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M. Hulot's Holiday: The Criterion Collection

In his 1953 film M. Hulot's Holiday, writer/director/star Jacques Tati introduced Monsieur Hulot, the bemused, awkward, perpetually pipe-smoking character that would forever define Tati as surely as Charlie Chaplin was defined by his Little Tramp. Owing a huge debt to Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Tati's comedy is leisurely paced, meticulously timed and very, very French. Gags are set up so slowly and with such precision that the humor lies less from surprise than from delight — some gags, like a paint can that floats out on the tide over and over, returning to Hulot's brush just when he needs it, are so flawlessly executed that you'll replay them again and again just to figure out how the heck they were created. The plot is sort of beside the point — M. Hulot is on holiday at a posh seaside resort, overlooked by the tourists except when the occasional crisis occurs. Gentle slapstick involving dogs, boats, pretty girls, and fireworks ensue, all beautifully photographed as if each shot were a crisp black-and-white postcard. The episodic nature of the film recalls Jerry Lewis's The Bellboy, as well as the absurdist sketch comedy of Ernie Kovacs — almost entirely without dialogue, much of the humor comes from Tati's innovative use of sound effects and music. Tati followed with three more Hulot films — Mon Oncle, Playtime and Traffic — but M. Hulot's Holiday is the first, the most charming, and the best of the lot. Viewers expecting that "comedy" automatically means lots of hard-hitting, laugh-out-loud, obvious jokes may find the Hulot films ponderous and lacking in punch; those willing to slow down and take a quiet vacation of amusement will find them immensely satisfying, and watchable again and again. Comedy buffs may also note how much Rowan Atkinson's "Mr. Bean" sketches steal from Tati — everything from Hulot's tiny car to his distinctive walk. Criterion's DVD release is superb, presented in the original full-screen ratio (1.33:1) and monaural audio. Extras include an introduction by Monty Python alum Terry Jones and the 1936 short Soigne ton gauche ("Watch Your Left"), which stars Tati as a farmhand taking a turn in the boxing ring. French with English subtitles. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor



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