom-built to fail—is its tendency towards rewatchability. Such films are rewatchable in large part due to their relatable aspirationalism, their escapism, their comedies of errors, misgivings, and ultimate resolution (though rarely the way first envisioned). The films of Jacques Tati are blessed with a similar rewatchable nature, albeit usually of a different kind. Each of his frames is a lovely visual sonnet, apparently mannered yet, when viewed with the proper eye, a garden of meticulous delights that can be read over and over and still yield something new. Tati only made six features, among them a gentle satire of domestic mechanization (Mon Oncle, 1958), an epic hyper-consumerist farce (PlayTime, 1967), and, in his second film—the last one he’d shoot in black and white—a touchingly comic vacation drama, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, a beachside reverie to the vanishing simplicity of village life, the absurdity of middle class ideals, and the fleeting joy of summer love.

Like any other director gifted (or burdened) with the auteur tag, Tati had quite a recognizable style, visually arresting to the point of intoxication, built on a kind of deconstructed slapstick or music hall routine. His visual language necessitated that the viewer pay close attention or miss a gag, not because they were happening so quickly but rather because there were countless sight gags being played out, slowly and methodically and perfectly staged and choreographed, not just in the fore-, but also the middle- and background of the frame. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, this style is made tauter, more quaint, and is perhaps at its most endearing. A can of paint is washed out by the tide and brought back just as the painter, not looking up all the while, again dips his brush; a dog, sunbathing in the road, moves at the honk of each passing car, except one, which sounds like the call of an asthmatic duck, that the dog fails to acknowledge. Of course, the butt of both of these gags is Tati’s alter ego, the titular Monsieur Hulot. 

The film opens with an aria of diegetic and non-diegetic sound—surf crashing on a beach interposed with collaged bits of the theme, “How Is the Weather In Paris”— a pairing echoed later on in scene transitions rosy with bright strains of melody, and the audible result of some gag (water rushing out of a drain pipe at the feet of two men shaking hands). Suddenly, a cut to a train station, flooded with a cacophony of “this way,” “no, that way,” “quick! It’s pulling out,” “well, the damn thing’s late again,” and families rushing to and fro with suitcases and infants and butterfly nets. But where is Hulot? Traveling down by car; which, of course, is a real beater, so outdated that its body shakes and churns with the motion of the engine, fails to crest even the slightest hill, and has less forward momentum than even the settling dust from a passing car. 

Throughout this opening sequence, audibility is key. For a filmmaker known for directing modern silents, Tati’s audio editing is in fact an essential rhythmic accompaniment to the visual melodies, driven by character motion and montage, that are his sight gags. His dialogue is a mass of unintelligibility—gossip, formalities, idle chatter—with only snippets emerging in subtitling. Sound mixed high or low, left or right, acts as a gag’s auditory cue and greatly intensifies its effect. Often, audio is dubbed to magnify the sound of a bell, the creak of a rocker, the jitter of nervous feet. 

As Tati explained in a 1978 TV interview, as he sat watching Holiday’s opening with the host, “It’s not comic effect. It’s how sound contributes to reflecting the car’s personality. Here’s how the image might have been shown in the old days,” he says, playing a shot of Hulot’s car bumbling along down a cobbled street, without sound. “Hulot’s car is completely devoid of personality. Here’s what sound contributes,” he says, rewinding and playing the sequence again. The car passes back over the cobbles, this time sputtering and backfiring, the axles and frame loose and noisily clattering. “If you listen to Hulot’s car again here, the backfiring is part of its personality,” and a moment later, “Here’s that famous music I used,” he says.

When Hulot first arrives at the holiday site, the Hôtel de la Plage at Saint-Marc-sur-Mer, a seaside resort on the western coast of France, he throws the lobby door open, in preparation for bringing in his luggage, and such a powerful wind (comically loud and gusting, one hell of a Santa Ana) barges its way across the lobby, scattering newspapers and streams of being-poured tea, prompting one man to hold his hat in place with the top of his curve-handled cane (just as Keaton did in The Navigator), and producing absolutely no effect on the large man who has been audibly snoring upright in a chair, head lolling to one side, for the past several minutes. Here, before Hulot even steps over the threshold, we know everything about him that we need to know. It is a dazzling entrance. 

