La rentrée

Vacanes_hulot_large

Because of other
commitments, this past weekend my family was not able to engage in our
traditional Labor Day activity, which is searching for Jimmy Hoffa’s body.
However, as my family does its own dispirited,
pessimistic
rentrée, my
four-year-old son asked to see one of his perennial favorites: Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday. In Ben’s mind Tati’s film ranks right up
there with the all-time greats: Ratatouille
and the Shrek Trilogy. (My
eighteen-month-old daughter so far seems indifferent to movies, but she loves
to put on Mary Janes and dance to R.E.M.) I don’t know how he came to first see
it, but he’s seen "the beach movie," as he refers to it, at least
twenty times.

Ben doesn’t speak
French or read English, but he gets every one of Tati’s jokes. Lately he’s
asked me to read the subtitles, but they don’t really add much to his
understanding, or mine: Two women grumble about an unsuccessful day trip,
people exchange pleasantries, a young man reads earnestly from what seems to be
Louis Althusser for Dummies. The
dialogue is background noise, like the sound of the surf. No matter. Tati’s vacanciers are all in their own dream worlds,
determined to enjoy their vacations despite the irritations , the indifferent
food, and the disruptive presence of M. Hulot.

When he made Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot in 1953 Tati still held a relatively
even-handed, forgiving view of modernity. He had not yet developed the acerbic
pessimism of Playtime (1967) and Traffic (1971). In Holiday his alter ego
putts around the village in an absurdly antique car and struts around in a
yokel’s hat and a ruminant’s pipe. Hulot is largely invisible to the
self-important bourgeoisie with whom he shares the Hôtel de la Plage. He
catches the eye of a Teutonic beauty who sees through phony sophistication of
the local young men who try to impress her with their American jazz
records. During an end-of-the season
party M. Hulot is the only man who has the grace to dress appropriately, and
he’s rewarded with a dance with the young beauty. Does their relationship go
further than that? Tati is too scrupulous a filmmaker to provide a vulgar hint,
yet his anarchic fireworks sequence that punctuates the final evening at the
beach, with Hulot unable to extinguish the conflagration he’s set off, suggests
that maybe M. Hulot’s old-fashioned courtliness has won the young woman’s
heart.

The next day,
however, M. Hulot is dejected and alone. Everyone is packing up and returning
home. The season has been achingly short. You get the sense that a whole way of
life is about to end with it. Really, a way a life had barely begun: the early
1950s were the first time that the general French public had been encouraged to
take the annual vacations that now strike Americans as part of the essence of
European life. And yet Tati makes it seem as if the ritual dates back to the
reign of Henri IV.

This is perhaps why
the film holds up to repeated viewing. Its physical comedy appeals to my son,
who does a dead-on impression of Hulot falling out of a house while carrying an
overstuffed suitcase. Tati’s appreciation for the fleeting pleasures of summertime
appeals to me. My favorite character in the film is a man who accompanies his
wife on a perpetual stroll. They never stop, even though he clearly wants to
participate in the dancing and the beach games. He is us, watching, noticing
the small things–he’s one of the few guests who pay Hulot any sustained
attention–and sighing over the fragility of it all. M. Hulot’s Holiday was an entirely appropriate send off to the
anxious summer of 2008, which has ended seemingly before it began.

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