The World of Monsieur Hulot

Jacques Tati is often considered the successor of silent cinema but this assumption is simply derived from the fact that he had a general disregard for dialogues in his films. Now even though the dialogues in Tati's films are often mumbled, it was his use of natural sound that accentuated the performances to exceptional heights. The very mise en scène of his films is deeply rooted in sound and his films are arguably one of the best when it comes to sound design. He added layer after layer of sound till he reached a certain degree of co-ordinated chaos. Chaos was always Tati’s primary observation in this structured society and he created humour by simply organising this chaos in his films.

I hate to put films in genres and particularly hate to term Tati’s films as comedies, for they were much more than that. Unlike the silent films of Chaplin and Keaton which were driven by acrobatic feats and slapstick gags, Tati often used idiosyncrasies of people from the real world. However it can’t be denied that Tati’s humour wasn’t slapstick but he never distributed such gags uniformly across his films, in fact he urged us to observe the minute details that were rather amusing than funny. Few such classic examples from his films would be that of the singing canary every time Hulot opens his window in Mon Oncle, or the kid with the gravity defying ice-cream scoop in Monsieur Hulot's Holiday.

 Mr. Bean is said to have been influenced by the character of Monsieur Hulot but Mr. Bean could never grab the essence of Hulot’s world. Mr. Bean is well, about Mr. Bean whilst Mr. Hulot is about the strange surroundings he is in. Even though Mr. Hulot is the lead character in the four films Tati made in the series, it is the world he lives in that is given more importance than his character. We never get to know Mr. Hulot beyond his appearance of a tall man wearing a mackintosh, perennially holding a pipe in his mouth and an umbrella in his hand, wearing striped socks and always walking on his tiptoes. We know him to be a naïve and a friendly man but nothing beyond that. We never get to know his first name, we seldom see him in a close-up and we never ever see his private living space. Also Mr. Hulot doesn’t really stick to the screen permanently like Mr. Bean does, about a quarter of his films often progress without his presence.

All the four films from Mr. Hulot series are mostly shot in wide frames and we almost never get into close-ups. Tati preferred us to watch from a distance and discover the anecdotes in the wide frame, and these anecdotes are often highlighted by sound or composition rather than close-up. Just like we might miss a gag in the real world, if not paid proper attention we might miss a gag on the screen too. The world of Mr. Hulot is for us to observe carefully and not meant to be enjoyed passively, for sometimes some action might take place in the corner of the screen and we would entirely miss it.

Tati established spaces rather than characters, and he used these spaces craftily around the characters to create humour, especially the juxtaposition of characters against the spaces they are in, be it similar or contradictory. In Mon Oncle we see two perfectly rounded people living in rectangular spaces, in Play Time we see a perfect distinction between organised spaces and chaos of the people living in it.

Architecture and production design of Tati’s films often incline towards geometric shapes which quite amusingly contradict the humans made from flesh and blood. Tati very simply and visually explains that behind the organisational façade, human nature is deeply rooted in entropy. 

Tati also used staging very skilfully, and not only with humans but also with animals and inanimate objects. Like in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, the can of paint always floats over the sea waves in the opposite direction and in Mon Oncle, the dachshund crawls in through the gate while the other street dogs know their limits and stand outside. 

There are recurring themes in Tati’s films that pose questions in our mind, like the reflective and invisible nature of glass in Play Time, the old couple in Mr. Hulot's Holiday who never walk together, the sweeper in Mon Oncle who's more interested in chit-chat than his work or the nose pickers in Trafic.

Tati also drew some excellent parallels in his films, like Gerard - the son of Arpels in Mon Oncle mingle with other kids in a similar manner as the dachshund mingles with other street dogs, or the architecture of the factory and the school is so similar.

Not only sound but Tati’s use of music was remarkable too, music in his films would simply create an atmosphere for his universe, generally a repetitive jazzy score that keeps us floating whilst we enjoy his images. The music and images move like in a kaleidoscope, cars moving in circles like a pinwheel, all the umbrellas opening at the same time, the windshield wipers moving as per the physiognomies of the driver and many such instances.

The world of Monsieur Hulot is the same world that we live in, it is as contemporary and real as it could get. But what we lack is Mr. Hulot’s perspective, and that’s precisely the reason why he is different from us. We are the very people portrayed in his films with our idiosyncrasies battling our own environments whilst Mr. Hulot remains to be the charming, simple and naïve fellow that he is, reminding us through his satire, that we cannot escape the chaos hidden in our organised lives.

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