“Comedy is the summit of logic,” French filmmaker Jacques Tati once remarked. It’s not the most typical (or warm) statement about the construction of comedy, but it epitomizes, in his own eccentric way, the director’s singular method: a subtly peculiar, but charming, style of nuanced absurdist gags choreographed with meticulous, almost architectural precision.
An amalgam borne of the tradition of silent film comics like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel & Hardy, vaudeville, variety shows, pantomime, and parlor tricks, Tati synthesized these influences to create the world of Tativille; a deadpan, wry milieu of physical comedy with an emphasis on image and sound. Through his absentminded and awkward Monsieur Hulot alter ego, the leisure-inclined Tati would gently poke a satirical finger at the encroaching modern world, with its dehumanizing, de-personalizing ideals of progress, consumerism, materialism, and more.
But if his slapstick and pratfalling was laugh-out-loud funny, Tati’s brand of comedy was much more than that, at times almost subterranean, a minute and observational form of visual humor built around elaborate physical gags. In fact Tati rarely elicits belly laughs because his satire is simultaneously both high and low. A nose-picking gag in “Trafic” also manages to comment existentially on societal ennui. You were perhaps too wowed with admiration to supply more than an impressed guffaw.
What further separated Tati from most comedic auteurs before and after (minus a few exceptions) was his rigorous formalism, an aesthetic of precise symmetry and a kaleidoscopic musique concrète approach to sound (not enough is said about his influence on that other rare, comedic, fussy formalist, Wes Anderson). Through this rigor, Tati managed to marry his endearingly scatterbrained Hulot character to an increasingly alienating world, an impulse that would hit its symphonic peak with the experimental and innovative “Playtime.” His 1974 70MM-lensed masterpiece is to visual comedy what Kubrick’s ‘2001” is to interstellar space travel.
There had of course been silent comics before him, but perhaps none possessed the same mastery of spatial dimension and mise en scene (though Chaplin-ites may argue). Tati however, was the logical extension of great silent comedy into the world of sound. Indeed dialogue is at the bottom of his list of concerns (like his rejection of traditional plot), but still Tati’s films are only superficially silent. Like a mime, Hulot spoke volumes with his spindly-limbed gestures and murmuring tics, and his use of the buzz of everyday life for context and counterpoint provides its own dizzy cacophony. Add to that the whimsically Gallic, jaunty scores and you get a sonic collage that is unmistakably Tati’s own.
Tati only made five feature-length features in his career, six if you consider the little seen TV movie “Parade” (which you should), but it’s a testament to his singular vision that he is ranked among the greatest auteurs with only a handful of pictures to his credit. Indeed, “Playtime” would probably afford him a space among the greats for its immense achievements alone. So rather than feeling the paucity of this back catalogue, we can marvel at how clearly and immediately Tati expressed his cinematic raison d’etre. He had already mastered his own voice within the span of three films.
While perhaps not as well regarded as some of cinema’s most hallowed artists, he had no shortage of admirers. Jean-Luc Godard professed his admiration for his “strangeness,” David Lynch is an avowed disciple and listed him among his all-time favorite filmmakers, and Jacques Rivette likened the apex of the balletic “Playtime” to that of a cinematic revolution.
Contradiction is crucial to Tati’s work, so ultimately reading him as solely as a nostalgic rallying against progress is too facile. “When people don’t know each other they follow right angles. When they are intimate they go in curves,” Tati once said even though his carefully composed films rarely display an arc and his angular doppelganger did little other than walk gawkishly at a 45 degree angle (admittedly sometimes in circles). This was a filmmaker who used forms of the utmost, clinical rigor to express his lament for society’s increasingly constricting anonymity, its antiseptic qualities. Tati’s alien figure Hulot—the innocent caught out of time—was not existentially estranged from the world despite his wobbly, teetering, tentative steps. In fact, Hulot is co-opted by it all and by the end of Tati’s career, he is part of the system, working for modern manufacturers as an automobile designer in “Trafic.” At best, Tati perhaps should be remembered as a retro futurist, way ahead of his time, dealing in the unfathomables of the present and the uncertainties of the future. But there’s a curiosity there too, because as Tati historian Kristin Ross says, Hulot, as apprehensive and faltering as his false-starts always were, was ultimately always leaning forward into what lay ahead. After all, two steps forward, one step back will get you there in the end.
The Criterion Collection has released The Complete Jacques Tati, an essential compendium and box set of everything the filmmaker ever made. It feels like as good as any excuse to celebrate this master.
