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The final outing for Monsieur Hulot
on 19 January 2010
Jacques Tati's final outing as Monsieur Hulot - the amiable, accident-prone and unfailingly courteous exile from a more graceful era of unhurried old-world charm - sees him employed as a draughtsman in a car firm whose newest model, an absurdly multi-gadgeted camper-van, is destined for the Internationale Autoshow in Amsterdam. Hulot, along with pressed Public Relations lady Maria and bobble-hatted truck driver Marcel, set out for the show, but breakdowns, accidents and extended garage stays ensure that they will never arrive in time, leaving salesman François to guard their empty stand of fake birch trees, while all around him, men peer into the bonnets and boots of competitors' cars.
Beginning with the dull clang, spark, burnish, buzz and hum of an industrial car plant, this satire on man's obsession with motorised transport, and the change people undergo as soon as they get behind the wheel of a car, has wonderful observational comedy at its heart. As ever with Tati, this is sometimes of such subtlety that repeated viewings are richly repayed. The set-pieces are famous - the extravagant, injury-free pile-up, the windscreen wipers acting in character with their drivers - but it's the smaller, easily missable details that give Tati's universe its character: details such as barely visible car aerials wobbling in time while waiting at a light, or Maria's dog simply watching traffic from her car.
If the surge and blare of road noise that occupies the soundtrack screws the humour up to a level that is coarser than in previous Tati films, then its central theme of Hulot looking for a little human warmth and respite from technology is familiar. He finds it in an extended stay at a riverside garage where the characters apparently forget about reaching the Autoshow altogether, settling down instead to a good picnic, and thus putting the camper-van to its use.
At the end, Hulot disappears - how else? - into a crowd of unfurled umbrellas, leaving pedestrians to squeeze their way through an immense parking lot of boxed-in cars, and viewers to continue Tati's work of seeing the world anew.