As an iconic comic actor and filmmaker Tati occupies a unique place in French culture and world cinema. One of the few truly original talents making movies in France between the end of the war and the beginning of the New Wave, Tati succeeded in re-inventing French film comedy by fusing the tradition of mime performance with the slapstick antics of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. The unexpected success of Jour de Fete and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday put pressure on the deliberate filmmaker to become even more artistically ambitious and while he would ultimately create two masterworks worthy of the great silent artists, the grand scope of his vision would bankrupt him and leave a legacy only partially fulfilled.
Like his mentors in the American cinema, Tati was a theatrical performer who made a humble entrance into the new medium and found it perfect for his unusual talents. But even while the production values in his film became gargantuan, director Tati kept finding new and inventive ways in observing the foibles of human behavior.
The son of a well-to-do Russian frame maker and Dutch mother, Tati was brought up in relative comfort in the suburbs of Paris. The Euro-mutt showed little interest in school and ultimately gave up his studies to become his father’s apprentice at the frame studio. The inevitable call-up for military duty gave him a welcome respite from the drudgery of retail but as this was peace-time France, Tati stint in the army was brief and he soon returned to his father’s shop.
Although the humdrum life of a craftsman didn’t appeal to him the work gave Tati an appreciation for the visual arts as the keen sensibility for chiaroscuro and the vivid characterizations in his films would suggest. Tati lived in comfortable mediocrity until his send-ups of athletes were received enthusiastically by a legion of rugby players, prompting him to quit his job and become an actor.
Unfortunately, Tati’s career change corresponded with the Great Depression and the closing of many Parisian nightclubs, so theatrical work was scant during the early 1930s. Tati took this time to hone his act, perfecting an athletic style of mime which would soon be embraced by the young, smart set that frequented his shows.
Tati also began to show an interest in the possibilities of film and would put several of his patented acts to celluloid in the coming years. Oscar, champion de tennis, On demande une brute, Gai dimanche and Soigne ton gouche feature Tati as a tennis player, a flim-flam man, a boxer, and remain historically interesting as filmic introductions to Tati the performer. In these shorts, Tati followed in the youthful footsteps of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Max Linder, coming off unpolished and a bit of a scallywag.
The influence of mime is omnipresent but Tati’s brusque characterizations help bring the precious art form into the modern age. Each short is full of unpretentious, physical comedy but it’s fairly obvious Tati’s expertise in timing, developing sight gags and slow-burn comedy was in an embryonic stage.
Tati’s fledgling film career would be soon nipped in the bud by Germany’s invasion of France. Tati was called up to serve his country but his tour of duty ended abruptly once France capitulated to the Nazis. Tati spent the bulk of the war performing his popular stage act in Paris and Berlin. After narrowly escaping arrest he relocated to the small, central France town of Sainte-Severe-sur-Indre for safekeeping.
After the war Tati resumed his live act in Paris with an eye on jump-starting his film career. He had a memorable role as a ghostly spirit in Claude Autant-Lara’s Sylvie et le fantome where he piqued the interest of production manager Fred Orain with an idea for a series of short comedies. After forming their own production company, Tati and Orain set to filming the first of these shorts in Provence during the sunny summer of 1946.
L’ecole des facteurs cast Tati as one of three town postmen who have to shrink their pick-up time some twenty minutes each day in order to deliver the mail to a plane which will transport the letters to their final destinations. The postmen are first seen riding stationary bikes and being drilled by their boss who tries to instill discipline into the unlikely crew. Once, Tati and company are set loose on the sleepy town they find new and highly unorthodox ways to get their jobs done in a timely manner.
Those familiar with Tati’s first feature Jour de Fete will find many of its gags lifted directly from this earlier effort, but this doesn’t diminish L’ecole des facteurs in any way for it is here where the great comedian comes into his own. Tati is finally liberated from debilitating plots and uninspired co-stars.
Thoughtful camera placement, a brisk pace, precise editing and clever use of sound were all positive signs of the novice filmmaker learning his craft, but much of the pleasure in watching L’ecole des facteurs, or any, Tati film derives from his uncanny ability in casting unusual “types” and fleshing out their characters through gentle slapstick comedy.
Even with the French film industry in a post-war shambles the ambitious Fred Orain began to encourage Tati to think big. Within a year after the release of L’ecole des facteurs Tati returned to the comfortable confines of Sainte-Severe-sur-Indre to make another comedy about a befuddled postman, but this time as a glorious color feature.
Tati and Orain spent the summer of 1947 shooting Jour de fete in the small French town which so generously gave shelter to the comedian while he was trying to avoid capture by the Nazis four years earlier.
Jour de fete opens on the arrival of a traveling carnival which sets up shop in the sleepy town square. We are introduced to the locals including a hunchbacked old lady who serves as the wry narrator. Francois the postman also serves as the town buffoon and he is teased by both children and the regulars at a café who challenge him to a drinking contest he can’t possibly win. While on the subsequent bender Francois takes in a documentary newsreel which serves as a propaganda piece for the speed of the U.S. postal service.
