Jacques Tati (1908-82) was a master of the maladroit. The French comedian and director, a lumbering, ladder-legged man, emphasized his misfit status in extended slapstick sequences that star himself as the Everyman who folds himself into places that barely contain him.
Tati's low-key observational wit most famously is showcased in Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953), a cheery postcard from Brittany celebrating the hard work of leisure.
A throwback to the silent comedians of the 1920s, Tati is a keen observer of the absurd, registering the serenity of a beach resort before the vacationing hordes descend in August, and the controlled chaos after.
Tati uses sound like an effects wizard. He indicates the plash of the surf on rocks, the music of squeaky hinges, the pop-pop-pop of fireworks, the jazzy song on the Victrola.
Though the film is in French with English subtitles, what people say matters little. Its official language is the international patois of slapstick. A particularly gentle kind of comedy, by which I mean, not slipping-on-a-banana-peel slapstick, but painting-your-kayak-as-the-tide-carries-out-your-can-of-enamel-and-later-redeposits-it-at-your-side slapstick.
Tati is not laugh-out-loud funny like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin; he is a grin-in-recognition-at-life's-foibles kind of guy. As Hulot, the man who motors to Brittany in what resembles a tuna tin with bicycle wheels, he affects a self-conscious gait, that of one who tries to get from Point A to Point B by doing a clumsy box step. You can't believe this guy can make it across the hotel lobby, but he does, politely doffing his cap to all, including empty chairs.
We are introduced to people, Hulot included, in long shot. All we know about any of them is the external behavior that can be seen by strangers.
Thus Mr. Hulot's Holiday is concerned not with character, but with how the unreliability of nature, human nature, and mechanical objects makes human actions and interactions awkwardly funny.
Can this charming comedy of exquisite subtlety connect with modern audiences, accustomed to more muscular slapstick? Hope so. Almost 60 years after its release, Hulot remains a most enjoyable holiday.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey