Certain filmmakers occupy a space where their films cannot be said to resemble those of any other directors. They are the progenitors of their own idiosyncratic style, the authors of their own work as much as a director can be. Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard, Seijun Suzuki, Ken Russell, Spike Jonze, and Wes Anderson all fall into this category, and none of their films can be said to resemble each other except in the way that they are wholly and singularly unique. Jacques Tati is another filmmaker who belongs in this elite group.
Playful and merciless, irreverent and graceful, Tati’s films play our emotions like music, manipulating the senses, creating dizzying, orgiastic vibrations in the viewer achievable through no other medium than cinema. His films are almost impossible to describe on a literal or linear level, yet there is simply nothing like them. In his pictures, Tati creates his own unique ecosystem where harmony commingles with chaos, and music, sound, and movement work together to create an indelible cinematic symphony that has yet to be produced by any other filmmaker, living or dead. And now, just in time for the Criterion box set, which includes Tati’s masterworks including “Mon Oncle,” “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday,” and the immortal “Playtime,” among others, we have a wonderful new video essay from David Cairns that carefully examines Tati’s peculiar and meticulous method in orchestrating his unique brand of comic madness.
Cairns dissects Tati’s gags that interlope with each other—one comedic aside feeding into the next, and so on and so forth – and how Tati turned this crazed comic clockwork into a veritable, and inimitable, art form. During the first part of the essay, Cairns focuses his attention on the unforgettable restaurant sequence from “Playtime,” where the well-meaning but bumbling Monsieur Hulot, in spite of his politeness, manages to shatter the restaurant’s glass door to pieces. Many comedic directors would be happy to chalk it up to a broad slapstick gag and leave it at that, but Tati wasn’t satisfied with a cheap laugh. He keeps the gag going: the doorman holds the door’s knob, still intact, at the exact place where it was before and continues to mime the act of opening and closing the door for patrons all night. And thus, the physical reality of a door becomes juxtaposed with the idea of a door—an absurd paradox that, one could argue, was at the core of Tati’s whole ethos (believe it not, the scene manages to become more bizarre and intricate, with the waiters passing off the shattered glass remains of the door as crushed ice). Oftentimes, watching Tati can feel like being thrown into the middle of a wild, whiplash-inducing fray, or some kind of comic circus, but Cairns lets us see that even the director’s most wooly gags were rooted in a sort of Swiss-watch precision. It’s a terrific glimpse into the art of setting up a good joke, and a must-watch for any Tati fan.
“The Complete Jacques Tati Collection” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. Check out the essay below.