Friday, May 21, 2010

Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (M. Hulot's Holiday) -- helping, not running

Director: Jacques Tati, 1953. (G)

This classic French comedy is sub-titled in English. But if you dislike these you need not be put off: this is visual comedy. Slapstick and pantomime abound, as this is reminiscent of the silent-screen comedies of Buster Keaton. Tati directs his second full length feature from his own script and stars as the iconic M. Hulot, a character that he reprised in three subsequent movies.

It is vacation time in France, and M. Hulot takes to the wheel of his sputtering jalopy. He heads for the beach and the shabby hotel where he is staying. This is not the glamorous French riviera; it is rather a typical working-class seaside resort in Brittany. The film is fairly plotless, being built loosely around his vacation and his interactions with the other guests.

The week is full of misadventures for him and these guests. There are some laug/>h-out-loud scenes and others that go too long and fall flat. But the former outweigh the latter. In one scene he stumbles into a funeral because of his spare tire and becomes one of the greeters. In another, he takes up tennis with a unique serving style that leaves his opponents dumb-struck and defeated. A shark-like escapade unintentionally presages Spielberg's Jaws. My favorite scene, though, is the climax where he inadvertently sets off fireworks and tries to fill a water bucket, to put them out, by running laps around a circular sprinkler.

The film succeeds because of M. Hulot and his character. A gangly bachelor with a floppy hat and a pipe dangling from his mouth, he is happy but hapless, living in the moment without a care in the world. Each episode extracts its humor from his bumbling clumsiness, wherein he manages to cause catastrophe. His intentions are good, but the results of his efforts are not.

M. Hulot brings to mind two other screen characters. The first is the French Amelie. Both M. Hulot and Amelie want to help others, even people they don't know. But where Amelie mixes mischief in with her do-gooding, M. Hulot is fundamentally well-meaning. He simply seeks to do good, to help. There is no hidden agenda with him.
The second screen character is British TV's Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson). He is an almost silent character, like M. Hulot, relying on visual gags. He may even have been modeled on the French character. But he is more like a young boy in an adult body, competitive and spiteful. M. Hulot, in contrast, does not seem to have a mean streak in him.

We can be like M. Hulot if we want and if we try. If we move out of our self-focused comfort zone we can look to others, to help them where they are in need. As followers of Jesus, he commanded us to love our neighbors (Matt. 19:19) and one way to do this is to offer well-meaning help. This is not giving money, although we are called to be generous and cheerful in our tithing to the church (2 Cor. 9:6-7) and our giving to the poor (Deut. 15:10). Rather, it is a giving of our time and ourselves.

One thing with M. Hulot: when his help causes problems, he runs away. He abandons the problems, leaving others to clean up the mess. He is irresponsible in this regard. If we choose to help others, we must decide to do so responsibly, taking the good with the bad. If we cause a mess, we should clean it up. If we damage things, we should seek to repair or offer redress. We cannot simply run away, like a little child. Though we surely enter the kingdom of heaven like a little child (Matt. 18:3), we must grow up and put aside childish behaviors (1 Cor. 13:11). We must be responsible citizens of God's kingdom in our relationships with others.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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