- "Either it comes off or it doesn't... there's no safety net."
Here is one of my most recent infatuations in cinema, as lately I have fallen completely in love with the films of Jacques Tati. Considering his small body of work it could potentially be difficult to compare him to other titans of comedy, such as Keaton or Chaplin who made numerous features and shorts in their careers. But his genius is completely put across in this abbreviated filmography, as he ingeniously created a singular style and character that stands out from anything else I have ever seen on film.
Tati’s style really is unlike anyone before or since. The influence of the two other comedic geniuses I mentioned is apparent, but Tati’s work is distinctive from both of them. Tati did not make silent films. His beloved Mr. Hulot may have essentially been a mute, but the sounds that permeate the rest of his films are one of the most distinctive features of his work. Tati utilized sound – both of the natural atmosphere and exaggerated sound effects – better than anyone. Simple noises and effects are repeated throughout the course of each film and never fail elicit a chuckle or sly smile from me. Who can forget things like: the swinging door in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday; the sound of the spewing water of the fountain in Mon Oncle, or the clinking of the entrance gate in the same film; the whooshing of the padded chairs in Playtime? And the noises of the natural world are swirling around everything that Hulot does. He lets the sound of the seaside wash over everything Hulot’s Holiday. The machinery, cars and other technologies in Playtime and Trafic are constantly heard, regardless of whatever else is taking place.
His visual style is equally as distinctive. The near complete lack of close-ups creates an interesting dynamic, as rather than always focusing on carefully orchestrated gags, Tati allows the camera to always take in big, wide shots. The audience sees _everything_. Sometimes in fact, such as in Playtime, there is almost too much to take in. You have to watch scenes multiple times to appreciate every nuance. In comedic terms, the effect is equally as interesting. Often, the hilarious antics of Mr. Hulot are actually taking place in the background – so you see things like Hulot awkwardly doing calisthenics on the beach from a distance, while watching normal, everyday scenes in the foreground. It is a unique way to film the antics and gags of a master comedian, which works far better in execution than description.
It is also important to point out that the majority of his comedy isn’t of the Keaton or Chaplin laugh out loud variety – at least in my opinion. Rather, Tati’s humor is more the creation of a story or atmosphere that leaves a perpetual smile on your face. Just seeing the way Tati moves and walks as Mr. Hulot is enough to make me grin. This breezy style of storytelling is off-putting for many, but I find it all incredibly charming. Apparently Tati would meticulously choreograph many of the stunts and gags in his films, which is surprising to me in the sense that everything else about his films screams “laid-back.” Much of the comedy is akin to a joke without a punch line. But there really is no need for a punch line, as his movies are a continually running joke that you never want to end.
I have only seen four of his features. My recent purchase of an all-region DVD player and ordering of Jour de fete from out of the country was not fast enough, as the disc has not arrived yet. Even so, based on only four films, he is more than deserving of this ranking. The top three are essentially interchangeable, although I do slightly lean toward Mon Oncle and Mr. Hulot's Holiday placing a bit ahead of the more celebrated Playtime.
1. Mon Oncle (1958)
2. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
3. Playtime (1967)
4. Trafic (1971)
For the next entry we come back to the present day United States with crime drama specialist Michael Mann.