Monsieur Hulot is one of my very favourite characters in movies, and was a creation of Jacques Tati in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Monsieur Hulot is recognizable due to several traits that are consistent throughout his films. Tati seemed to be a tall man, and M. Hulot often towers over the other characters. This is underlined by the fact that M. Hulot always seems to be wearing what we in primary school used to call ankle freezers – that is, his trousers are just a little too short for the length of his leg. Generally, M. Hulot is always neatly dressed in conservative clothing, and although he is neat there is always a slight air of neglect about the man. It is easy to tell that he is a bachelor somehow.
Something that makes Monsieur Hulot instantly recognisable to his fans is his body language. There are not many close ups in these films – the actors are often distant figures against the scenery or shown in mid shot. The dialogue, while audible, is often heard at the same volume as the background noise. Much of the humour and even plot and character exposition comes from sight gags, the action and the physical performances in the films.
Tati gives Hulot a very distinctive way of moving that brilliantly conveys his character. M. Hulot walks in a way that is both deliberate and stiff legged. He quite often strides out only to dance back onto the balls of his feet out of someone’s way. When he is in a situation that makes him feel awkward, and many situations do, his movements become jerky and rapid, while retaining energy. He is often clumsy, and much of the humour of the films comes from the unwitting havoc a nervous M. Hulot wreaks on the home or workplace of some ghastly snob (they deserve it). The impression that is conveyed is that of a very shy person who is nevertheless determined to do his best to enter into the spirit of the situation.
M. Hulot is lovable. His determination to enjoy life, and to help others to do so, is extremely endearing, and his obvious shyness brings out protective instincts (in me at least). ‘Mon Oncle’ is set in 1950s urban France, and is a cruel satire on the shallow values of the bourgeoisie. M. Hulot, being the adorable dag he is, earns the contempt of the hideous snobs that surround him. However in the face of the scorn of the upwardly mobile he always remains good natured and eager to please. M. Hulot is always kind to small animals and children, always ruffling heads and handing out sweets. He is a great one for opening doors, pulling out chairs and handing around drinks. He treats women with a diffident, Edwardian gallantry that borders on the pleasantly flirtatious. In ‘Mon Oncle’ he is the uncle of the title, bringing warm companionship and welcome chaos to the life of a small boy who is bored silly with the stifling middle class lifestyle his pretentious parents are hell bent on pursuing.
I will finish here. In writing this and so often feeling myself lost for words it strikes me what a very subtle and complete characterization Tati created – there is just so much to describe in regards to his performance, and in order to describe it accurately, it has to be described so particularly. So I think I will quit while I am ahead and just say that if you haven’t seen one of Monsieur Hulot’s films yet – then watch one, and maybe then you will understand my affection for this dear character.