Mr. Hulot’s Holiday introduced Jacques Tati’s droll title character to the world. The film is about nothing more than what the title indicates—a beach vacation taken by one Mr. Hulot (Tati never gives us his first name). The sense of formality in providing only his last name plays off of Hulot’s ungainly gait and ‘all-elbows-and-knees’ bearing. As Hulot interacts with his fellow seasiders over the course of several days, his air of formality brings a warmth of humanity to his character, even as his clumsiness creates difficulties for others—not to mention plenty of laughs.
That sense of humanity in Mr. Hulot only grows over the course of the film, particularly when we see him in relationship to the vacationers around him. This group of people operates on a strictly regimented schedule, moving like a herd of cattle every time the hotel’s meal bell rings. One couple always finds themselves in the restaurant a bit early, apparently unable to find anything else to occupy them beyond that most basic urge to eat. Cattle, indeed.
One recurring gag involves the lights in the beachside inn coming on in reference to one of Hulot’s nighttime escapades. While everyone else has dutifully made it to bed at a “proper” hour, Hulot finds himself out and about, exploring and adventuring. Where the group predictably files into the restaurant for lunch or sits quietly in the lobby every afternoon, Hulot leaves muddy footprints in the lobby or disturbs the quiet by leaving the door open on a windy day. Time and again Tati emphasizes the distinction between Mr. Hulot and the rest of the vacationers. True humanity looks quite different from the humdrum habits of most people.
This fundamental contrast suggests to us that of all the vacationers (save, possibly, a mysterious young woman) only Hulot has found the freedom that people so desperately seek both in vacation and in general. Hulot’s bumbling nature and the many laughs it produces becomes something of a stand in for individuality, freedom, and, most importantly, human warmth. Ironically, though filled with an attentiveness to others, Mr. Hulot generally remains beyond the touch of any other person. This sense of physical isolation provides something of a dark counterpoint to the inventive gags.
Even as Tati joyfully portrays the title character with a wry blend of formality and flailing limbs, Hulot remains beyond the reach of true human companionship. Indeed, it is the man’s difference from the crowd that makes him such a compelling figure. That Hulot never seems to find the companionship enjoyed by virtually everyone around him is not so much an indictment on his freedom and sense of wonder as it is on the rest of society’s rigidity and predictability.