In 1949 Jacques Tati had already delighted audiences and astonished critics with his first full-length movie Jour de Fête. Many were taken with his figure of the crafty postman Francois, so they urged Tati to make another movie about him - but the filmmaker believed that the character constrained him too much and went to search for a completely new idea. The successor of postman Francois needed to be an universally usable character, which was also to have some very unique features.
Entré Monsieur Hulot
Tatis new creation was a completely normal everyman, whom you could met every day on the street. But Monsieur Hulot is more than that: he stands out from other normal and average characters with his odd and clumsy ways, which he compensated with an artful cleverness. Hulot is not a joke figure, but a versatile and relatively complex clown, for whom Tati found endless possibilities to unconsciously produce chaos - he seems like a gentleman from the long-gone past, in whom there still is a bit of a child.
Of course there is something of Buster Keaton's and Charlie Chaplin's legacy in Monsieur Hulot, but Tatis humour is much more subtle, profound and not always fully obvious. Hulot is not automatically a Gag and doesn't let the audience laugh only by his presence, but produces a slow grin when a small catastrophy slowly builds around him. Hulot is not the occasion, but the trigger of many of the movie's gags - you don't laugh at him, but at the effects his actions produce.
Filmmakers on Vacation
In his new movie, Tati continued his great fondness of observing everyday events and did not study a festival, but the common tourist. He found the ideal venue - where else - on a postcard and had even gone there on holiday himself once before with his family. He was very taken with Saint-Marc-sur-Mer at the coast of the Bretagne, because the little holiday village had many of the qualities he wanted for a shooting location. Like in Jour de Fêtes Sainte-Severe the filmmaker found an unspoiled and secluded place, which proved to be exactly right for the atmosphere of his new movie.
Jacques Tati once again collaborated with his old friends, the script writer Henri Marquet and the producer Fred Orain, who also doubled as production manager this time. The team was completed by Jacques Lagrange, who worked on the script and did illustrations and designs, becoming a frequent Tati associate afterwards. After long preparations, like finding Hulots strange car and some structural additions to the shooting location the filmmakers went to Saint-Marc-sur-Mer and there pitched their tents in June 1951 - to the amusement, but also horror of the present vacationers, who did not really feel disturbed, but were hired by Tati as extras. The Hotel de la Plage was not only a set, but also served as an accomodation for the film crew, providing a very exciting summer for the vacationers.
A Story without Content
While Jour de Fête still had a rudimentary plot, Tati nearly completely abandoned a coherent story for Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and built the movie upon the simple premise of a holiday at the sea. The small stories running through the movie are not more than elaborate gags, in which Tati conjures his very own type of humour out of completely ordinary happenings with a remarkable calm and ease. He throws his Monsieur Hulot as a foreign object into the well-oiled gears of the holiday machinery, which he is heavily disturbing. Tati has much fun with the creation of his individual gags, which he has converted from simple slapstick sequences to detailed choreographed sequences.
The movie is not a satire, but an affectionate observation, which manages without too much exaggerations and actually just depicts the reality, which is already strange enough on its own. Like before in Jour de Fête Tati follows the events with his camera from a middle distance passively like a random passer-by - majestic tracking shots are unknown here and the perspective is mostly static. There is much to discover in every shot, because Tati is not content with a classic scenery setting, but uses multiple layers to show several events at the same time in a completely natural way - a technique, which he would be using often again in his later movies.
Sights and Sounds of the Seaside
After the disastrous colour experiment of Jour de Fête Jacques Tati gave up hope filming his new film in colour, even if the holiday scenario would have been ideal for it. Together with his cinematographers Jacques Mercanton and Jean Mousselle he instead concentrated on atmospheric black-and-white photography, which reproduced the picturesque beach scenario so well, that it didn't take any colours to bring it to life. While Jour de Fête was more or less an unintentional black-and-white movie, Tati was able to coordinate the lighting and the image composition for Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot in a much better way now.
