by Sam Juliano
The indefatigable “Mr. Hulot”, who appeared in four of Jacques Tati’s films is one of the cinema’s most venerable creations. First published in France under the title Hello Monsieur Hulot David Merveile’s sublime and utterly delightful picture book Hello Mr. Hulot is a labor of love by a lifelong fan of the iconic character, Jacques Tati’s tragic-comic alter ego. A pace gone awry, technological advancements and the inevitably complex transportation system make life difficult for the gauche and blundering Hulot, whose most distinctive attributes center around his dress. His short trousers and wrinkled coat, striped socks and trademark pipe, hat and umbrella have established a singular identification. While never matching the universal love and recognition afforded Chaplin’s tramp or Keaton’s stone face, he has persevered in the shadow of the cold and inhuman modern society he mocked with a unrepentant quixotic glee, as one of the greatest comic creations in the history of the cinema.
Hulot was featured successively in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Mon Oncle (1959), Play Time (1967) and Traffic (1971). Author Melville claims he caught Hulot fever in 2004 after hiding a drawing of the iconic character in one of his illustrations, and then getting many responses from fans. Merville adds: “Translating Tati’s films into the genre of the picture book seemed very logical to me: I could actually silhouette the behavior and gestures of Monsieur Hulot. It’s ideal for a paper copy. The great film posters from Pierre Etaix demonstrated this. Also, Tati’s access to film, his love for details, his keen powers of observation, his interest in things, his feelings about architecture, his economical use of dialogue, and his visual jokes have all encouraged me to develop Monsieur Hulot on paper.”
The book features delightfully colorful and witty comic strip-style illustrations depicting twenty-two alluring scenes with a page turn that showcases a surprise ending the narrative panels that precede it. In one gem titled “Pipes Allowed” Hulot’s incessant pipe smoking in an increasingly hostile environment plays out on a bus where a woman angrily points to a no-smoking sign while surrenders as bubbles flow from his pipe, amusing the woman’s young child. In the full page denouement bubbles seem to emanate from all sources in front of a French cafe – they rise from the popsicles being enjoyed from a young couple, one fills in for a balloon being held on a string carried by a child and they form speech bubbles for conversing patrons.
One of my own personal favorites, “Hulot the Plumber” is one that vigorously recalls the 1940 Del-Lord directed Three Stooges classic “A Plumbing We Will Go” which chronicles the bumbling antics of a clueless Curly, whose idea of fixing a leak is to complicate the situation with far more damaging consequences. Hulot the Plumber comes upon the scene after drips are heard in the kitchen of an apartment building. By utilyzing a mis-directed red hose the bumbling Hulot even manages to intermingle the water and electricity (as the boys in “A Plumbing We Will Go” did with anarchic hilarity) before a temporary reprieve leaves his smugly reading a book while disaster looms by way in the matter of a building completely flooded, with a geyser rising from a chimney, and others trying to save themselves in various manners from the flooding.
Chaos of a different flavor plays out in two other clever vignettes. “The Snowball Effect” first spies our hero innocently walking on a snow covered sidewalk, where he is subsequently pelted by a snowball thrown by a quickly enough revealed mischief hunter. Always the obliging one, Hulot retaliates in kind, but accidentally hits another, while crossfire develops, culminating in the final spread of a street gone haywire with many game to engage in the mayhem. In “Urban Symphony” Hulot is regaled in succession by a boom boxer, a car wildly honking, the grating rat-a-tat of a jackhammer, the sloshing of a street cleaner, the clanging of a man hole cover and the roar of a truck, before noises of every kind converge in a scene that exasperates and even deafens the perpetrators. Hulot’s inherent kindness and solitude surface in “The Umbrella Corner” and “Valentine’s Day.” In the former he shelters a group of birds under his umbrella as rains begins to fall. After the bus pulls up he decides to leave behind the umbrella, which becomes wedged between branches in a tree to serve as a cover for the flock. In the latter series, our everyman ventures upon couples celebrating and toasting their romances, and finally leaves in the rain, with his shadow offering flowers to a woman on a building poster. Merveille’s use of muted colors and lighting is very effective in this melancholic tapestry.
Other memorable vignettes include “The Heart of Paris,” “French Riviera”, “Hulot the Hero”, “Don Quixote” and especially “Chameleon” when Hulot finds physical and ornamental kinship with a penguin, an iguana, a butterfly display, bats hanging in a cave and a raccoon before unconsciously aping the physical positions of a group of flamingos. Much like his cinematic incarnation the Hulot who is at the center of this book’s adventure is a sad figure, and there is a wistfulness that suffuses the vignettes. There is droll humor, more than a dash of irony and the underlining heroic stature that defined this iconic figure. The book proceeds with the kind of cinematic energy and engagement that would make Tati proud.
NorthSouth books 56 pp. $17.95
Note: This is the second entry in a continuing series that will examine non-American picture books of a high level of artistry and creativity that were released during 2013. The series will also include a few special items and recent releases.