“Jour de Fête” (1949)
One of the only Tati films to to not feature his famous alter ego Monsieur Hulot, still the inept, easily distracted French mailman of his debut feature wasn’t radically different, another elastic clown, perhaps just a proto test-run for what would be his sweet gangly-limbed second self. In Tati’s delightful first bow, the filmmaker stars as François, a promenading fussbudget mailman moving with a herky-jerk, to-and-fro gait similar to Hulot’s, comes to drop off his deliveries in a small, sleepy French village during Bastille Day. Essentially plotless (though perhaps less so than other minimalist pictures), François makes his deliveries in leisurely fashion, peddling around on his beloved bicycle. But this scatterbrained dreamer is constantly sidetracked from his duties and stops to help fly a flag up a pole, to have a drink, or to generally mess about. Featuring droll silent visual gags, the wide frame provides ample space to soak up all the movements in the background, while up front, Tati’s main thematic concerns also take shape: when Francois watches an American documentary about postal advances abroad, he is kicked into gear to try and improve his efficiency and speed, which will come into conflict with Tati’s affectionate, though occasionally cutting, look at rural life. Note: the film was shot and black and white and an early experimental form of color, but it was originally released in its stark colorless form. Tati’s daughter re-released it in color in 1995, and the Criterion edition features this version, plus an alternate cut Tati made in 1964. [B]
“Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” (1953)
In 1996, upon anointing Jacques Tati’s “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” as one of the “Great Movies,” Roger Ebert wrote that it is “the film for which [Tati] will be remembered.” Ebert’s intention wasn’t to diminish Tati’s other features, or even to suggest that ‘Holiday’ is necessarily the greatest of them all (it isn’t even close), but rather to say that this modest, severely bittersweet slapstick comedy is the film that best remembers Tati. ‘Holiday’ isn’t just the film that introduced Tati’s eponymous alter-ego, it’s also the one that best illustrates why the character has become one of the cinema’s most enduring icons. Shot in luminous black and white and nominated for Best Original Screenplay despite the fact that most of its dialogue is reduced to ambient noise (the murmuring adults in “Charlie Brown” feel like ex-pats from Tativille), ‘Holiday’ intricately orchestrates and wryly observes a stretch of time at a seaside resort along the French coast. The film doesn’t follow its bumbling, aloof, and unaccompanied hero so much as it occasionally finds him in the middle of it, striking his signature stance in the midst of a sight gag. That dynamic speaks to the deep-focus pleasure of Tati’s movies, which is that viewers are never told where to look. On the contrary, the various episodes that comprise ‘Holiday’ feel like they’d be happening regardless of the camera being there to capture them, Hulot’s presence is meant only to put these perfect moments into focus. Beginning with its most damning sequence—a series of wide shots that watches a manic hoard of vacationers as they try to find the right track for their train—‘Holiday’ is actually the most forgiving of Tati’s rebuttals to the madness of modern life. All of the Hulot films are funny, but ‘Holiday’ is the only one Tati made before his confusion had metastasized into irritation. Part fool and part witness, Hulot slips through the cracks of France’s hedonistic post-war bourgeosie, ribbing them for their commitment to invention over experience (it’s a good thing he didn’t live to see the iPhone age). Although much of ‘Holiday’ bleeds together, it also contains some of Hulot’s most ineffably simple gags, the best of which cementing how, in the films of Jacques Tati, everything is happenstance, but nothing happens by accident. [A]
“Mon Oncle” (1958)
Tati’s “L.A. Story,” “Mon Oncle” begins the second Hulot adventure by following a pack of dogs as they waddle and sprint in from the pastures of suburbia to the grey slabs of a modern metropolis. Thus the film immediately contrasts country life with city life so that Tati can spend the next two hours mocking the latter with extreme prejudice. This is easily Tati’s most didactic film—he’s no longer inquisitive about the middle-class obsession with modernity, he’s downright pissed. In “Mon Oncle,” Hulot is the unemployed uncle of a little boy whose joyless parents live in a house that doubles as a monument to impractical social novelty. Hulot is beloved by his nephew, but his sister and her husband—a soulless executive at a hose factory—regard the man as an ingrate in desperate need of direction. Unsurprisingly, Tati doesn’t take their side. “Mon Oncle” finds Tati taking his first steps towards the larger set pieces that would later dominate “Playtime,” and you can see his anger slowly coming to a boil as some of these extended sequences play out. By the time his sister’s fish fountain begins spouting mud—and that’s not a euphemism—the careful crescendo of action has elevated what could have been a quick laugh into the rare example of high art that’s also profoundly funny. Which isn’t to say that the film’s more fleeting sight gags, like those generated from the needlessly winding path that extends from Hulot’s sister’s house, aren’t scathing in their own right. Regardless, the most indelible moments of “Mon Oncle” might be derived from its simplest pleasures. An early shot of Hulot skulking through his house (which looks like two houses somehow wedged together) might be the single greatest summation of what made Tati so special. His world is our world, but it’s heightened just enough so that even a glimpse of a man climbing the stairs to his apartment is imbued with a symphonic majesty. Also, without “Mon Oncle,” there’s no way we’d have the Roomba. We can’t prove that, exactly, but if you look into your heart you know that it’s true. [A-]