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is the director’s second feature and the first to feature Hulot. In fact, only his first and last films, Jour de fête (1949) and Parade (1974), forego Tati’s trademark Hulot-centered narrative. How did Tati arrive at Hulot? How did Chaplin become the Tramp, Lloyd the horn-rimmed climber, or Keaton the stone-faced incompetent? For Tati, Hulot was an extension of his first great comic creation, the efficiency-obsessed village postman, François, in Jour de fête. Like François, Hulot’s two essential aspects are his bumbling and his amiability. But while for François, the tension between these springs from his position as a wage worker comically bent on execution, Hulot’s embodiment of these qualities impales not his workmanly duties, but his futile attempts to assimilate into modern polite society. 

This crosshairs is where many of Holiday’s best gags unfold: the woman Hulot takes his hat off to, who does not look up because she is seated in a rocker on the other side of a lobby shrub; the suitcase placed flat, at stair height, at the top of a set of stairs Hulot is climbing, with a hulking lady’s bag he can’t see around, and which he pirouettes off of, thinking there was another step in the air he tumbles into. Hulot’s character emerges from his style of movement, how he comports himself, his near-pratfalls and dashed formalities “eloquent of polite misgiving,” to use a phrase from Waugh. “I thought of him because I knew an architect who walked like him,” Tati has said. “He merged with a simple man I had known in the military. The way this soldier answered the colonel’s insults made it quite impossible for the colonel to be cross. Hulot is not really a hero character, however. He is just a man who walks in the road. He is not the cause of funny situations. He is in the middle of them. When people say ‘go right,’ he goes left, because his mind is a little on the moon at the time.” 

Upon rewatch Holiday’s more obscure sight gags emerge, previously hidden by blocking or because a more obvious gag was happening in the foreground or had befallen a more expressive character. Also more noticeable are the gags, or anti-gags, that fly unseen past other resort guests, stone-faced and freely unawares. The man standing by the hat rack with his cane thrust over his shoulder walks out with a hat someone tossed onto its end; the small boy with an ice cream cone in each hand, who, upon turning a door knob, holds one cone almost completely upside down, and yet, the scoop never falls. 

Certain gags are repeated: another man holds his hat on his head with his cane while strolling seaside through a gusting wind (there seems to be an ample clientele of retirees with canes). And there are sound-based resonances throughout, particularly in the varied re-statements of the theme: characters initiate it by throwing on the record; nighttime occupants drunkenly vocalize its semblance; the gaggle of young men who’d been eying the female lead, Martine, whom Hulot also seems to fancy, while she listened to the theme on record through an open window, now stroll by her house, half-gazing up, in a mock cool performance of obvious indiscreetness, and whistling the tune. 

Hulot acts as a dual observer and arbiter of contingency—in searching for a ping pong ball which has rolled under one of two adjacent bridge tables, he nudges one man’s revolving chair, causing him to slap down the winning card (without looking up) onto the wrong table; Hulot’s car breaks down opposite an outdoor funeral, and a man mistakes the spare tire he now picks up, stuck with wet leaves from the ground, as a wreath, and, bowing, takes it and places it on a nail above the open casket, where it audibly deflates as the family shuffles past. In a Tati production, Hulot is less a character and more so the center of a film-length Busby Berkeley-esque set piece, a minimalist dance number populated not with twirling seas of legs, but with steps exchanged in perfect balance between Hulot, the ensemble cast, and a sly, meddlingly playful environment.

Unlike Keaton’s character in College (1927) who, after clumsily fumbling his hand at every collegiate sport over the film’s runtime, finally rises to the occasion, succeeding in beating The Bully off The Girl and winning her heart, there is no arc to Hulot’s physical ineptitude. But like Keaton, Tati himself was astoundingly dexterous; granted, he never leaped from one roof to another, or broke his neck falling from a water tank, but his mastery of mime, sleight of hand, and brilliantly controlled knack for anti-gags still impresses. As a character, Hulot occupies the space between the Keaton of Sherlock Jr. (1924), a lowly projectionist, and the Keaton of the film within the film, a well-to-do detective. But Hulot, unlike his American counterparts, is not a representative for the advancement of the American Dream. While the Tramp may nearly starve himself prospecting, is forced to eat his own boiled shoe, or is washed out, like a frame of corroded stock, in a blizzard, at the end of The Gold Rush (1925), he finds the gold, he gets the girl. 

