Playlist: 3 Beach Vacation Movies

November 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY (Jacques Tati, 1953)

Jean-Luc Godard once pinpointed the emergence of French neo-realism in the early films of Jacques Tati, whose Mr. Hulot’s Holiday he claimed “invited us to savor in secret the bitterness and the pleasures of life.” When Godard refers to Tati as a neo-realist, he speaks not of any social or political agenda on Tati’s part, but of his willingness to capture the unremarkable goings on of everyday life from an endlessly inquisitive vantage point that sees no need to rush forward in any one direction. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is about a group of ordinary strangers on a weeklong beach vacation, and instead of imposing something so cumbersome as plot on this paper-thin premise, Tati allows it to get swept up in the capricious breeze of his own boundless curiosity. Often pegged with the responsibility to be a laugh-a-minute comedy, the film is more like a relaxation pill. To watch it is to enlarge the aperture of one’s perception, as the mundane idiosyncrasies of the resort and the incidental behaviors of its guests take on a melodic grace just by virtue of Tati’s probing camera and all-encompassing montage. If vacations are a matter of slowing the pace of one’s life and soaking up the sights and sounds of one’s surroundings, then there is no better cinematic simulation than Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

Available on DVD from The Criterion Collection.

2. PAULINE AT THE BEACH (Eric Rohmer, 1983)

Many of the films of Eric Rohmer are, among many other wonderful things, philosophical extrapolations of the Catholic maxim that to sin in the heart is to sin in the flesh, usually in the guise of airy romantic comedies and talkative character studies. His Six Moral Tales are about the ardent undercurrents that run beneath everyday, seemingly inconsequential flings and infatuations, starring male characters torn between their life-long partners and the alluring alternatives that present themselves daily. The men never quite consummate their would-be affairs, but the mere intent or desire to do so is enough for the guilt to seep in as they hash out their dilemmas through running voice-over narration. Two of the films in this series, The Collector (1967) and Claire’s Knee (1970), take place on holiday, the implication being that it is on leave from life’s usual responsibilities that temptation is most likely to cast its spell. What happens in one’s beachside villa or rustic lake house is wont to stay there. Pauline at the Beach, part of his excellent Comedies and Proverbs series, is a variation on the same idea, this time multiplying the moral entanglement by at least six characters all equally afflicted by fatuous romantic attractions. The result is a breezy sex farce that nonetheless takes its moral underpinnings seriously. Capturing superbly the languid pace and lilting rhythms of beach life, it also reminds us, as do all of Rohmer’s films, that morality is the one responsibility from which there is no respite.

Available for streaming on Amazon Instant and on DVD from MGM.

3. WOMAN ON THE BEACH (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)

South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo is often billed as a spiritual successor to Eric Rohmer, who likewise makes talkative, deeply analytical movies about the mechanics of sexual relationships. There are key differences, of course. Rohmer’s characters are introspective and self-aware; Hong’s are vain and foolish, usually writers and filmmakers who have a knack for depicting life but no sense in living it. Where Rohmer’s films are methodically philosophical and prone to austerity, Hong’s are colorful, funny, and structurally neat—he often bisects his narratives into mirroring diptychs and sprinkles little piano or xylophone melodies throughout for palate-cleansing effect. Woman on the Beach is Hong at his finest, and it shares with Pauline at the Beach the observation that vacations often heighten interpersonal stress instead of relieving it. In the first half of the film, a man, his girlfriend, and his filmmaker friend all go away to a resort town for a few days, only for a love triangle to develop as the director and the girl grow sexually attracted to one another. After this story exhausts itself, Hong provocatively re-inscribes the triangular shape onto a second half that sees the director return to the resort a few days later and attempt to seduce two women who remind him of his earlier fling. There is no such a thing as a frivolous sexual encounter in Hong’s cinema, every one-night stand a window into his characters’ unhealthy romantic obsessions and self-pitying neuroses. In Woman on the Beach, Hong balances a microscopic examination of his characters’ inner pain with a lovely panoramic view of the overcast beach, its subdued beauty a recurrent counterpoint to the foregrounded drama.

Available on DVD from New Yorker. – Stuart


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