One of my favorite things to do is discover a filmmaker I’ve never experienced before and devour all of their films. Sometimes it’s especially difficult if they have a lengthy filmography and hence a complete study of them could take months. However, some of these amazing filmmakers only made a small number of movies in which case you can really dive in and immerse yourself into their world. And no filmmaker truly created a world of his films quite like French auteur Jacques Tati.
Tati, real name Jacques Tatischeff, was a very well-known and beloved physical comedian and mime in France in the first half of the 20th Century and, following World War II, he began getting involved in short films before finally directing his first feature. Tati only made six features in his career and appeared in all of them. Only six. It’s astonishing to me, then, how much I feel like his whole sensibility and way of thinking is there on screen. His comedy shines through, surely, but also his wistful way of looking at the slowly-modernizing world. But, to begin with, he was just making people laugh.
Jour de fête (The Big Day) (1949)
Tati’s first feature was sort of an elongation of his short film “L’École des facteurs” or “School for Postmen.” In it, Tati plays a postman named François whose route is a small village in rural France. He takes his job very seriously, but he also bumbles around quite a bit, which is where a lot of the funny comes in. On this particular day, a traveling fair comes to town and everybody gets excited and makes a party day out of it. François, naturally, wants to continue his important job, but can’t quite seem to stay on task, especially with the townsfolk and fair personnel constantly buying him drinks or making him look the fool in public. There are many wonderful pieces of physical comedy in this, like when François attempts to help the fair workers put up their tent, and most notably the end when Tati shows off his prowess with bicycle stunts on an ever-breaking bike. This movie also hits slightly on the notion of the future coming in and destroying the way things have always been, though that doesn’t quite get developed until later films.
Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) (1953)
Tati’s second film would introduce a character that would become his alter ego and most beloved creation, the constantly out of his league Monsieur Hulot. A huge fan of Charlie Chaplin, Tati decided to create his own character as a bit of an homage to Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, in reverse. The Tramp is short, Hulot is tall; the Tramp’s clothes were too big, Hulot’s are too small; the Tramp leans back when he walks, Hulot tilts forward. In Hulot, Tati found a way to comment on the bourgeoisie without being derisive. Hulot is a man from a bygone age, polite to a fault and never one to draw attention to himself, though his well-meaning actions often cause an unintended scene. Hulot is the kind of hero for whom misunderstandings were invented, though he does show a fair amount of aptitude in some arenas, like tennis for some reason. This is a movie that directly influenced Rowan Atkinson with the creation of his largely-silent goofball character, Mr. Bean.
Mon Oncle (My Uncle) (1958)
Monsieur Hulot would return, in color, a first for Tati, for a movie that doesn’t lose the comedic touches of the earlier movie, but certainly makes the melancholy much more prevalent. Monsieur Hulot is a guy who, try as he might, can’t seem to keep a job and his sister and her husband, in their lavish and ridiculous home, are getting tired of him. Hulot ends up spending a lot of time with his nephew and a bond grows. We see this old-fashioned fellow with his silly hat and long pipe as the figure a little boy can look up to, even if he ought to be looking up to his father. It’s a movie that feels like a dream or a storybook, that sort of wraps you up in the plight of a man who wants to remain in the past but is being pushed into the future, and who doesn’t seem to be able to find a place to fit in. This might be Tati’s most somber film, though still very funny. The Academy saw fit to award Mon Oncle with the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars.
Play Time (1967)
Without doubt my favorite of Tati’s films, Play Time was also his most ambitious and, ultimately, what would start to unravel his still very short film career. He put huge amounts of money into this largely dialogue-free treatise about the absurdity of modern cities and even went so far as to have a whole city, called Tativille, built in order to shoot it. He made the film on 70mm and shot almost exclusively in medium-to-wide shots, allowing things to happen in each massive frame that would force the viewer’s eyes to look all over. Though Monsieur Hulot is still the main character, it’s a lot more about the city itself and how Hulot is completely lost in the hustle and bustle of this marvel of the modern age. Eventually, we come to the opening of a brand new upscale restaurant and we get to witness all the problems of its staff as the evening wears on in a series of incredibly long and beautifully choreographed actions. When finally Hulot shows up, it seems that the trappings of high society are only hanging on by a thread and then the titular “Play Time” truly begins once Hulot, again accidentally, introduces a little chaos, though it results in everyone having a lot more fun. This movie is utterly beautiful and a triumph of vision, though it proved a bit too out-there for audiences of the time and ultimately led to Tati’s loss of his fortune and retreating from filmmaking for a time.
Tati’s final Hulot film was a production made for French television, and hence had a much smaller scope and budget to Trafic, but in a sense it’s also a return to the rampant silliness of the earlier Hulot films while still maintaining the satirical look at modern society. This time, Hulot is a bumbling auto designer working for a large French firm and he, a driver, and their PR person (played by American model Maria Kimberly) take his newly-designed camper-car to an auto show in Amsterdam, running into problems all along the way. These inconveniences are pure Tati, allowing the camera to explore the boring red tape of the Dutch border patrol, wherein he is forced to show of each of the small camper-car’s seemingly-endless array of hidden amenities, like a stove, a full shower, a bedroom, and even a kitchen set. Another incredible sequence features a meticulously-plotted car accident on a major thoroughfare which proves that Tati still was interested in huge cinematic stunts. Trafic is often regarded as “Lesser Tati,” and I suppose anything following Play Time would be considered a step down, but I still found it to be a lovely final outing for the lovable goof Monsieur Hulot.
Tati’s final feature is really a lesser entry, basically a filmed circus performance where Tati himself appears as one of the clowns and is our master of ceremonies through different acrobatic and animal exhibitions, watching all of these along with a group of excited audience members. It’s perfectly all right, but it really feels like something Tati just did for fun rather than a work of genius like the other films.
Tati died in 1982, leaving behind only those six features. He had written a story in 1956 that was later made into the animated film The Illusionist in 2010, and the main character is designed to look just like Tati himself. Despite his relatively small canon, I would put him in the ranks of people like Miyazaki or Hitchcock in terms of creating real, lived-in worlds in his films, and places the audience, or certainly me specifically, would like to remain long after the credits finish. If you haven’t seen the films of Jacques Tati, please do so. I was definitely glad I did, at the behest of our own Michelle Buchman. Thanks, Michelle!