P.O.V. No.28 - Good Guy / Bad Guy

The Case of Monsieur Hulot

Jakob Isak Nielsen

One does not write an article for a distinguished journal such as p.o.v. merely based on expectations about what other contributors might write. Nevertheless, considering the potential of the 'good guy/bad guy' theme of this current issue, I could not help but consider what characters might lend themselves to an article on this topic.

First of all, we seem naturally drawn to flamboyant bad guys: Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) of There Will Be Blood (2008), Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) of Silence of the Lambs (1991), Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) of Blue Velvet (1986), not to mention all of Batman's adversaries. Second, film history is packed with memorable 'bad guys' who, it seems, are not all bad and memorable 'good guys' who are not all good. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) would be a classic example of the latter and many of the above mentioned bad guys certainly have a number of redeeming or appealing features.

But what about characters who are fundamentally 'good'? We might think of role models, super heroes, saviors or more mundane characters who simply do nothing but good deeds. We might lend allegorical, symbolic or ideological functions to these characters, yet they may also appear one-dimensional or even trivial and boring as has sometimes mistakenly been said about Tim Burton's Batman.

In the following I want to discuss a character who seems fundamentally 'good': Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) as he appears in Play Time (1967). Analytically, the 'good guy'-aspects of Hulot are a little more complicated to come to grips with because in this particular example the character Monsieur Hulot is of course played by the director of Play Time: Jacques Tati. [1] This fact comes to bear on the way in which Hulot can be engaged with as a good guy. The twist here is not played out at a charaterological level where Hulot comes across as a good guy but ultimately has a hidden 'darker side'. Instead I will argue that 'what is good about Hulot' should be studied from the perspective of a type of viewer engagement that is multi-layered - where qualities of Hulot become enmeshed with questions of narrative point of view and directorial vision.

Engaging with Hulot
Hulot is an odd figure of engagement. Somewhat like an uncle, as suggested by the title of Jacques Tati's earlier Hulot-film Mon oncle (1958), he is at once familiar and a mysterious stranger. The physical characteristics of Hulot make him instantly recognizable - even in silhouette: pipe, soft hat, beige cottoncoat, umbrella across his arm, trousers that are too short, striped stockings, and the bird-like gait (fig. 1). While Hulot's physical characteristics are strikingly recognizable we know very little about him. Where does he come from? What does he want?

Fig. 1. The trailer for Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) exploits the recognizability of a silhouetted Hulot.

In the classical cinema our engagement with characters is usually bound up with goal-oriented action. The good guy of classical cinema wants something and we generally want him to succeed. The questions - often burning questions - which we pose in connection with goal-oriented action, are significant to our involvement in narrative per se. This is completely different in the case of Hulot - in general and in particular with the Hulot that we meet in Play Time. The goal that drives the events in Play Time forward is Hulot wanting to meet a Monsieur Giffard. However, we never understand why Hulot wants to meet Giffard and in many ways this modest premise is nothing but a setup for the various detours that in effect become the film.

Essentially, Hulot is a mime - his character being defined by appearance, gesture and movement. Not only is he a mime but also his mimic performance in Play Time communicates a rather narrow range of psychological states. He generally acts attentive, surprised or befuddled. Often, Hulot comes across as a type more than a fully fleshed character with psychological depth. Particularly in Play Time we are rarely allowed to access Hulot's thoughts or emotions. This is as much a question of style as of narrative design: He is rarely given audible dialogue and he is rarely presented in close shots. It would be false to claim that Hulot is a 'faceless' character but certainly his facial physiognomy is not as dominant a feature of his persona as it is with regard to other comedians such as Louis de Funès or - to mention a more contemporary example - Jim Carrey.

Mime itself involves a distortion of everyday behavior. Similarly, the Hulot neighborhood that we get to see in Mon oncle is also a caricature of old idyllic Paris as is the so-called 'Tativille' in Play Time of modern urbanity. These settings do not represent physical places but - like Hulot - a philosophy of life.

Sympathetic gestures
Given these reservations, why is Hulot a memorable 'good guy'? For one thing, Hulot is a likeable character in Play Time. There is not one malicious action, he is helpful when two ladies need assistance with a lamp, he does not remonstrate when unfairly abused by a manager at the exhibit ("Slam Your Doors in Golden Silence"), he purchases a charming present for Barbara (Barbara Dennek), and so forth. However, the reason that Hulot is a 'good guy' has more to do with the way in which Tati the director orchestrates the Hulot persona and assigns meaningful qualities to him.

