It is exactly four decades since Jacques Tati’s final film Parade was released into public consciousness in 1974, an effort that marked the end of the renowned French comic actor and director’s career. He didn’t manage to finish another full-length feature before his death in 1982, and while Parade played out of competition in Cannes Film Festival, its spiritual home lies on the small screen. But today, it only takes a closer look at the man with a trenchcoat, umbrella and smoke-pipe to acknowledge Tati’s place beyond French cinema.
Tati’s onscreen alter-ego, the bumbling, clumsy and perpetually confused Monsieur Hulot, is indisputably a significant comic creation as Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp – recurring through Tati’s key works nearly as much as Chaplin did throughout his filmography. While Tati may not be as prolific as Chaplin (the French auteur only made six feature films) and may not be as physically adroit in visual gags, he shares the classic, near-wordless approach and penchant for criticising modernism and consumerism with the silent-comedy British genius.
Recently, the world has witnessed a reincarnation of Tati in Sylvain Chomet’s 2010 animated film L’illusioniste, an understated, melancholic gem based on Tati’s very own screenplay which he’d written in 1956. While the film pays a tender and poetic homage to the lost talent, perhaps there’s no better way to rediscover Tati’s craft than to indulge in his own directorial outputs. Studiocanal has, amazingly, restored Tati’s entire oeuvre – six feature films and a bunch of shorts – in stunning Blu-ray transfers that showcase the French icon’s remarkable influence in modern cinema.
To put things in perspective, I’ve ranked below Tati’s six feature-length films from the silly to the sublime, from the middling to the masterwork.
Tati’s farewell film is a performance act, through and through. Eschewing a narrative framework, Tati returns to his dilettante music hall days and churns out a circus show, bringing in a bandwagon of mimes, musicians, jugglers, clowns and contortionists to perform in front of a flamboyantly dressed, 70s Stockholm crowd. Parade is a mixed medley of hit and miss – the freewheeling approach burdens many of the random gags, save for a few acts that include Tati himself miming a tennis game in slow motion and a buck mule riding contest, both amusing but nothing extraordinary. Which makes this the weakest in Tati’s filmography, further underlining the sadness of his slow descent to obscurity, as poignantly captured in Chomet’s L’illusioniste, where we see the animated Tati as a fading magician. Parade was filmed for Swedish TV, mainly to repay the debt Tati owed to company after having funded his previous film Trafic, and filmed inconsistently over three formats – 16mm, 35mm and the videocasette tape – a decision that only emphasise the lack of clear purpose of this show other than an inconsequential distraction.
After the financial catastrophe that was Playtime, Tati set out to make Trafic under a modest budget and a production that consolidated French-Dutch-Swedish resources. The result is a modestly mounted picture that serves as the last outing of Tati’s creation Monsieur Hulot, who literally takes it to the road – a protracted sketch that concerns our bumbling hero transporting an innovative camping van by Altra from Paris to Amsterdam using perhaps the worst lorry in the world, breaking down in every five-or-so-miles. It’s essentially a road movie turned into one long-running gag – with Hulot and cronies encountering a host of misfortunes along the motorway, including a car pile-up – an absurdly choreographed, if contrived, set-piece. Tati’s comedy had grown increasingly aimless over the years and it’s palpable in Trafic‘s middle-half, where the film feels largely improvised and purposeless, as if Tati just throws things onscreen and see what works. The amusement seems to be present in the execution, not in the incident themselves. It’s no surprise that the protagonists don’t make it to the auto-show, just as we are completely convinced that the jokes themselves haven’t arrived, but that’s probably part of Tati’s grand master plan of deception. That the aimlessness is partly the point, as Tati comments on the convolution and chaos of the modern world run by automobiles.