Hulot holds few aspirations, inspires little obvious emotional investment from the audience, and does not seem to mind or notice that he is treated like a piece of scenery. He never stumbles his way, like the American clowns, into a classical comedic ending. Holiday and PlayTime are the only Tati films in which Hulot is given a real love interest (excepting the woman with the ridiculous hat and laugh his sister sets him up with, to the kind of sparks which recall attempted underwater cannonfire, at a garden party in Mon Oncle), and even in those, he courts at arm’s length, and it is often unclear whether the woman even realizes his intentions. As Tati has said, he “never wanted to film in a bedroom.” His films instead dwell in public spaces, or in communal areas within private ones, in the way people occupy them, situate their personalities and worldview within them, and play their part in the grand, illogical drama that is social custom. 

Tati’s genius for physical comedy derives from his roots in the cabaret, where he worked as a mime and impressionist before the war. On the music hall stage, he imitated sloshed waiters, English policemen, rugby players, an old Frenchman playing tennis. His attention to detail, to personality expressed through mannerism was impeccable. “It is like when I make pictures,” he once said of his impressions. “In the case of a film, I don’t want people to say ‘what a wonderful picture,’ but to notice details and enjoy themselves. Everyone has the right to laugh and whistle. Of course, one should also be able to be a showman.” 

Like Chaplin and Keaton, his nature was such that he could not have lived in the easy stasis where an ordinary comic dwells. He was not an audience-coddling, single schtick performer. For Chaplin, this had meant eschewing the easy, one-dimensional laughs the Tramp archetype clearly suggested. The Tramp, for instance, proves himself to be more agile on skates and in dancing routines, more cultured in his manner of presentation (table settings) and dinner manners (twirling the boiled shoelaces on a fork like spaghetti) than even his love interests. Likewise, Tati finds in Hulot a fool of such tenderheartedness, of such gentlemanly proclivity, and of such dexterity, that he surprises and thrills his attentive audience, keeping their eyes searching, their hearts in their mouths.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday moves episodically, with Hulot as the world’s meekest Don Quixote, crashing from one blighted windmill to the next. Twice (more, if you stretch your counting) he dashes his chances with Martine: first when he calls to take her horseback riding and, as she’s bidding her aunt goodbye, disappears, fleeing from his over-excited, rearing mare. At a loss, Martine accepts one of the whistling young men as a substitute. The second time, all the guests are to drive out into the country for a picnic. The Major (just one of the film’s ensemble types) has organized the traveling plans, placing Martine and her aunt in Hulot’s car. But as the rest of the company is shoving off, Hulot is nowhere to be found. Of course, as we see in a cross cut, he’s having car trouble; he’s fallen into the ocean; he’s somehow wearing another man’s hat. In short, Martine takes a seat in another car offered her by one of the older women, who rides with Hulot and the aunt when Hulot’s car finally bumps and bursts into position outside the hotel. 

Hulot’s chastity, enforced by his own bumbling, functions throughout like an anti-gag. The payoff, for the audience and the actor-director who casts himself as a romantic lead, is his getting the girl. But in Tati the payoff never comes. The bedroom set is absent. This is what makes his vacation film unique to the genre: its treatment of the ephemeral. In Holiday, impermanence is not the knowledge that a consummated romance must end, but the confused pangs of a love unfulfilled, of scenarios which keep the audience at arm’s length, in a state of perplexion. It is this lack of payoff, the filmmaker-audience exchange so easily digested and so easily made old or trite, that makes a Tati film, and Holiday in particular, so engrossing and so rewatchable. Within such a defined set of temporal parameters, the ephemeral is more deeply felt, the film more inviting, more beckoning to be lived in, to be revisited and re-explored, like the shells and tide pools, gossip and sport the yearly resort goers delight in.

A setting such as a seaside resort affords Tati the opportunity to develop an extensive series of types among the vacationing ensemble—the beautiful Virgin (in Tati’s world there are no Whores); the old man always doddering after his wife, turning his cane in hand; the nebbish intellectual quoting Bertrand Russell and denouncing the bourgeoisie; the hotel staffer who quickly busies himself whenever somebody enters the room; the businessman always being called to the phone with some new emergency; the aging major still reliving the Great War in each story, each command of where to picnic, to “keep the preserves in reserve” (a wonderful moment in subtitling), to smooth the wrinkled blanket, to “set the dessert there.” “I believe I like the secondary characters in a film best,” Tati once said. “They breathe the truth.”

