Ever feel like you’re having one of those days? If that’s a familiar feeling spare some sympathy for Jacques Tati’s Mr Hulot, who has a day like that everyday. Of course, Hulot’s bemusement is our comic gain. His ability to discover the disappointing in ordinary happenings is charmingly absurd, but all too familiar. Disaster (and comedy) seems to wait around every corner. Things just Happen. As a character, Hulot is so appealing because we’re all just a few bad days away from his reality.
Tati’s greatest Hulot achievement is 1958’s Mon Oncle (My Uncle), a film filled with childlike visual gags, physical and prop comedy and silly humour but – like much of the director/actor’s comedy – underpinned with a philosophical message. Most of Tati’s humour is quiet – obvious gags that rely on action rather than dialogue – but it draws the audience in, asks them to re-consider the day-to-day. The bumbling Hulot doesn’t try to be funny, his circumstances just force him to be. For example, the house he lives in appears to be comprised of two buildings, side-by-side. In reality, both are joined, forcing Hulot to take a bizarre route to his own room, located at the top left corner. His head, legs, and shoes appear in wholly unexpected places and, when he finally reaches the top floor, it’s in a completely unexpected place. Not funny on paper, but on-screen it’s a wry comment on how life is never as easy as you’d expect.
The character Hulot is most commonly associated with is Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and, visually at least, the comparison is accurate. Hulot appears in four Tati films (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953, Playtime, 1967 and Traffic, 1971) and in each he wears almost identical outfits. Like the Tramp, he infuses these innocuous garments – usually a brown fedora, a beige raincoat, a pair of stripy socks, a pipe – with a new meaning. They’re funny because Hulot is wearing them. Tati’s films aren’t silent, but Hulot has very little dialogue. His lack of interaction throws the monotonous twitterings of the other characters into sharp relief. They make (a lot of) small talk while Hulot explores the big picture through small details.
The contrast between Hulot and the other characters is reinforced by the use of two distinct sets. Hulot’s home, that confusing double-building, evokes the romanticism of Paris. It might be rundown, but it has an undeniable postcard-charm. The surrounding streets are filled with the bustle of markets and unruly school kids. The locals live here, exchanging stories and gossip, haggling with the greengrocer about the price of fruit. Hulot’s sister Madame Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) however, lives in a stark Modernist house, ensconced behind automatic gates and filled with uncomfortable furniture that repels rather than welcomes. Everything in this world is organised but characterless, included for show. The centrepiece of the Arpel’s garden is a bizarre aluminium fish fountain that’s only switched on when a guest buzzes at the gate. Keeping up appearances is a costly business.
Tati’s ridicule of the ‘Modernist’ lifestyle is explored through Hulot’s confusion with it. Although he’s a regular visitor to the Arpel family home, mostly to see his young nephew Gerard (Alain Bécourt), he can’t quite make sense of it. Cupboards close when you don’t expect them to, he can’t get comfortable in the designer chairs. The house is an architectural masterpiece, but it’s the garden that offers comic potential. A wonderful wide shot of the winding front path shows Mme. Arpel greet her guest as if she’s parading down a catwalk; during a particularly bourgeois luncheon party, Hulot strays into the shallow fountain pool whilst carrying some furniture. In one wonderful scene, Hulot returns to the house late at night to trim a vine he’d disturbed earlier in the day. Creeping into the garden he disturbs the sleeping Madame and her husband Charles (Jean-Pierre Zola). The light shines through their round bedroom windows, and their heads appear in silhouette, creating the effect of roaming eyes. This is a house that’s always watching and – crucially – judging.
In the film’s final scenes, Hulot is persuaded to take a job in a plastic hose factory. His inability to understand the machinery leads to complications, including reams of hot dog-shaped hosing that have to be disposed of in the local canal. Hulot might not fit in, but in some part, he cares about being seen to. His actions might result in mishap, his solution is usually the wrong one, but his heart is in the right place.
Tati clearly feels Hulot is a cut above his sister and his factory co-workers but Hulot’s not better because he’s cleverer. He’s simply worked out that life is a joke, something to be enjoyed rather than endured. His bumbling nature conceals something deeper: he knows that there’s nothing to figure out and, as a result, he doesn’t strive for something better. But that’s personal interpretation. In truth, Tati keeps Hulot at a distance. It’s impossible to ascertain his true motivation and really understand the character.
His legacy however, is more clear-cut. As his brother-in-law deposits it him at the airport to start a new life as car-salesman, Tati borrows a gag that’s run throughout the film. Charles whistles to attract the attention of the departing Hulot, who’s out of range. Instead a passer-by looks back and walks straight into a lamppost. Gerard and Charles share a laugh and leave hand-in-hand. Hulot’s role was simply humanist – to bring realness, authenticity to a world drowning in convenience gadgets and aluminium fish fountains. Tati’s final philosophical message? Motivation is inconsequential, it’s what you leave behind that counts.