Jacques Tati brought his eternal character to the screen four times -- in Les Vacances de M. Hulot, Mon Oncle, Playtime and Traffic.
These are among the finest comedies ever created for the screen. Which is the greatest amongst them? That will be argued by lovers of Jacques Tati as long as electric light can still shine through celluloid, or DVDs spin.
For much of the time think Mon Oncle is his finest. But then I put on Les Vacances (M. Hulot's Holiday) and that remarkable 1953 animated picture-postcard of a French seaside resort wins hands-down. Well, at least until I watch Mon Oncle again.
Tati's movies are virtual silent-movies, augmented with sound. Dialogue is unimportant. However, extraneous noises make their own statements -- the cacaphonous explosions of M. Hulot's car (an idiosyncratic 1924 French Amilcar) as he arrives in the holiday-village, or the plangent 'Plong' of the restaurant door next to Hulot's table, as waiters and managers cope with the flotsam of odd events that seem to cluster around Hulot.
Hulot is a striking figure on screen, reminiscent of, though very different to, Buster Keaton. He is tall, lanky, always leaning at an acute angle against a non-existent breeze. He is gauche and loveable and intensely irritating all at the same time. A wonderfully inventive, perfectly sustained creation.
It's to the immense credit of Jacques Tati that he seems to purposefully avoid making Hulot and his idiosyncracies the centre of events, in the way a Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy would be. Instead, things just happen around him. Some of the events are extraordinary. Others are mundane, but quietly delightful. Life by the sea in a French holiday resort is full of sun and salt-air, and Tati paints a series of delicious impressions of that life, in what's almost cinematic expressionism.
If you have seen Hulot, you will know what to expect in famous scenes such as the totally wonderful tennis game. But there'll be countless scenes you will have forgotten. This is a film you'll wish to return to often, as if returning to your favourite holiday resort. And watch for the only splash of colour in the entire movie, in a masterly visual touch which closes a perfect film.
This is a transfer of the final edit by Jacques Tati, which ran just 87 minutes. Tati's original version apparently ran for 114 minutes, but Tati, always a restless perfectionist, apparently kept returning to this movie, editing it and making it tighter and tighter. So we're not getting short-shrift; this the version reflects Tati's final thoughts.
Actual running time of this edition is 83 minutes; what seems a four-minute shorter film length seems due to the PAL speed-up factor.
The black-and-white transfer is simply brilliant. It looks to me as if taken from the same print-source as used for the French Region Two edition. The tonal definition and quality is so good that you'd swear you could see sunlight sparkling from the water in its full golden glory.
We can choose from two soundtracks -- the original French two-channel mono soundtrack, or an English-language soundtrack created some years later by Jacques Tati. The French soundtrack is preferable -- it's clearer sound, without distortion. But try sampling the English soundtrack occasionally -- there's at least one gag which definitely improves with translation.
But language is kept to a minimum; conversation is as much an aural backdrop as the sound of the waves or the hideous noise of Hulot's motorcar. English subtitles are provided, but they're distracting, and are definitely not needed.
The chief extra is a 12-minute Rene Clement black-and-white short film from 1936, Soigne Ton Gauche, in which Tati, playing a rural hayseed, is roped into acting as sparring-partner for a professional boxer training in the country. It's very slight, but worth seeing for its view of the young Tati in the days when he was making his reputation as a music-hall physical-impersonator and mime.
There are original theatrical trailers for this movie, along with Mon Oncle and Playtime, while Madman has also included trailers for The Leopard, The Battle of Algiers and La Strada.
This is, I think, the equal of any release of M. Hulot's Holiday anywhere in the world. The Region One Criterion Edition includes a short introduction to the movie by Terry Jones -- but I prefer seeing the film for myself before hearing someone else's opinion about it.