In PlayTime, Tati gives many members of the film’s ensemble cast a particular tic (tourists loudly remarking on the obvious: “Look! Those street lights are just like ours at home”) or physical gesture (the waiter continually smoothing his oily hair), to be repeated over and over. This functions partially as an immediate auditory or visual cue, to help the viewer make sense of all the actions occurring in each level of the frame, and partially to direct traffic, to have different figures move at different paces and in different lanes. Tati: “When people don’t know each other they follow right angles; when they are intimate they go in curves.” It also serves as an expression of modern man’s insular elopement with his own vanity. “The more décor, the more people are alone.” His large casts of varied social types, segregated by space, quarters, movement, and speech (or inability to speak, as is often the case with Hulot), often seek to express modern society’s vanishing social units. The nuclear family begets divorcées, the army men without any civil utility, the workplace solo sprinters racing against automation. 

Unlike Tati’s protagonist in Jour de fête, a village postman who, inspired by a newsreel of American postal workers, begins to bike his route “American-style,” at an absurdly heightened level of efficiency, one for which rural France is neither mechanized nor culturally suited (side-swiping pigs; dropping letters into wells and grain processing machinery), Tati did not simply mimic what he saw in American film. Yes, he studied Keaton and Chaplin’s gags and scenarios. “Keaton for me is Number One,” he once said. “Chaplin, on the other hand, has been very clever all the time. He’s a great comedian. He creates very good situations, but they are a little bit too much for me. Too much is done on purpose.” Even from the beginning of his film career Tati was searching; he knew, instinctively, he could not express his vision in a pratfall. “I began with a copy of old slapstick. Mistake,” he said. “Then I thought I should find a new sort of visual comedy. Not made by the ordinary kind of technicians, you see…to give the comic personality more truth…What I’ve been trying to show is that the whole world is funny. There’s no need to be a comic to make a gag.” 

Watching Tati as an American, with the subtitles on but hardly necessary, it is difficult to know on first viewing what to make of his world; he is not one to chew the viewer’s food for them. Because a Tati film has no distinct emotional arc, no traditional narrative payoff, and a subtle comic consistency (belly laughs do come, but in unexpected places), its rewatchable qualities reside elsewhere. Unlike a popular comedy, a Tati film does not trade in snappy dialogue (its patent lack of spoken language might, in fact, seem overly arty, difficult, or anachronistic), ease of romantic or career achievement, or epic situational conflict. As such, it revels in the meager, the usually-off screen, the often unnoticeable everyday gags that are always happening all around us, at the office, in the checkout line, at home in the dark—the nightly fumbling for the wrong light switch.

Tati was not a stylist who maintained an easy satisfaction with his work; first in 1962, then in 1978, he re-edited Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, cutting some shots, lengthening others, re-orchestrating the score and re-mixing the sound. In the 1978 version, Tati, in a pastiche of the similar sequence in the then-recent Jaws (1975), reshot parts of the scene in which the folding canoe Hulot has taken out collapses, then, as he struggles, snaps repeatedly half-open and shut, resembling an oncoming shark. The added shots show panicked beachgoers running from the shark (and, if you look closely, the extras’ hairdos reveal the footage’s ‘70s vintage). As Colette wrote of Tati, when reviewing his music hall act in the ‘30s, “His act is partly ballet and partly sport, partly satire and partly a charade,” she said. “He has devised a way of being…the player, the ball, and the tennis racket,” and, with the right props and scenario, a shark storming the beach.

Hulot, Tati’s ultimate and most archetypal creation, is the everyman, the vacationer, the film viewer; he watches as events unfold, spatially adjacent, but unable to affect their determinacy. Like Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), for Tati’s Hulot-driven films, the protagonist’s role as a fish out of water is integral to the comic success of the scenario. In Mon Oncle Hulot is trapped, by social obligation (and previous unemployment), between his sister’s chic suburban home, hyper-modern to the point of inconvenience, and his brother-in-law’s plastics factory; in PlayTime Hulot finds himself pulled through modern urban spaces—airport lounges, office corridors, trade fairs, night clubs, and public transport—as much by design-facilitated movement (labyrinths of cubicles, escalators, and neon signs) as by formality or personal motivation. He promenades, that’s all,” Tati once said of Hulot. “He takes a walk. Innocent and tranquil. He simply looks at things…And he is not funny himself, not at all. He conducts himself according to strict rules of courtesy that do not ever allow him to express surprise. He has a certain braveness of gesture, like a music hall down-and-out with his cane.” 