The first remarkable thing about Tati's orchestration of the Hulot persona is the inital presentation of Hulot in the film. Other director-comedians such as Chaplin and Buster Keaton clearly present their persona as the main protagonists of the films in which they appear. However, Tati does something quite astounding in Play Time. He shows us a number of false Hulots before we get to see the real one (fig. 2-5). Of course, the instant recognizability of costume, gesture and movement can be easily and powerfully invoked - particularly when characters are far away from the camera.

Fig. 2. The first 'false' Hulot appears approximately four minutes into the film. Fig. 3. The second 'false' Hulot appears approximately seven minutes into the film.
Fig. 4. The third 'false' Hulot (Smith) appears approximately nine minutes into the film. Fig. 5. The real Hulot appears approximately eleven minutes into the film where he greets Smith who gets on the bus he has just exited.

The fact that we get to see a whole number of 'false' Hulots has a number of implications for our way of engaging with the character. This understated character introduction is in itself sympathetic on the part of Tati the director but more importantly, Tati ingeniously utilizes the popularity of his well-known persona in the service of a greater cause. Given the popularity of Hulot, the false Hulots are an amusing gimmick but they also significantly reveal to the observant viewer a remarkably bold audiovisual agenda. A number of researchers (e.g. Noël Burch in a footnote in A Theory of Film Practice, and Kristin Thompson in "Play Time: Comedy on the Edge of Perception") have commented on Tati's use of multiplane and multiaction staging within a single shot where Tati often places a range of potential points of interest within a single frame. What has been less commented on is why Tati does so. In one sense, Tati remains within the world of the film: he launches a whole number of parameters that are creatively presented or transformed in the course of the film: for instance glass is one of the parameters most often invoked: a towering glass facade appears early in the film against the backdrop of a blue and cloudy sky (fig. 6), glass reflects tourist attractions (fig. 7), reflections in glass cause confusion (fig. 8), real and apparent window exhibits (fig. 9-10), glass aquarium, spectacles ("viewty glasses") (fig. 11-12), glass transfigured into ice cubes (fig. 13), glass as nothing/nothing as glass (fig. 14-15), etc.

Fig. 6. One of the first shots of the film is of an enormous glass house. Fig. 7. Barbara (Barbara Dennik) sees the reflection of the Eiffel Tower.
Fig. 8. Hulot mistakenly believes that his contact walks around across from him. Fig. 9. A real window exhibit.
Fig. 10. A living room that looks like a window exhibit. Fig. 11. The saleswoman introduced "Viewty glasses."
Fig. 12. The sales clerk walks around with his own set of "viewty glasses." Fig. 13. Glass transfigured as ice cubes.
Fig. 14. Glass as 'nothing'. Igniting a cigarette through a glass window is not easy. Fig. 15. 'Nothing' as glass. Hulot breaks the glass door at the restaurant but his friend keeps on 'opening the door' as new guests arrive.

Throughout the film, some of these uses of glass are invoked again. For instance, we first see a young woman advertising "viewty glasses" (fig. 11) and later we see the angry boss from the "Slam Your Doors in Golden Silence"-exhibit walking around with a pair of broken glasses (Hulot's handshake) which look very much like "viewty glasses" (fig. 12). There are a number of auditive and visual parameters:

  • transfiguration - nuns who appear to have seagulls on their heads, a man who comes to appear like a buck (fig. 16), a waiter who comes to look like a penguin, street lamps that appear to water the flower hats of the American tourists, a broom comes to look like the front of a car, and so forth.

  • paths of movement - along straight lines, down long corridors, in circles, up and down (fig. 19).

  • a particular shade of red keeps popping up.

  • cardboard figures in the background of shots/characters momentarily taking a stand as if they were cardboard figures, and so forth.

The false Hulots constitute merely one strategy of many, albeit an important one. Once established these parameters can - potentially -all be brought into play within a single shot (fig. 18).

Fig. 16. The buck. Fig. 17. A broom comes to look like the front of a car.
Fig. 18. This shot combines at least three parameters. In trying to contact what turns out to be a false Hulot, the office clerk walks straight into a glass door. Cardboard men can be found at different places in the frame. The man to the right just outside the building poses for several seconds - as if he were a cardboard figure - but then suddenly walks away. Fig. 19. In the beginning of the film characters and objects (e.g. cars) appear to be entrapped by objects and architecture - forced to move in awkward straight lines as when Hulot walks through a labyrinth of parked cars to get to the buiding where Giffard works. At the end of the film movement is more free and playful.

