Monsieur Hulot's Holiday - Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot - Jacques Tati - house - car

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
1953, directed by Jacques Tati

Night falls on the beach resort of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer exactly six times in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. That would be unusually repetitive if there weren’t some compelling reason to emphasize that the story covers exactly seven days. A week may be a normal length for a vacation, but that’s no reason to mark each day so fastidiously. The idea of a week stems from the creation story in Genesis, but what can that have to do with a beach comedy? Well, for starters the movie opens with the earth reduced to its elements – rocks, sand, ocean, and sky – a blank template like the unformed cosmos. Considering also that Mr. Hulot keeps busy the first six days and rests on the seventh, the movie starts to look like a version of the biblical creation.

The first day shows the separation between light and darkness – like any other day, but with enough emphasis to suggest the biblical day when light was created. The second day gives us the first real beach scene, the waters and the firmament, again matching the creation story. These parallels however are vague, and from the third day onward they don’t continue. If the movie were translating the creation story programmatically then the shark joke (from the movie’s final version) should occur on the fifth day when God made the “great sea monsters” instead of the third day when it actually occurs. The fireworks should be on the fourth day when God put lights in the firmament, instead of day six.

Monsieur Hulot's Holiday - Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot - Jacques Tati - beach - Martine

Another problem with the creation theory is that Mr. Hulot looks nothing like an omnipotent deity. He’s an awkward bumbler who keeps doing the wrong thing. But what if that’s exactly the point? Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday wouldn’t amount to much if it merely illustrated the days of creation, but if it creates a counterintuitive portrait of God then we have a good reason to take interest. Religion often teaches people to think of their creator as demanding and controlling, but if Hulot represents God then he gives us a refreshingly unexpected interpretation.

Still, in many ways Mr. Hulot’s version of God is familiar. He enforces morality, kicking Mr. Schmutz in the rear for peeping on blonde beauty Martine in her dressing cabin. His punishment turns out to be a mistake, but that’s common enough if we’re willing to drop the notion of a perfect God. Hulot also tries to maintain order. He’s always anxious to keep the ice cream vendor’s dough from drooping into the sand, and he keeps trying to straighten out the picture frames in Martine’s guesthouse, unaware that he’s the one upsetting them with his riding crop. It’s easier to believe in a God who actively tries to maintain order if we allow that he might make mistakes.

Monsieur Hulot's Holiday - Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot - Jacques Tati - paintings

Hulot is introduced driving to the seashore in a rickety, narrow, old-fashioned car, a 1924 Salmson AL-3 with a rumble seat and a comically weak horn. When an oblivious dog lies in his path wagging its tail, the ever-patient Hulot kindly pats it on the head before driving on. From the outset he’s a throwback from old times, kinder than anyone around. Both of these qualities fit a personification of the deity. Like a loving God, Hulot helps everyone without expecting a reward. He volunteers to take Martine’s aunt’s suitcases inside, but instead of gratitude she gives him quizzical looks, oblivious to his hard efforts. The same happens when he helps a girl scout carry a heavy pack uphill, or when he offers rides to fellow vacationers. His persona is so benevolent that he cheers up the mourners at a funeral, inadvertently spreading laughter when an old woman tickles his nose with a feather from her hat.

Like a God perched in Heaven, Hulot lodges on the hotel’s top floor, the resort’s highest point… yet a French audience would not see this as a sign of pride. In France the top floor is traditionally the cheapest place to live or stay because it means climbing more stairs. Hulot’s tiny attic window is another touch of humility. With all his God-like traits he never lords over anyone with a show of power. On the tennis court he’s unbeatable, but only because of a silly-looking serve he acquired when he misunderstood the racket vendor’s instructions. Hulot causes numerous “acts of God” including rain (when he dumps his washbasin over the hotel entrance) and wind (when he leaves the lobby door open), but in each case he’s more sympathetic than an omnipotent God who authors disasters out of anger. It’s as if the movie wants people to view their God more charitably.

Monsieur Hulot's Holiday - Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot - Jacques Tati - footprints

Hulot’s laid-back persona contrasts with the hectic vacationers darting between train platforms, unable to hear the announcements clearly. The station scene establishes a running joke that people make their holidays as stressful as their daily commutes, bringing their everyday routines to the beach resort. Mr. Schmutz keeps running to answer important phone calls. The young intellectual persists in reading and preaching socialism, even on a date with Martine. The military captain yells orders at everyone, even on a picnic, and the woman parading about with her husband is so preoccupied with showing off that she ignores her surroundings.

Amid all this habit-enslaved behavior, Mr. Hulot is determined to have a good time. He goes boating, plays tennis and ping pong, attends a masked ball, tries to go horseback riding, and only gets sidetracked from the picnic by a flat tire. True to character, he also tries to get everyone else to have a good time. Finally, at the end of the sixth day, he succeeds. He accidentally ignites a storehouse of fireworks and wakes up the whole resort. A cascade of guests pours down the hotel stairs, and for the first time everyone has fun together. In this sense the movie returns to the timeline of the biblical creation. By getting people to enjoy their vacation, Hulot re-creates man and woman on the sixth day, when God made Adam and Eve – he has made them human again, as opposed to automatons of the modern age.

Monsieur Hulot's Holiday - Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot - Jacques Tati - beach - ice cream cart

Jacques Tati’s distinct compositional style complements the purpose of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. The scenes contain so much action and so many characters doing so many different things that it’s often hard to know where in the screen to look. It almost doesn’t matter which character you follow, because everyone is putting on a solo performance at the same time. There might be fifteen different jokes being told at a given moment, and it’s not possible to follow each of them in one viewing. Even characters in the background seem to be up to something. Although the large field of vision suggests a “God’s-eye view”, embracing all of humanity at once, this strategy of relinquishing visual control suggests a radical refusal to play God as the movie director. It frees the viewer to wander visually through the image without guidance from above. Even Mr. Hulot is often mixed in long shot among a large crowd as if he is no more important than anyone else. This refusal to play God is consistent with the movie’s notion of a humble, generous deity who loves everyone around him.

The only people who respond much to Hulot are Martine, some children, the English woman, and the man strolling behind his wife. The latter two thank him on the seventh day, while most people ignore him as they always had, except when he caused them problems. Regular churchgoers will surely recognize all this as typical for a Sabbath, when churches draw congregations composed heavily of old people, foreigners, and children.

Monsieur Hulot's Holiday - Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot - Jacques Tati - English woman

If the goal of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday were merely to shame Christians into going to mass on Sunday, it would be a rather sentimental argument. The movie however is bigger than that. Believers and non-believers alike can appreciate the cleverness of its portrait of an imperfect God. In general, religions have personified their deities too much. Telling people they were created by an omnipotent father figure in the sky who watches and judges their behavior is infantilizing. The problem with ascribing unimaginable qualities like omnipotence or perfection is that it that it turns God into something abstract and unreal, an object of fear instead of love. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday tries to reverse that by getting people to imagine an alternative.


Andrei Rublev – Seven-part structure; reference to Genesis; creation from humility; movie revised after release