Sunday, December 28, 2008

Before there was Mr. Bean

TCM's foreign film for this week is Mr. Hulot's Holiday, airing overnight at 3:00 AM ET. Although it's a French movie, it's one that transcends language and culture, largely because a lot of its themes are universal, and because there's so little dialogue.

Jacques Tati plays Mr. Hulot, a Frenchman about to go to his favorite seaside resort for his annual August holiday. Mr. Hulot is a character reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean, a man who says virtually nothing, and despite not intending to do any harm, has all hell break loose around him. Other than that, however, the movie has no plot. It's just one brief episode after another, each taking its own gentle look at the foibles of human nature as we try to enjoy our vacations, with Tati walking through, completely oblivious to all the havoc around him.

What makes this movie so good is a number of things. First, it's universal. The fact that there's little dialogue helps; we can probably all remember attempts we've made to have our own perfect vacations, attempts which are invariably causing stress and making the vacation less enjoyable than it otherwise would be. I remember how, as a kid, my parents would pack up the family van and take us all to one of the many state parks in New York's Adirondack Mountains. We kids generally had a blast (other than having to put up the tents), but the planning, and packing the car must have been a nightmare for Mom and Dad. Half the stuff you take along, you wind up not using; but if you forget to take it along, you'll wind up needing it.

Secondly, the humor is exceedingly clever. It's very easy to forget when watching comedy just how difficult it is. The great ones pull it off and make it look effortless: consider the planning that went into a movie like Harold Lloyd's Safety Last!, or Jerry Lewis' The Bellboy. The set-pieces of Mr. Hulot's Holiday are similarly well-constructed; even when we can see a mile away what the punchline is going to be, it's still funny when we get there.

Best of all, Mr. Hulot's Holiday is a movie that can be watched by the whole family. And it's available on DVD, should you miss tonight's showing on TCM.

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