Jacques Tati takes his Monsieur Hulot and puts him in the background, nestled in amongst the crowds and even film’s overlapping dialogue, in a metropolitan Tower of Babel, where much of the Parisian haute monde mingles with eager tourists, salespersons, and patrons. The infamously expensive set of “Playtime” is constructed as a global intersection of culture, where control panels are bigger than the operators operating them, cubicles accentuate their cubiness, and the products of technology are on literal display in a prison of the geometrical skyscraper glass. Here, comedy is in constant motion. As an exegesis of the technological revolution, scrupulous in its depiction of the calamitous results of commoditization, “Playtime” is Jacques Tati’s tour de farce, and the apple of the French cinematic eye. Cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding work magic in 70mm whether it’s day, night, interior, or exterior. Composer Francis Lemarque’s liltingly jazzy score makes you want get jiggy with the ferociously funny central dance in the film. And it boasts a sound design with a sense of humor, and a production design of inventive, resilient flexibility. Indeed, every frame in “Playtime” feels blueprinted from scratch with one clear design in mind: the humorous revelation of the modern, absurdist, plague of consumerism. The film is famous for bankrupting Tati and taking nine years to complete, which includes the construction of the monolithic building in the urban center of Paris, but the final result is a globally influential piece of work that was worth the heartache. In an honest discussion of perennial films and their constant growth in thematic relevance, “Playtime” is surely slipping and sliding near the very top. [A]
“Playtime” may be one of the greatest films ever made, but its financial failure left Tati’s career running on fumes, and its scale left him with no choice but to downshift to something decidedly smaller. The fourth and final of the Hulot films, “Trafic” casts the aging (but still lovably oblivious) Frenchman as an automobile designer tasked with transporting his company’s latest car to an auto show in Amsterdam. A simple jaunt from point A to point B that’s inevitably complicated by an array of amusing detours, “Trafic” is almost impossible to extricate from its place in the twilight of Tati’s career—it’s a defeated work of compromise (Tati was done with the Hulot character by this point). But the film nevertheless provides some of Hulot’s finest moments, and ultimately gives the iconic character the wistful send off he deserves. Although Hulot plays a more central role in “Trafic” than he does in “Playtime,” this is the film in which it’s easiest to lose track of him, or even forget his presence altogether. Hulot is little more than a glorified extra for the first 15 minutes, and when he finally does step into the spotlight as a plot begins to take shape, it seems as though he’s been stripped of the impeccable cosmic kismet that previously always found him at the center of the joke (or close to it). Tati’s gag-to-minute ratio was never lower than it is here, ‘Trafic’ powered more by bemusement than readily identifiable humor—it doesn’t help that the film is a bit too enamored with the crazy car that Hulot and his team are delivering to the auto show, devoting long stretches of time to the swiss army knife of a vehicle and all of the tiny versions of campground equipment that can be folded out from it. The laughs are few and far between, but the premise offers all sorts of opportunities for Tati to roll his eyes at how cars conflate public and private spaces (perhaps providing an unlikely source of inspiration for Abbas Kiarostami). “Trafic” is at its most fun when inside things are confused for outside things and vice-versa—the cars seen on show floors, where they’re surrounded by a forest of fake trees. And while Tati seems to have lost a lot of his directorial control (an impression amplified by the vehicular mayhem of European highways), his idiosyncratic genius is ultimately irrepressible, and the all-timer of a last shot is enough to make you grateful that he didn’t give up. [B+]
