New Wave
Jeff Reichert on M. Hulot’s Holiday

Few would label Jacques Tati’s gently winning 1953 summertime comedy of manners M. Hulot’s Holiday a manifesto, especially not in the face of his later films Mon oncle, Playtime, Trafic, and Parade, all of which more explicitly express the director’s core concerns about modernity and showcase his rigorous aesthetics. Yet in Hulot’s very first moments we can locate a strikingly nontraditional use of sound, employed so unusually that if the elements involved weren’t so recognizable and benign, the effect would be unsettling. As an image of waves breaking on an anonymous coast fades in to provide a backdrop for the film’s opening credits, a jazzy ditty from composer Alain Romain plays on the soundtrack. There’s nothing exceptional about nondiegetic music being used underneath opening credits, least of all this kind of welcoming, jaunty tune. We’re lulled and invited in—a movie is about to start, the tone is set on fun, until the song, as it approaches the completion of its melodic phrase, is abruptly interrupted by the crisp crash of a wave Foley, perfectly timed to match the picture. The score doesn’t fade out as the wave hits—it has disappeared.

As soon as the wave has visually and aurally run its course and the breaker recedes into the sea, Tati shifts back to Romain’s music, which picks up at the beginning of its second verse. At the precise rhythmic match as the earlier sound edit, Tati cuts to another booming wave crash. After a third aural punctuation mark, he allows the music to continue playing through the rest of the credits. On first listen, the transitions confuse—our ears aren’t used to incorporating these two audio sources (electro-acoustic instrumentation and concrete sound) into one information stream, at least outside of the realm of sample-based music where such play is de rigueur. The sounds themselves are so familiar and restful that the credit sequence is merely baffling rather wholly disorienting—imagine the discordance had Tati cut jet engines in amidst Bach. But a closer listen reveals another, more insidiously clever layer of audio manipulation: The waves aren’t interrupting the music so much as finishing its phrasing.

“In a film by Tati, sound insists on making its presence heard,” writes Michel Chion in “The Films of Jacques Tati.” “Creatures and objects emit sounds through little openings; some matter, when rubbed against matter, produces the voice of escaping sounds. These ‘farts’—many sounds in a Tati film sound like farts—never reveal the volume, mass, or strength of the bodies that sound them. These are never more than localized sounds, torn from the ‘orifice’ of a particular source. [...] Many have criticized these sounds for being immobile, for not moving along with their sources. Precisely, these noises are, first and foremost, placed to be heard in the specific shot where they appear. They must be totally fixed. Tati doesn’t even make the slightest attempt to simulate perspective by changing the position of these sounds.”

The idea that in Tati films “sound insists on making its presence heard” is cheekily phrased, perhaps, but entirely true. The director is still most recognized for the complicated choreography in his shots and his meticulous, obsessive play with perspective (famously building an entire cityscape outside of Paris in which to properly shoot Playtime—a fantastic piece of collective cinematic lore that always bears repeating). That his mastery over sound remains somewhat less remarked upon results from one of the great paradoxes of film-going: we enter a theater, focus our attention on the image and let sounds swirl around us. We’ll accept nearly every conceivable degradation of the image (often with a kind of relish as the picture approaches the near abstract), yet any similar distortion of the sound can send folks heading for the lobby. Sound, so anodyne, even ignorable in most cinematic experiences, still retains its power as a primal trigger—of danger, of wrongness, of something outside ourselves. If we can’t see danger, we relax, until sound tells us not to. Would we have contemporary horror films at all if it weren’t for loud noises?

Even though nearly every sound we hear in a film was recorded well after the images were shot, most often sounds are layered in unobtrusively, in order to further the reality effect. Sounds in movies are placed with the implicit suggestion that they were always there. The addition of sound to the cinema did less to further the expressive potential of the medium than to codify its claims towards representing reality. Especially once it became clear that sounds could come from different places in the frame (an illusion wrought by clever sound designers as sound always comes from the same place), careful manipulation of the sound space proved yet another aid to assisting the two dimensional projected image as it strove to achieve three dimensional depth. Yet it needn’t necessarily be this way, and wasn’t always—Lang’s M and Murnau’s Sunrise, to name a pair of films from the transition era, succeed admirably in treating sound expressionistically and, more importantly, contrapuntally to the image. As per Chion, the sounds in Tati’s films are always insisting, always coming from places we wouldn’t expect—when they should be close, they’re far, when they should be politely recede, they fart. At times when watching Tati, it feels almost as though he’s reflattened the image; his use of very present Foleys only further decenters us and our relationship to the moving image.

It takes a special ear to conceive of a construction like that opening to Hulot, requiring as it does the forced and quick unlearning of how we hear music. The rest of the film similarly burps, farts, and hums its way through a farcical French seaside vacation—we may be watching diners eat yet are constantly distracted by the rusty creak of a swinging hinge in need of oil that seems improbably close; we may be in a room upstairs at the resort around which the events take place, yet hear noises coming from downstairs as if they were in the same room. And dialogue is wonderfully downplayed, allowing these farting Foleys the chance to swell together into an unconventional musicality.

Working on Hulot in the early Fifties, Tati was most surely aware of the burgeoning experimental music scene centered around the works produced by Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète in advanced studios of the state-run public broadcasting network RTF. Their musique concrète (or “real music”) interspersed bits and snatches of everyday sounds with chopped up pieces of music in ways that upended traditional twelve-tone compositional techniques and the primacy of voice and acoustic instrumentation in what we consider music. In 1950, the leaders of the Recherche group, Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer, composed their Symphony for a Man Alone, one of the most representative pieces of the era. Listening to its succession of random noises captured on magnetic tape and then manipulated and pieced together in studio to suggest the experience of a lone man feels not unlike the experience of watching Hulot or Playtime with their succession of seemingly random sounds captured on magnetic tape and manipulated and pieced together in the studio. Symphony for a Man Alone could almost be the title of a Tati film for all the movies’ focus on their director’s singular, gangly frame as he prances through a world of bewildering sights, and, more importantly, sounds in the guise of his Hulot alter-ego.

Tati’s application of tenets of musique concrète seems at first odd: here was a filmmaker constantly pressing against the bounds of the modern, questioning advances in technology, looking back towards a Paris, and France, quickly disappearing under the onslaught of the new. Musique concrète was nothing if not new and modern, even if, after years of hacking at the form, Schaeffer would renounce this work, saying he’d never found a way to create something truly musical outside the traditional do-re-mi composition. Yet Tati wasn’t as opposed to progress or modernity as might be suggested by his Hulot character. Instead he viewed society’s forward motion with light bemusement, an inevitability to be accepted with wry resignation rather than rage and anguish. Without technology, how would he have been so successfully able to manipulate sounds and images and produce his wondrous films? Why not insert waves into musical score to open a movie in a series of fits and starts if the technology makes such an experiment possible? We don’t have much occasion to quote Leonard Maltin around these parts, but his quote on Tati seems apt in this context: “[The] only man in movie history to get a laugh out of the hum of a neon sign!”