The locals mock Francis’ primitive means of delivering the mail and give rise to the notion he could never compete with the technologically superior Americans. Tired of being the proverbial punching bag, the motivated Francois takes the town by storm and even embarrasses a pair of American MPs while delivering the mail in record time.
Made in reaction to the multitude of busy and loud American comedies getting ample play on French cinema screens after the war, Jour de fete is clearly a throwback to the filmmaking styles of the great silent clowns. The visual style is deceptively simple. Tati used mostly long shots and long takes where his performers could roam at will, from the background to the foreground, or in and out of line of the camera’s eye.
This static expansiveness extended itself to Tati’s use of sound to complement and bring great hilarity to the visual images. Garbled dialogue, creaking doors, buzzing bees and noisy livestock are all part of the aural palette and add ambiance to the countrified setting. Taking another page from the silent masters Tati added a layer of pathos to his first feature by presenting Francois as a figure of ridicule who ultimately trumps modernism.
To the horror of the production team the process used to develop the color film failed but Tati and Orain covered their assets by shooting an almost identical black and white version of Jour de fete.
This droll comedy extolling country life had difficulty finding a distributor but when it was finally released it became an inexplicable box office hit. Tati received offers to reprise Francois the Postman several sequels, but instead of taking the easy road he chose to invent a new comic character which would impact his filmmaking for the next two decades.
The setting for Tati’s next film Mr. Hulot’s Holiday would be a middle-class beach resort, the perfect locale for ordinary folks to let their hair down and fall under the scrutiny of the director’s observing eye. Tati is Monsieur Hulot, an awkward, mumbling, 40something bachelor whose efforts to lend a helping hand tend to backfire and wreak havoc on the other guests. Still, the gentlemanly Hulot is thought of fondly and is an accepted member of the beachside community.
Like every other single man at the resort his head is turned by the shapely blonde Martine (Natalie Pascard) who rents a room above the beach. The gallant, slightly ridiculous Hulot has the most success in wooing the charming young lady but the holiday soon ends and they return back to their placid civilian lives.
A symphony of visual and aural gags, Tati’s second feature would turn out to be another triumph of sprawl over structure. But with Mr. Hulot’s Holiday the comic timing and delivery has become pitch-perfect, the result of much painstaking effort the deliberate filmmaker put into creating his first masterpiece.
As befits the locale, the film has a much sunnier disposition than Jour de fete. While the villagers of the former film find the Postman to be an object of derision, the relaxed hotel guests tolerate Hulot’s eccentricities as if they were merely part of life’s rich pageant. For better or worse, the earthiness and rough edges in Jour de fete have been smoothed out into an increasingly Utopian vision of the world—a point of view Tati would carry to the extreme in his next two projects.
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday proved to be a huge international hit but the success put pressure on Tati to top himself and it would take five years before he finished making his next film.
For Mon Oncle Tati went so far as devising an actual plot, a conventional ploy which succeeded in giving resonance to his satire about modern times. The story of a young boy who prefers his eccentric uncle to a stuffy and slightly ridiculous pair of modern parents turned out to be the narrow but resilient thread on which Tati would hang his most striking sight gags and comedy to date.
The film takes place in two very dissimilar neighboring districts in Paris. The Arpels live in a gated modern house surrounded by impersonal concrete apartment complexes. Monsieur Hulot lives nearby in the attic of a funky old house in a bustling Parisian neighborhood. Hulot seems to be a dreamy idler but he takes great interest in the exploits of his nephew Gerard who is neglected by his status-seeking parents. Ultimately, we find Hulot helping his sister and brother in-law to see the error of their ways, but quite likely at the expense of his own happiness.
Mon oncle follows the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd tradition of mixing laughs with sentiment, but here we also find Tati coming into his own as a visual artist of genius. Much of the film’s mirth comes at the expense of the Arpel house, an immaculate boxy-looking edifice owing much to the school of Le Corbusier.
The Arpels take pride in their possession of snappy appliances and modern art; the high pinnacle being a glorious fish fountain that tantalizes and torments with its reluctance to spurt on demand. But, bourgeois satisfaction comes at the expense of the family’s happiness, particularly in the case of young Gerard.
The family’s black sheep, Hulot lives a bohemian sort of lifestyle in a warmer and cozier district of the city. The haphazardness of Hulot’s personality appeals to the messy nature of the young boy who is stultified in his parents’ regimented home.
Mon oncle and its English language version My Uncle turned out to be huge hits even pulling down an Oscar for Best Foreign Picture of 1958. But great success only drove its reluctant auteur away from the cinema and back to the stage in hopes of finding inspiration for his next film project.
During his brief return to the theatre Tati got great satisfaction in putting together an elaborate variety act. The spontaneous Big-Top entertainment inspired Tati to return to a structure-less kind of cinema where Hulot didn’t have to drive the vehicle so much as be another face in the crowd. For this utopian vision Tati built an elaborate and expensive set on the outskirts of Paris and erected a bland but shiny group of buildings where the smart set lived and worked.