Vaudeville, music halls, mime, and acrobatic theatrical performance were always the central key to Tati’s work so perhaps it was logical for the filmmaker to explore and celebrate these modes in “Parade,” which ended up being his final feature-length effort, though hardly something that could be described as a feature-length narrative. Closer in spirit to concert documentary, “Parade” is pastiche that is deceptively simple. and essentially a live doc snapshot of a circus performance lead by Tati as both ringmaster and performer. Shot on 35MM, 16MM, and dated 1970s-quality video, “Parade” has been seen as a monotonous minor work by the filmmaker. There’s even less plot and fewer focal characters than in his other minimal narratives. But the experimental “Parade” provides a valuable clue as to the direction Tati might have headed had he lived on to make more movies. The filmmaker had spoken about his desire to achieve a more “democratic” film as evinced by Hulot’s minor presence in “Playtime” where the swarm of culture and society is the star. And he achieves this in “Parade” by shattering the glass between performer and audience. Indeed, Tati’s film has an interactive and inclusive quality that focuses just as much on audience reaction as it does performance. So we get jugglers, magicians, acrobats, and more, but it also gives time for the intermission, the craftsman behind the stage, the amateur audience performers and the participation of the crowd in various stunts. All the while, Tati weaves in orchestrated shot-on-film segments of various gags and behind-the-scenes jokes. While the presentation of the film does feel a little bric-a-brac compared to all the other carefully composed Tati movies—shot by Bergman cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, the TV segments even have Tati no-nos like close-ups and zooms making it a formal outlier—ultimately “Parade” is still an affectionately undiluted homage to all that he loved. Perhaps it also can be seen as the director’s idealized notion of a utopian circus in which everyone can participate. A nostalgic look at the dying arts, as the picture comes to an end, the audience slowly shuffles out and left behind are two children playing in the wake of this grand mess of paint, props, confetti, and other tchotchkes. It’s an oddly hopeful note on which to turn off the lights, as if to say that the wonder and curiosity of the young will always keep the imaginative arts alive. [B]
Shorts, Documentaries, Unfilmed Screenplays & Abandoned Projects
While Tati only made six features, he directed and was a part of many short films during his lifetime. “L’École des facteurs” (“The Postman’s School”) is a key entry, featuring the spindly-limbed character of Francois who would later star in “Jour Du Fete.” It’s essentially just a short practice-run for the larger feature, but it does have a significant gag later appropriated by Tim Burton and Pee Wee Herman: the postman on his bike easily outgunning a group of speeding cyclists (the same exact visual quip was used in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” and in that sense, Paul Reubens’ creation is perhaps a more chatty, distant spiritual cousin to Hulot). There’s also “Cours de Soir,” which hilariously speaks volumes about Tati himself, perhaps just as easily distracted and absentminded going about his own tasks. Directed by his assistant Nicolas Ribowski, ‘Cours’ was shot during the production of “Playtime,” and stars Hulot as an instructor teaching his adult students the delicate art of mime. “Playtime” shot over 100 days, and sometimes took all day to shoot one small carefully-organized movement of cast members, and ultimately bankrupted Tati, so perhaps starring in a short while making his financial disasterpiece wasn’t the best idea.
Tati’s ideas of social observance, quotidian ritual, and democratic participation were explored one last time beyond “Parade” in the abandoned project “Forzia Baza.” A documentary study of a European soccer crowd during a fubol finale, ‘Baza’ barely showcases the match and instead focuses on the seemingly banal actions of the crowd, watching and cheering on the match, including the tailgating preparation for the game. Left unfinished, it was eventually completed by his loyal daughter Sophie Tatischeff, who spent much of her life committed to her father’s incomplete works.
And finally, while director Sylvain Chomet, known for “The Triplets of Belleville,” famously paid homage to Tati by making “The Illusionist” in 2010—one of Tati’s semi-autobiographical unmade scripts—as an animated movie with an animated caricature of Tati as the lead, perhaps the motherlode of abandoned projects is “Confusion.”
The only other known script that Tati wrote, but failed to make before his death in 1982, “Confusion” was supposed to be made as a collaboration with with Ron Mael and Russell Mael, aka the theatrical, absurdist 1970s glam rock band Sparks. According to legend, and in accordance with Tati’s growing disdain for the character, Mr. Hulot was supposed to be killed on-air. “Confusion” was planned as story about a futuristic city (Paris) where activity is centered around television, communication, advertising, and modern society’s infatuation with visual imagery. The members of Sparks were to play American TV producers who fly to Paris to show the French how it’s done (though Tati is quoted as saying that one version of “Confusion” would take place in the “new tunnel in the Concorde and it would be about tourists and a guide.”) Tati would pass away and never make the film, but Sparks would at least write the song “Confusion” which would be featured on their 1976 album Big Beat.
Six features, a few extra shorts, and supplementaries and a Sparks song—it may not be the most extensive filmography in history, but Jacques Tati created an indelible legacy with just that. He was that good. – with David Ehrlich and Nik Grozdanović