We’re not strangers to weird French films here at CE. After all, there are french films on the 1001 Movies list, and French films are weird, so it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. But perhaps that over-simplification doesn’t take into account the reason we love the list so much. The selected French films might be weird, but each is weird in its own special way.
So they are delightful and unexpected, which makes ever the art films eminently watchable.
A case in point is today’s subject. Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (released in English as Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) caught me completely off guard.
The version I watched was in Italian and, while I can read Italian with few problems, catching dialogue is a different matter altogether.
Turns out it didn’t matter. The dialogue in this one is very limited, easily understandable and works as background music for spots where silence would be obtrusive.
You see, this is a silent film in all but actual silence. It has sound, but the sound is pure background. What this film does is serve as a bridge between the silent bumbling-but-well-meaning characters of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd and the bumbling but well meaning Mr. Bean.
Hulot is precisely that kind of character, walking cluelessly through life without realizing what is about to befall him or understanding how his actions affect others while, at the same time transmitting that he is a nice guy.
Unlike the older films, there is no plot to this one. Hulot just goes about his holiday business in his inimitably clumsy way while others are annoyed or delighted by his presence. In tiny vignettes, the film criticizes the emerging french middle class… but little of the social satire reaches the modern audience except in the general sense of having stereotypes being mocked, which is always fun. In an era where Hollywood has gotten excessively political (and is deservedly losing its viewership), it’s nice to be able to watch a comedy without having to worry about the social message it attempts to transmit. Seventy years, apparently, is long enough for the boredom of political thought to fade and the enjoyment of comedy to remain.
This one is good. In fact, it’s easier to watch that the old silent films, even though the humor is much less over the top. The timing is moderns, the length of the elements is just long enough to be funny, but not excruciating or embarrassingly overdone (Mr Bean has a lot of that, unfortunately). Getting the balance of the humor just right in this kind of film is extremely difficult, and the perfect balance shifts with each viewer.
For my taste, this one got it exactly right, and has become my favorite Bumbling Character silent film. Even though it has sound in it.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is a series of linked stories about real people in real situations… but only in those situations which truly mark a life. By avoiding the boring bits, he shows the characters as they truly are when the chips are down. You can check it out here.