Regarding the soundtrack Tati tried a completely new experiment: the unimportance of intelligible dialogue and the blurring of the border beweeen voices and sound were even more carried to the extreme in his new movie. There is practically no important dialogue text in the movie, only bits of conversation with nearly irrelevant topics are heard. The sound effects have a much higher significance and are used much the same as voices, but also sometimes have a humorous charakter. Together with Alain Romans' nonchalant and dreamy music Tati had created a little sound symphony for Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, which fascinates with its simplicity and makes a silent-movie-character of the film possible.
End of a Holiday
When Jacques Tati and his film crew departed Saint-Marc-sur-Mer in October 1951 after four month of filming, they left a huge emptiness behind - never before had the small holiday village experienced such excitement, and nobody suspected that Tati had created a little memorial of the little town. Only a few interior shots were filmed in the studio for practical reasons, because the hotel proved to be a bit too small for the shooting of the movie and Tati was able to design the sets better in a controlled environment. During 1952 Tati once again returned to Saint-Marc-sur-Mer to film some additional shots, after which Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot was finished soon.
Jacques Tati did not need to search long for a distributor in France, because his movie was much anticipated and was able to be quickly released not only in his home country, but also worldwhite. After the French premiere in February 1953, which was celebrated with great enthusiasm and resulted in much praise from the critics, the movie won at first the French Prix Louis Delluc, was nominated at the Cannes Film Festival for the Grand Pix and in the same summer was shown during the third Berlinale.
With so much attention the movie became interesting for distributors around the whole world and soon Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot was shown in cinemas not only all over Europe, but also in the USA. Tati had even created an english dub himself, in which some, but by no means all dialogue was translated - this was apparently done to improve the chances of the movie at the Academy Awards. At least Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet were nominated in 1956 for their script, but unfortunately lost against Interrupted Melody, a semibiographical drama about an opera singer. Ironically it was Jacques Tati's movie, which managed to keep its popularity for decades after, while the Hollywood production was nearly forgotten
Monsieur Hulot's Legacy
Jacques Tati had already changed Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot shortly after its premiere for the first time by shortening the original 98-minute french version to 88 minutes for the english-language market. In 1962 he also reworked the french version, for which Alain Romans' music was re-recorded, a few scenes shortened and others extended, creating a 86-minute-long incarnation of the movie, to which he had also added the ending with the coloured stamp. The last change was made in 1977, when Tati inserted a little Hommage to Steven Spielberg's Jaws, once again returning to Saint-Marc-sur-Mer for a brief shooting. Presistent allegations that the first version of the movie was supposedly more than two hours long are no more than unfounded rumours, which were finally disproven in 2009 with the rediscovery of the 98-minutes-long original version.
The differences between the 1953 original version and Tatis later revisions are however not as drastic as, for example, Charlie Chaplins reworkings of some of his silent movies. Although the later versions are almost ten minutes longer than the original, Tati only removed a few redundant scenes like a second tennis match, tightened some of the hotel sequences and made some other small changes, but left his movie otherwise intact. Much more conspicuous is the completely overhauled soundtrack, for which the music was entirely rerecorded with a new, more jazzy instrumentation, adding jazz guitar, drums, bass and vibraphone to the former small band of piano and a brass section. Tati also changed the already sparse dialogue, reducing it even more and putting the sound effects into the foreground.
Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot had breathed new life into the european cinema of the 1950s, which was still recovering after the second world war. With Monsieur Hulot Tati had finally found his long-sought trademark and the nostalgic and slightly melancholy view of the art of holiday-making quickly became a very special movie classic, which even today appears fresh and unspent. Tatis timeless vacation spot with all its strange tourists could exist even today as it did back then and is equally a fascinating contemporary document and a movie which holds a mirror up to reality. With Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, Jacques Tati had finally established his reputation as an innovative, but opinionated filmmaker and his new movie had opened many possibilities for much bigger projects.
Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot has already been available for nearly ten years on DVD from Criterion in the USA and in Europe from several other studios. All these releases go back to the same video master, which had been somewhat restored, but could not really hide the age of the movie. In 2009, for the first time a complete restoration under the patronage of the Tati estate with the help of the Groupama Gan Foundation, the Thomson Foundation and the Cinematheque Francaise was done, which showed the movie in its original glory. The same year a DVD of the restored version was released in France, which contained also the long-lost original version, but was unfortunately encoded in 16:9 instead of 4:3.
