How can I describe this movie? Well, it’s French. Very French. And it’s a comedy full of visual, audible, and physical humor. And I sense that the director Jacques Tati is a bit like Woody Allen—in a good way—because he directs the film and (possibly) plays
himself what comes closest to being the protagonist.
Simply put, the film is about a group of people on holiday at a beach resort. And that’s putting it very simply. Or should I say simplifying the matter?
I’ve always seen the film as a satire about our tendency to turn vacations into bursts of bucket list activities. No doubt a side effect of what the movie is purported to be about—the more general subject of modern living. And what subject could be more relevant to these times? These highly-Instagramable, TikTok non-stop times.
Now, of course, the group is hardly monolithic or bound together in any real sense, other than their choice of resort town and hotel. You get to know each subgroup by watching their daily routines, which you’d think would be boring, right? But they aren’t because of all that visual humor I mentioned before. Along with the murmur of conversation and the occasional sound effect. Plus a meandering soundtrack that’s subtle to the point of serving as melodic wind.
There’s the family that routinely hits the beach early, with a small, mischievous child in tow. They set up an umbrella (or was it a tent?) amid numerous such shelters, amassed along the shore. Nearby, a muscular young man diligently performs his daily exercise routines.
Plus there’s an old married couple who may be together physically, but on different vacations mentally. As they walk together, she moves one way, while he stands in place, looking elsewhere. He lags behind her like an obstinate child. At the beach, she collects sea shells on the shore, he follows her, looking bored. (Not that this lady makes the best of company, frankly.)
The group does congregate at meals shared in the hotel’s dining room, where we get to hear the occasional line spoken. But we don’t linger long with anyone in particular, except perhaps one young woman, who we kind of connect with at some level. Is she the protagonist? But it’s his holiday, right? So … okay. She’s a kind of … lost soul? Person looking to get away from it all. Her gender may or may not matter. Well, at least, she’s not a love interest. Right?
The group also gets together for outings. Picnics are carefully scheduled and follow a regimented plan.
Now, these people could have their well-regulated fun and go home feeling (somewhat) rested and refreshed. But they get more than their money’s worth when Monsieur Hulot shows up.
Tati has all the right physical and (apparently) mental attributes needed to play a sort of free-spirited bumbler. (Or is he?) Not only does he bumble with great speed into the hotel, he does so with enough force to rocket himself through the place and right out the back door.
It’s physical humor on a par with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Chaplin … a reminder of how influential the silent era of film has been and continues to be. Tati uses his tall, thin body to advantage, contorting himself to various angles, down to the occasional pipe clenched between his teeth.
Hulot also winds up dealing with that impish kid I mentioned before. He kind of plays (or bumbles) along with him. In fact, he’s rather a kid himself.
He is certainly a refreshing alternative to the pompous
twit guy who latches onto that woman who may or may not be a co-protagonist (at least from this woman’s perspective). In communal settings, she ends up stuck listening to him bloviate about the political situation, the vacuity of the bourgeoisie, and the general meaninglessness of life, blah, blah.
But Hulot is there to shake things up in all sorts of ways. Among other things, he crashes a funeral (accidentally,
maybe? of course) and sets off a big (and presumably unplanned, in terms of timing) fireworks display on the beach. All an accident, natch.
I won’t even begin to describe one scene involving a boat. Or, I should say, Hulot in a boat.
Meanwhile, the kids in town seem to run the streets at will. They are a marked contrast to the adults with their rigorous schedules and planned events. Their polite and not-so-polite conversations or the lack of them.
Is the film telling us that it’s more important to live in the moment than to cram as much activity as possible into strictly scheduled time slots? Whether at work or at play? It’s all about productivity. And fear of missing out.
Is it saying that growing up sucks? Or that spontaneity and exploration and adventure are essential for a happy life.
The answers may not be spelled out in the final images, but I think they’re implied somewhere in them.
For what it’s worth, I always feel better after watching this film. I should make its viewing an annual occasion. Like the adult version of The Wizard of Oz.
I dare you not to laugh at this trailer! 🙂
PS: For a fuller exploration of many of this film’s themes, along with an amazing
film production effort/budget visual treat, I highly recommend Playtime (also directed and starring the awesome Jacques Tati). It’s just brilliant!
Directed by Jacques Tati
Produced by Fred Orain
Screenplay by Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet
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