(Video pro tip: Go full-screen with it. This tiny French embeddable player is all I could find. Everything is much smaller in France, you see.)
“The moment where I realized comedy could be both funny and beautiful.” - Terry Jones on M. Hulot’s Holiday
Forty-seven minutes into Jacques Tati’s eighty-seven minute comedic masterpiece begins perhaps the greatest tennis scene committed to film. M. Hulot’s Holiday is the first of four films to feature Tati’s awkward and endearing Monsieur Hulot. Whereas the later films portray Hulot hopelessly out of place in an increasingly modernized, mechanized, sterilized, impatient and unfriendly world, in Holiday we encounter Hulot vacationing in a small, French seaside town. The pace is languid, the mood merry, the surroundings beautifully old-fashioned. Here Hulot’s alienation is dependent much more on social class and etiquette than on his outmoded way of being.
Hulot is a Mr. Magoo-like character. His awkwardness and obliviousness create havoc wherever he goes. This makes it is all the more remarkable that his bizarre approach to tennis is so wildly successful. I think I’m correct in saying that this is the only time Hulot displays any form of physical prowess in Tati’s four Hulot pictures.
The scene begins as Hulot, apparently thinking that his trademark hat is not sporting enough, buys a newspaper and quickly crafts a hat suitable for tennis out of it. He then enters a gift shop where he buys a tennis racket and, a neophyte at the game, picks up a crucial pointer from the shopkeeper. It is unclear why the lady instructs Hulot to serve the ball with such unique flair, but I sincerely thank her for it.
Hulot’s car pulls up to the tennis court sputtering and emits a loud bang. The cacophany of his car engine and the disruption it causes are recurring themes throughout the film. We see two young women, presumably experienced tennis players, gracefully and artfully warming up with practice swings. Hulot steps up to serve and hilarity ensues. He rockets a service past them. And then another and another in quick succession. The women are taken aback by the incivility of his play. After exiting the court in a huff, Hulot gets a challenge from proud a young gentleman who struts onto the court and is swiftly run ragged. Sprawling on the ground, unable to keep up with Hulot’s rapid services, he is embarrassed.
A Young boy enthusiastically emulates Hulot’s style on a neighboring ping-pong table. An old man in a captain’s hat mimics Hulot’s form and exclaims, “But that’s not right. That’s not tennis.” Hulot’s young challenger, out of breath, unable to speak, throws in the towel after failing to return a single service
Hulot stands poised, ready to serve, waiting for his next opponent. The old man says, “Fine. Well I’ll go on the attack.” Hulot gives the man a nod and serves. The old man does a full 360-degree turn, whiffs on the ball and has his captain’s cap tumble off of his head.
The excellence and audacity of Hulot’s play upset the stuffy vacationers in much the same way his loud jazz music and sputtering car engine agitate the resort vibe. That Hulot excels at tennis while completely ignoring the game’s etiquette is important. He does it not out of disdain for those who take the game seriously, but rather out of simple naiveté. He’s one of few in town who is not putting on some kind of an act, who is not more concerned with social grace than having an enjoyable vacation.
It is important to note that not everyone is annoyed by Hulot’s tennis play and other eccentricities. The pretty young blond, the young boy and the kooky chair umpire are delighted by his antics. Throughout the film, the more unlikable a character is the more they are bothered by Hulot’s innocent obliteration of social mores. In the end Hulot wins over more than he loses. He brings energy to the staid surroundings and ushers a conclusion that I think is far more optimistic than the Hulot films that would follow.
I’ll close with the following from David Ehrenstein’s essay that accompanies the Criterion edition of the film:
Tati’s penchant for realism, combined with his taste and restraint, make M. Hulot’s Holiday the sort of comedy that one can enjoy again and again. A first viewing will have you laughing at the classic comedy scenes like Hulot’s tennis game, or the uproarious scene in which the hapless Hulot finds himself mistaken for a mourner at a country funeral—and that’s not to mention the bits with the muddy footprints, the raucous jazz record, or the runaway car.
But later viewings reveal something else, for Tati is the antithesis of the laughs-at-any-price gagman. He wants us to laugh, but he also wants something more. In the words of critic Pauline Kael, “Tati is sparse, eccentric, quick. It is not until afterward—with the sweet nostalgic music lingering—that these misadventures take on a certain poignancy and depth.” For film director Jean-Luc Godard it’s this subtle afterglow—a comic yet becalmed view of the world—that really counts. “This is what interests Tati. Everything and nothing. Blades of grass, a kite, children, a little old man, anything, everything which is at once real, bizarre, and charming.”