In 2010 the British Film Institute, which had previously released Tati's movies in England, announced a new edition of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, which was released not only as a DVD, but together with a Blu-Ray and like the french DVD also contained the alternative original version from 1953. This review is about the DVD of the set, which has turned out well in spite of having both versions and over half an hour of extras on only one disc. The image has been properly encoded in 4:3, the restoration of the final 1977 version is brilliant and even the only partly restored original version looks fine.
For the new restoration of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot a new copy of the camera negative was made in France. The resulting interpositive was scanned and restored by the restoration facility of Technicolor USA, presenting the 1977 version of the movie the first time in a near-pristine image quality. The 1953 original version was transferred from a different source and not as thoroughly restored, but is still very watchable.
The new transfer of the 1977 version sparkles owing to the successfull restoration especially with a very clean image, which has been liberated of practically all scratches, dust and other imperfections. The film grain has, however, been left intact, but is so fine that it is partly invisible on the DVD. The former problem of the unstable image has now gotten very well under control. The image is not always completely steady and sometimes moves a bit about, but the hard jumps after every cut have been completely eliminated now, making the transfer comparatively calm.
At first glance, the DVD of the restoration looks a bit more soft than the earlier Criterion disc, but mainly because no additional sharpening has been applied. For a film of that period, sharpness is excellent and has lots of details to offer, which were difficult to see before. The much too high contrast of the old transfer has been reduced and now makes a whole new greyscale palette visible, while also the Brightness has been somewhat increased, making the holiday weather really sparkle.
While primarily the last version from 1977, which is seen as the official one by the Tati estate, has been restored, the 1953 original version was not totally forgotten. For this edit, a completely different film source was transferred, which was not in a good shape and was not as thoroughly restored. Sharpness is visibly lower and there are lots of scratches and some dirt visible, but the worst damages have apparently been fixed, so that the image looks quite good considering the circumstances. Surprisingly the image stability even seems better than on the 1977 version with only occasional fluttering.
Both versions of the movie are located together with the extras on one single DVD-9, which could make the compression difficult, but is actually completely unproblematic. Thanks to a very well balanced bitrate of average 5 mbit/s, the economically encoded soundtracks and the optimal use of disc space no artifacts whatsoever are visible. The successful authoring shows, that more than three hours of video can indeed be accomodated on one dual-layer disc, if the art of compression is mastered.
For the soundtracks of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot the BFI obviously had access to the same sources as Criterion, so that the excellent quality of the 1977 version from the earlier DVD is heard here, the alternative english soundtrack is also included. The sound of the 1953 version has been renovated too, but for age-related reasons it cannot compete with the newer soundtrack. All soundtracks are heard in their original mono mixes.
The french soundtrack, encoded in Dolby Digital 2.0 with generous 320 kbit/s, leaves an excellent impression and has only few age-related issues, because the very well preserved magnetic tracks have been utilized. Frequency range and dynamic are not impressively high, but do not cause any audible problems - especially the music has a decent bass and clean trebles, while dialogue and sound effects are heard clearly and undistorted considering the circumstances. There are no dropouts audible and even the noise floor is very low, without leaving the impression that the soundtrack has been overfiltered.
The english soundtrack, encoded in 2.0 with 192 kbit/s, seems to be taken from an optical source and therefore does not have the same good quality as the french version. While only limited noise and no crackle can be noticed and the bass is quite solid, the trebles are constrained and the dynamic is distinctly limited. The muffled sound is hardly as good as the french soundtrack, but not so bad that the englisch version would be totally unlistenable.
The soundtrack of the 1953 original version, also encoded in 2.0 with 192 kbits, was also sourced from an optical track and has been carefully restored, but shows its age the most. While the sound is relatively muffled and the trebles tend to distort a bit, there are no really unpleasant problems - the soundtrack only has the distinct noise floor typical for optical tracks, which was not filtered out and is only really audible in quiet scenes. For a soundtrack of multiple copy generations the quality is actually quite satisfactory.
Both versions of the movie have optional englisch Subtitles, which seem to be a mix of a translation of the french track and a transcription of the english version.