In France the pipe, hat, trench coat, and umbrella of Monsieur Hulot is as well-known as the derby, shabby suit, mustache, and cane of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Jacques Tati only made six actual films (plus some shorts and other marginalia), and four of them featured Hulot. I’ve seen four of his films, and three of them are masterpieces of comedy. (I could not get into Trafic.) He is almost a pantomime character in his films. He seldom speaks. In this one, for instance, he has just one line, though we can see but not hear him speaking to others in the distance. He makes me think of a silent film character who has wandered into the wrong movie. Americans like me are accustomed to much more boisterous comedy: pratfalls, pies in the face, Keystone Cops car chases, and the like. And I love comedy like that. But Tati is something else entirely. Most of his humor is warm and subtle, he takes his time, the gags develop slowly. Hulot is a gentle man, often bowing and tipping his hat, completely out of his depth in the modern world, but never really too concerned about that. He makes comic attempts to cover up his disastrous collisions with the machines and people around him, but he is never defeated by them.
This is a work of genius, but you have to give it time to really develop fully. It features what is possibly the least inviting, least livable, ugliest house ever built. Hulot’s sister and brother-in-law live there, apparently happy with the hideous “modernity” of the place. I’d sooner live in a jail cell and sleep on a bed of nails. Every tiny, hard-edged detail of the place has been carefully thought out and built to horrify the sensibilities of anyone who has ever recoiled from an unsittable couch or chair, a concrete floor, or a “garden” with only a few truncated shrubs and a horrible spouting fish fountain that is only turned on when “important” people arrive at the prison gate … sorry, I meant the entrance to the driveway. Observing these people, particularly Hulot, trying to actually occupy these barren spaces is simply hilarious. And contrast it to the haphazard but warm monstrosity where Hulot lives, where he goes up and down staircases, around and around and back again before arriving at the door to his top-floor room. Where he carefully adjusts one window to throw some sunlight on a canary across from his place, which is such a Hulot thing to do.
The streets we see are filled with regimented, huge American cars, including what is possibly the ugliest three-toned pink and maroon and green 1958 Chevy ever seen on this planet. The plastic factory where Hulot is briefly and disastrously employed is as sterile as an operating room, and a running gag is an endless stream of men carrying an apparently endless length of red tubing through most of the scenes. When Hulot tries to operate the machine that makes the tubes he gets closest to the sort of slapstick comedy we are used to, and he does it superbly.
This film won the tenth Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, and the third since the category was made a competitive one. There is a great anecdote on Wiki that I wish was true: “On receiving his Oscar, Tati was offered any treat that the Academy could bestow on him. To their surprise, Tati simply requested the opportunity to visit Stan Laurel, Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton at their nursing homes.” Oh, man, that got me right in the heart! What a swell guy! Though actually I have to doubt the nursing home part, since Buster was still appearing in films as late as 1966, in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Buster was dying of cancer at the time, though nobody told him that. He thought he had a bad case of bronchitis. Stan Laurel didn’t die until 1965. Mack Sennett may have been in a nursing home, since he died in 1960. I want to believe that Tati visited with all of them. Why not?