Tati’s first feature gave us one of the most iconic images in French cinema – Tati on a bicycle. It’s an enduring visual signifier that revivified the toils of silent cinema back to the sound era, where we get a central character whose comedic act largely drawn out of (mostly) quiet pantomime. Jour de Féte (or The Big Day) points to the Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd silent comedies, and gives it a very provincial, French twist in the form of Francois, an overeager postman whose antics involved imitating the swift American mail delivery system he’s seen in a documentary at a local fair. Over the gloriously sketched series of gags displayed here, Jour de Féte marks Tati’s predilection for riotous crowd comedy and droll character mishaps seen in his future films. The travelling country carnival arriving in the village provides Tati a minefield of comic broadness – the flagpole, the merry-go-round, the local bar and even the dusty roads that etch around this rural idyll – all become Tati’s playground. By the closing shot, you’d know Tati as a comedic filmmaker had arrived and would soon conquer the Big City in his bigger and better comedies.
Anyone who’s been tickled silly by Sir Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, child and pensioner alike, would find a great deal of amusement in Tati’s immortal creation Monsieur Hulot – the tall, stooped man with a trench-coat and a smoke-pipe. A clear precursor to Mr Bean, Hulot is the quintessential model for the ‘idiot abroad’ type whose antics mostly involve being perpetually clumsy with a total lack of self-awareness. In Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, Tati debuts the character to sparkling results – and there’s no better setting for it than the French seaside town Saint-Marc-sur-Mer, where holidaymakers descend to cavort under the sun, and in turn bear witness to the pandemonium caused by Hulot. Tati milks every opportunity of spoiling a picturesque seaside resort to hilarity – from the opening train station scene, where passengers run back-and-forth between platforms (one of the finest prologues in a comedic film of all-time), to the final firework bedlam inadvertently set off by Hulot’s clowning in a shed filled with firecrackers. To any Tati uninitiate, this would be a great entry point to the director’s filmography and be introduced to the widely beloved fool at his most picaresque and delightful.
Known by many as Tati’s most ambitious and visually accomplished work, it only takes a few frames into Playtime to confirm this claim – the pervading blue-grey urban modernity in high-rise buildings, tile floors, metallic surfaces and the trench-coated people that walk among these – all captured in glorious 70mm widescreen, Tati’s first and only foray into the format. Playtime brandishes this aesthetic marvellously, hovering, observing and tracking along the purpose-built Paris, which Tati specifically designed and built as a set known as ‘Tativille’. It’s a magnificent folly that flipped the filmmaker’s personal bank account – but the result is regarded as his masterpiece. His alter-ego Hulot appears but only as a minor character in this panoramic comedy about people, modernism, architecture, design and the joyous anarchy that exist between these elements. Structurally vignette-like, we are guided through functional airport spaces to cold, clinical buildings, box-like living quarters and ultimately into a shiny new restaurant, a 30-minute central boisterous set-piece where Tati flexes his observational muscle for all its shining glory. All manner of bildungsroman gets thrown out of the window and Tati indulges in total pandemonium filmmaking that is unparalleled even in today’s cinema.
While the most Tati fans near-unanimously sing praises for Playtime as his masterwork, I personally contend with Mon Oncle as his most purposeful, comically precise and beautifully humane film. It’s the one Tati movie with a big heart and an endearing soul, where most of his other efforts get lost in the hubbub of noise and gags. Here, the central plot concerns Hulot’s idiosyncratically archaic uncle enlivens his nephew’s sterile life and whisks him away from his 50s modern living-obsessed parents to experience the quaint, antiquated Parisian quartier Hulot lives in. Tati magnificently juxtaposes the laughably pretentious bourgeois lifestyle with the more grubby, romantic and delightfully askew life in a neighbourhood that seems frozen in a bygone time. Mon Oncle‘s satire is so pointed and so poignant that it pits Hulot against the advancing forces of technology, while quietly lamenting the slowly vanishing ideals of simplicity. It’s all proper laugh-out hilarious, too – the haughty mother, the fish fountain, the disastrous lunch party, Hulot’s marked days in the plastic factory – Mon Oncle seems sprecifically designed to entertain, please and amuse while at the same time portraying a garish, post-war modernism that swept France, dusting off the Old World as it slowly, wistfully, receded into nostalgia.
*The Essential Jacques Tati Blu-ray Collection is released on 21 July, courtesy of Studiocanal.