In his day, Keaton found that a reactionless hero, one who maintained a deadpan expression even when buffeted by blows and pratfalls and tumbles from rooftops, was not only funnier but also more ripe for the projection of emotional response and a rooting stake on the part of the audience. Hulot is an extension of such a device. In Tati’s comedies of manners, where the hero is met not with overt violence but with personal sleight or accidental disruption, his placidity, like Keaton’s, arouses a strong reaction in the viewer. And, as it is a sound film, his quietness is read not as a limitation of the medium but a defining aspect of his character, and the point on which audience identification rests. Through such discipline and lack of expression, Hulot functions as a cipher for the audience’s standards of procedure, their “rules of the game.” Tati’s consistent return to Hulot, placing him in different modern scenarios and social milieus, allows the audience to better extrapolate, to effectively map Hulot’s credo onto the particularities of any situation. When sent on holiday, Hulot’s very presence makes us read vacations differently. He is a kind of control which reveals surrounding variables. His dreamlike manner of disengagement puts the other characters’ ties to the real world—concern with who knows who, what’s the gossip in Paris, status and business developments—into sharp relief, rendering the vacation’s premise, of fantasy and departure, moot. 

The world of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a world of limited escape, of latent reminders of its ephemerality and outlier status. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote of the melodrama, the vacation film, too, is designed “to reconcile its audience to the way things are,” to support an economic and moral system that incentivizes a work-centric view of middle class life. A vacation film, like Holiday, passes much like a vacation: you settle down to watch the tide come in and out, the other vacationers bickering over beach chairs and sunscreen application, the light glinting blindingly off the water, the wind scattering your possessions, sand getting everywhere, your body pink and cracking, your back stiff from the hard, too-small mattress, your hotel bill piling up and, to borrow a line from Annie Hall, “it’s all over much too quickly.” Suddenly, like a horseman appearing over a rise, it’s Sunday afternoon, time to pack up all the clothes that are only suitable for this one week a year, this one time and place, into their unwieldy cases, round up the children or the whim-chasing husband, and head back to civilization (i.e., school, the office, the panoply of dour rooms, obligations, and comfortable beds). 

As Jour de fête preambles, by 1953, when Holiday was released, France, like many postwar powers, had undergone a period of industrialization, and with it, worker regimentation. Holiday approaches French modernization from a slightly obtuse angle: “In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, why do the holiday makers treat a holiday as a job?” Tati said in an interview. “They aren’t very gay. They don’t like stopping working. The financiers in the sand go on talking about finance. The dishy girls are breaking their necks not to look like other dishy girls. M. Hulot is from another universe.” Modern industry never goes on vacation; neither, as the film suggests, does the ever-present threat of another great war. The Major regales others as if his troops stormed this very beach only yesterday; the radio crackles across the lobby with news of the conflict in Indochina; Hulot, in his ever-inopportune fashion, strikes a match in a dark shed teeming with fireworks, which light up the sky as if during a bomb raid.

The resort is the world of the film; the real world gestates offscreen (obliquely present, however, in the radio news bulletins, newspapers read, stock tips made over the phone). One night, the guests play cards and embark on costumed frivolities, while a Minister of State addresses the nation over the radio: “ Fellow citizens, we face difficult times,” the minister says as a woman swaps her husband’s beret for a party hat; he responds irately, restoring the beret, straightening it forcefully as she shuffles away, grumbling. “I address you tonight to assure you that our government will fulfill its responsibility to you, the voters, and even to those who have not voted up to now,” he goes on, as a young boy in a marching band uniform, subtly militaristic in design, toddles into the foreground. “As a believer in Europe, I haven’t given up the hope of seeing the French people set aside superficial issues to rally behind what is essential,” he says as Martine enters, then wanders shyly about, looking for Hulot. “The latest statistics show that our imports exceed our exports by several billion francs. Private savings will be indispensable in keeping our national budget balanced without inflation.” Martine is just reaching the door when the theme starts (Hulot, partially hidden behind a partition, has dropped the needle); she turns, and as the radio fades, Hulot bows, and the two, after a moment’s hesitation, begin to dance.