Playtime chronicles a day in the life of the workers, tourists and partiers who inhabit a bustling, self-sustaining community. Hulot appears at a gray, cavernous workplace where he is instructed to sit on a ridiculous foam chair. He begins a hopeless mission to track down a friend in a network of identical cubicles. The chilly surroundings is warmed by a group of giddy American women tourists who find the prospect of spending time in Paris perfectly delightful, even if the only way they get to see the Eiffel Tower is in a distant reflection on a glass door.
The day creeps into night. The white collar workers hop on buses to go home or retreat to their modern apartments where they play out their evening endeavors like mannequins in storefront windows.
An unlikely social scene takes place at The Royal Garden, a splashy, new nightclub where the locals and tourists reconvene for dinner and dancing to the beat of a Latino bebop jazz ensemble. Led by a rowdy American businessman the enthusiastic patrons tear down the club’s upholstery and take over the stage.
Meanwhile, Hulot strikes up a flirtation with an attractive tourist and the next morning he tries in vain to give her a keepsake before she climbs back on the bus which will take her out of his life forever.
The majesty of Playtime reveals itself on a widescreen canvas where the flow of humanity weaves its way in and out of the landscape, leaving its peculiar imprint on the consciousness of attentive film audiences. Tati was a painterly filmmaker and his masterpiece turned out to be an Impressionistic slice of life threading the foibles of human behavior into a melancholic passage of time.
Tati went deep into debt making Playtime and his most personal film was poorly received by 1960s audiences and even his most sympathetic critics. Playtime came nowhere close to recovering costs, so Tati tore his film studio down and auctioned off the rights to his films. Now approaching sixty, Tati seemed old hat and the likelihood of this national icon of resurrecting his film career was beginning to look bleak.
Tati was fortunate to have sympathetic benefactors who overlooked the difficult man’s extravagances to fund the next, and last, Hulot satire on the modern world, Trafic. Shot over the course of two years by several different crews and cinematographers we find Hulot is now a designer of a sporty car-camper, the Altra, which he hopes to enter into an important Amsterdam car show.
Much of the action takes place on Belgian and Dutch two-lane blacktops where Hulot, his dawdling engineers, and Maria, a perky but obnoxious publicity agent, keep running out of gas and getting into scrapes with the locals. Owing to the stop and start shooting schedule the film’s humor is lackluster and a bit old-fashioned until the brilliantly-staged car-wreck which effectively ends any possibility of the Altra arriving in Amsterdam on time.
The multi-car crash and the rebirth encountered in its aftermath is as inspired as any sequence Tati put on film. During this striking, slow-burn montage the motorized vehicles are set adrift the initial wreck (caused by the busybody Maria) and spun completely out of control, taking on zany personalities not unlike many of the bizarre figurines of Miro and Klee. In the aftermath stunned passengers get out of their vehicles and use the highway as a communal gym, stretching and trying to regain limberness for the long journey ahead.
By the early 1970s Tati’s reputation as a filmmaker remained high but he still found it difficult to get French funding for new projects. Luckily, he had supporters in Sweden who helped him get over a prejudice towards television to make a delightful swansong which brought a career as a performer full circle.
Tati signed a contract with Swedish television to star in and direct a series of thirty-minute programs culminating in a circus review. After hemming and hawing over the ambitious project two years Tati struck a compromise with his producers to make an hour-long program featuring him as the master of ceremonies of a modern circus.
For those expecting another meticulously directed Tati satire the flat TV production values in Parade will likely disappoint, but this review does offer a rare chance for us to see what made the great man so special in the first place. Although Tati only occupies a quarter of the film’s eighty-five minute screen time, it is the reprise of his athletic performances of the 1930s which leaves the deepest impression.
Mime often takes a battering from modern comedians out for an easy laugh, but in Parade the 60something Tati performs a series of nimble and witty mimics offering a way in for those turned-off by the art form. These performances could well hold a key to understanding Tati for even while his film satires come off as gentle and tolerant there was always a contemporary edge to his work. Tati used his keen powers of observation to exploit the foibles of humanity for his act and his patient, painterly cinema.
Books about Tati:
Jacques Tati – David Bellos ****1/2 Directors who specialize in comedy are generally underrepresented in the field of film studies. Bellos’ recent book on the gentlemanly mime is a first-rate blend of biography and film analysis, making it the go-to source on Tati. Bellos paints a complex picture of a reticent and difficult man who found his one true joy in creating art, but success would come at the expense of losing the trust of friends, family and business associates.
Films by Tati:
1935 Gai dimanche ***
1947 L’ecole des facteurs ***1/2
1949 Jour de fete ****
1953 Mr. Hulot’s Holiday ****
1958 Mon oncle ****
1967 Playtime *****
1967 Cours du soir *** (a short by Nicholas Ribowski, written by and starring Tati)
1971 Trafic ***1/2
1974 Parade ***1/2
1978-2002 Forza Bastia *** (short soccer documentary completed by daughter Sophie Tatischeff)