Holiday Season

Jacques Tati is frequently mentioned as a comic pioneer, and occasionally as a comic genius. His body of work is relatively small, but has influenced some very well-known comic figures (Terry Jones has recorded enthusiastic DVD introductions for some of Tati’s films, and Rowan Atkinson has acknowledged the significant debt Mr. Bean owes to M. Hulot, Tati’s most famous creation).
I recently saw Les Vacances du M. Hulot, Tati’s second feature and the only non-English-language film in Time Out’s list of the best 100 comedy films.[i] It was a curious experience – I saw it in a cinema where the audience were mostly silent throughout, and yet I didn’t get the impression that people were put out by the film’s failure to coax many laughs. In part this may be because some of the appeal of the film is less about comedy than about something harder to pin down: nostalgia, simplicity, or an acceptance of the vagaries of life and the idiosyncrasies of other people.[ii]
Or the audience may have primarily come to admire the film’s technical accomplishments.[iii] Tati has a superb eye for constructing a scene that develops (or falls apart) to reveal one telling detail. To take one example, the sequence featuring tourists boarding an overcrowded bus (starting at 1.10 here)

culminates in a spare child popping up in the steering wheel, the kind of droll grace note of which Tati is so fond. This meticulous construction of a scene around a single visual detail has been taken up a number of subsequent directors, for instance Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who has used it in films ranging from the rather saccharine (Amélie) to the inventively dark (Delicatessen).[iv]
That said, these kinds of details are charming or at most somewhat amusing, rather than being actually funny. More generally, the film sharply illustrates some of the limitations of the kind of comedy Tati was working with, which might be characterised as gentle slapstick.
The first limitation is that too many of the jokes rely on people behaving extremely stupidly. It is true that a great deal of narrative comedy relies on people making mistakes of one sort or another, but this need not be an issue for the audience (for instance, it may be plausible that from the character’s point of view, what they are doing makes sense). In M. Hulot there is no attempt to explain this behaviour or put it into some sort of context where it can be understood – it is crushingly obvious, and the film is cheapened by including so many set-pieces which rely on it. Other characters are endlessly prone to being distracted by Hulot and spilling their drinks, or mistaking what is plainly a canoe for (presumably) a sea monster (from 0.28 here)

or proving to be the among most inept tennis players the world has ever seen:

A different film could probably get away with scenes like these – a film which was set a few degrees further removed from reality, or one with a wilder feel or looser logic. As a general rule of thumb, the more antic a film, the more stupid behaviour can be funny in it. To complain about an entire marching band walking into a wall

or a fleet of police cars finding new and inventive ways to enter a pileup

would be to miss the point – and the tone – of Animal House or The Blues Brothers. But in M. Hulot, such behaviour feels forced – it jars with the gentle observations of much of the film.
The second drawback of this kind of humour is its rigidity. Again, a great deal of humour relies on fairly rigid conventions and rules, but again this can be moderated or at least disguised, for example by varying the subject-matter or tone of different scenes, or even by subtleties of phrasing and expression. In M. Hulot, the scenes are set up and dispatched practically by clockwork, in a way which quickly becomes irritating: things are always arranged so that Hulot inadvertently upsets the other characters, or they inadvertently upset each other. This means that a sense of the unexpected, so crucial to genuine comic creativity, is missing. The film reminded me of a stand-up relying too heavily on puns – some might be genuinely funny, but if everything is a pun then not only do they tend to become predictable, but the element of contrivance becomes obvious and gets in the way of enjoying the comedy.

[i] Although it is, to all intents and purposes, a silent film. Nevertheless, it’s the only representative on that list from the non-Anglophone world.
[ii] Roger Ebert has some very perceptive things to say on the matter here. I can’t say I am entirely convinced, but he puts this line of thought very well.
[iii] About which Ebert is again spot on.
[iv] Co-directed by Marc Caro.

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