This is Jacques Tati’s second film to feature Monsieur Hulot, casting himself as the gently rumpled character we first saw in M. Hulot’s Holiday. Here we get to see a little bit about Hulot’s home life, but more so that of his nephew Gérard (Alain Bécourt).
M. Hulot lives in the top floor apartment in a crumbling building in Paris, one he has to navigate a bizarre maze of hallways and stairs to reach. He has no phone; people must call the payphone at the cafe next door and ask whoever answers to go fetch him. He has no family of his own, but he’s got a lot of neighbors who know him, and the daughter of his landlady has a crush on him, one he indulges while maintaining decorum. He has no job, but still manages to bumble along okay – and this makes him the perfect after-school sitter for Gérard, collecting the boy from school every day and keeping an eye on him for a couple hours before seeing him back to his parents’ ultra-modern house in a new suburb just outside the city. Hulot’s sister (Adrienne Servantie) tolerates her brother’s quirks, but her husband M. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), a high-placed executive at a rubber hose factory, thinks Hulot needs way more order and structure in his life (and is also secretly a little jealous of how Gérard seems way more attached to his uncle that to his father); the Arpels come up with a couple plans to try to get Hulot either employed or married off.
As with M. Hulot’s Holiday, a lot of the action is just….stuff happening. This is still gentle observational comedy poking fun at quirky situations and little absurdities, only this time Tati also lampoons the ostentation of the materialist Arpels, who’ve over-designed their house to the point that it looks like a sterile modern art gallery. The kitchen appliances all work via push button – but there are so many of them Mme. Arpel needs to remind herself each time how to work everything; there’s no dining room so the family has to set up a table in the garden for every meal; and when M. Hulot babysits Gérard one evening, he can’t figure out how to sleep on the oddly-shaped sofa and ends up turning it on one side and treating it as a hammock. The Arpels themselves are also overly focused on the house – Mme. Arpel especially, who spends every morning meticulously dusting everything, including M. Arpel’s car as he is driving off to work, and who greets every guest by starting up a ridiculous fish-shaped fountain in the front lawn.
Tati is a little more sympathetic to Hulot’s way of life, but even so we don’t really get as much of a sense of Hulot himself. It’s pretty understandable Gérard thinks hanging with his uncle is way more fun – he gets to ride around on the back of his little bike and raise Cain with the kids in Hulot’s block and gorge himself on cheap street food and romp in an old brickyard – but we don’t see Gérard actually playing with Hulot that much. Moreover, we don’t see Hulot that much, nor do we see the inside of his apartment; we only catch glimpses of him passing by the various windows and doors as he navigates his way up to his house, and we see him leaning out his front window a couple times, and that’s it. We don’t even see the inside of the cafe where Hulot ostensibly spends much of his time. Hulot does have to cope with a couple of scrapes – calming a malfunctioning machine at the hose factory, accidentally breaking a branch off one of his sister’s trees, a leak in the fish fountain – but he just…does stuff, wordlessly, to try to fix things and that’s it. We spend just as much time on running gags involving the street sweeper in Hulot’s neighborhood or M. Arpel’s secretary or a roving pack of stray dogs.
So while I enjoyed what I was watching, and appreciated the cleverness, towards the end things started feeling a little one-note, and Hulot’s neighborhood started feeling a little twee and romanticized. I still don’t know all that much about M. Hulot himself, other than the fact that he has a nephew and a sister and that he’s a little bit of a klutz. But we knew most of that from his previous film, so this ultimately was kind of….more of the same. Fortunately “more of the same” includes some fantastic physical comedy and visual gags, including one that made me laugh out loud, where the Arpels peer out of a pair of porthole-shaped windows in their house and their silhouetted heads turn the windows into a pair of googly eyes.