Work Time Play Time
The good guy characteristics of Hulot come into play because of the overall parametric development within the film and the role that Hulot comes to play in this regard. There is an overall development in the film where we first witness work time then play time - then ultimately work time transformed into play time. At the end of the film the roundabout has become a carrousel, as has the car hoist at the automechanic. In most cases it is Hulot who brings about the significant change: he breaks the glass door at the restaurant whereafter everyone seems to enter this previously upper class venue. It is of course also Hulot who in attempting to grab hold of an orange comes to tear down some wooden panels in the restaurant practically deconstructing the architecture - re-functionalizing the wooden shelves so that they come to function as a garden gate instead (fig. 20-21). Symbolically, the rich American tourist declares Hulot the new architect - which in a way, he becomes because Hulot's way of interacting with other people and with physical objects permeates the latter half of the film.

Fig. 20. Hulot deconstructs the architecture. Fig. 21. The roundabout is transformed into a carrousel.

In one sense it is 'merely' a game of form, but in Play Time this staging strategy also has ideological implications as in the case of the broken glass door that erodes the rigid separation of social classes, races and nationalities (perhaps as in the world of vaudeville early in Tati's career). Hulot is not necessarily Tati's alter ego but an agent in the service of Tati's audiovisual - and ideological - agenda. Consequently, the positive 'good guy' values that we attribute to Hulot belong as much to Tati the director. Furthermore, that audiovisual agenda of Play Time reaches out into the real world. When we orient ourselves in the real world, for instance in traffic, our cognitive capabilities filter out a great deal of information not deemed relevant in the light of this particular goal - for instance when we ride our car or bike to work it is not necessary for us to take in the number on the license plate of the coming car. However, the camera does not have these cognitive filters and - depending on lighting conditions - takes in whatever is within the optic pyramid of the camera. As André Bazin reminded us (p. 13), the movie camera does not have those cognitive filters and can therefore enable us to more fully re-experience phenomenal reality. In refusing to forcefully direct the attention of the viewer, the compositional (and auditive) design of Play Time is as close to a realization of Bazin's "democracy of vision" as popular cinema is likely to get.

However, Play Time not only challenges our ways of seeing and listening to film.

Play Time is a truly bold experimental film because it invites us to walk away from cinema with a - literally - new perspective on phenomenal reality. It is as if - by means of cinema and the aid of Monsieur Hulot - Tati believes we can come to see the world differently. Play Time not merely advertises a more democratically organized frame where the attention of the viewers is - for once - not forced from one bit of information to the next. The audiovisual agenda of Play Time also encourages curiosity, patience and a playful way of talking in the world through our senses.

1 Hulot (Jacques Tati) has also appeared in films not directed by Tati himself. Nicolas Ribowski directed Cours du soir (1967) where Hulot teaches an acting class. Hulot has also been played by another actor, namely Jacques Cottin in Francois Truffaut's Domicile conjugal (1970).

Referenced literature

Burch, Noël. Theory of Film Practice (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973).

Thompson, Kristin. "Play Time: Comedy on the Edge of Perception." In: Wide Angle 3:2 (1979): 18-25. A revised edition appears in Breaking the Glass Armor:

Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

More literature on Jacques Tati

Armes, Roy. "The Comic Art of Jacques Tati." In: Screen no. 11 (1970): 68-80.

Bazin, André (1967). What is Cinema? Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. Essays selected and translated by Hugh Gray.

Bellos, David. Jacques Tati: His Life and Art (London: Harvill, 1999)

Chion, Michel. The Films of Jacques Tati (Toronto: Guernica, 1997).

Gilliatt, Penelope. Jacques Tati (London: Woburn Press, 1976).

Frandsen, Pia Strandbygaard. "There's No Time Like Play Time." In: 16-9 no. 9 (November 2004).

Harding, James. Jacques Tati: Frame by Frame (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984)

Lane, Anthony. "Waiting for Hulot." In: The New Yorker, 13 November 2000.

Langkjær, Birger. "En anden verden: lyd og musikstrategier i Jacques Tatis Play Time (1967)." In: Schantz Lauridsen, Palle (red.): Byens konkyliesang (Hellerup, Forlaget Spring, 1999): 104-121.

Maddock, Brent. The films of Jacques Tati (Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1977).

Horst Petersen, Ulrich. "Landsby og labyrint. En hyldest til Jacques Tati." In: Kritik 13, no. 52 (1980): 9-25.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Tati's Democracy." In: Film Comment no. 37 (May 1973).

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