Monday, June 7, 2010

#27: Jacques Tati

- "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.


  1. I have only seen three J.Tati films so far. They are all great and worthy of masterpiece or near masterpiece status. I watched Playtime for the first time in my History of Film class in Brooklyn College many years ago. I remember when my professor gave us a syllabus of all the movies we would be screening I would put a rating next to every film. I did this so I would not forget the pictures I really loved. Off the top of my head I remember giving La Ventura a B, Notorious by Hitchcock a C+ (never loved that one), and Playtime an A+. Every film we watched that semester had some detractors and naysayers. The only one I can remember almost all the students enjoying was Playtime. The maze portion scenes at the business offices were so visually mind boggling that it was almost an overload of pictorial excess. It crossed my mind that the film was made in the 60's and that if any LSD popping hippies were watching it they probably never returned from their trip!!!!

    1. Playtime
    2. Mon Oncle
    3. Mr Hulot's Holiday

    Tati is like Malick, Kubrick, and Welles in that none have made many movies but they are all great. I find this a somewhat more admirable trait than someone like Hitchcock who I love but made many movies I dislike or outright hate along with the indisputable masterpieces.

  2. While fully acknowledging his genius, I'll admit that I've yet to feel passionately about the Tati films I've seen (the big 3) - I admire and like them without out-and-out loving them. But I suspect at some point I may "fall under the spell" - particularly of Playtime, which seems to have been made with me in mind (I have a fascination with modernist architecture and also exploring seemingly mundane spaces).

    Mann may be a crime specialist, but to me his masterpiece is Last of the Mohicans. If I recall correctly from the countdown, you rank that one pretty highly too.

  3. Dave, what a pleasant surprise to find Tati in your directors' countdown. He's in my own directors' pantheon. Don't neglect the influence of Harold Lloyd on him as well as Chaplin and Keaton. I was fortunate enough to see "Jour de Fete" on Turner Classics a couple of years ago, and it's another masterpiece. It's the only film in which he doesn't play his Hulot character, although it's clear the character he plays, Francois the village postman, is a forerunner of Hulot. One of the great things about his movies is how you can follow the development of his fascination with cinematic technique, charater, and theme from one to the next. Each movie is like a chapter in an unfolding cinematic exploration. Only "Trafic" fell short of masterpiece status for me. He worked for years perfecting and concentrating his vision for each film, but in that one he seemed to lose his focus and it ended up going in too many directions. "Playtime" is his most ambitious and complex film but for me not as endearing as "M. Hulot's Holiday" and "Mon Oncle."

  4. I've only seen 3 of Tati, all flat-out brilliant:

    1. Mon Oncle
    2. Playtime
    3. Jour de Fete

  5. Ashamed to admit I yet to see any of his work, but such a write up means he will go on the list. Great write up again Dave loving this blog!



  6. In Tati's cinema, the soundtrack is divorced from the images gives the films an odd, dreamlike and existential feel, as if the events were being seen in retrospect. Tati's work is suffused with melancholy, (as well as satire, slapstick and character comedy), but it's precisely this element that enhances the humor and the significance of the surroundings.

    Katon and Max Linder are major influences, in addition to Chaplin and Lloyd. This is a magnificent essay, befitting this iconic figure.

    A discussion of modern life and alienation should rightfully inform MON ONCLE and PLAYTIME, which is his masterpiece. But has Maurizio noted above, every one of his limited output is in that category, as like Dreyer he's one of the titans of the cinema.

    I've managed to see the Big Six, several many times over through my life.

    1. Playtime
    2. Monsieur Hulot's Holiday
    3. Jour de Fete
    4. Mon Oncle
    5. Traffic
    6. Parade

  7. Maurizio - Yes, each of the big three in Tati's filmography are great. And I hear your point concerning Tati, Malick, etc. that made only a few films all of which are great or near great. But I don't think that necessarily detracts from somebody like Hitchcock that made a ton, some masterpieces some duds. Chances are if Tati, Malick or Welles had stepped up to the plate as many times, they would have struck out just as much, so to speak. I hear your point, and agree that the ratio is impressive, but don't think it reflects negatively on those with a high workrate.

    MovieMan - We shall see with Mann... With Tati, your assessment makes sense and as you acknowledge they are films that reward repeat viewing and can grow in estimation.

    R.D. - Wonderful comment here and it really excites me to hear good things about Jour de fete. I'm hoping that it will arrive soon - with my luck, it will probably arrive today now that this entry is already posted! I also agree with your reading of the Big 3. I recognize the ambition and technical brilliance of Playtime, but it doesn't have the charm of M. Hulot's Holiday or Mon Oncle.

    JAFB - Definitely agree!

    Tom J - He is an intriguing one to check out. It is definitely a different brand of comedy, so it will be interesting to see how you like it.

    Sam - Yes, I didn't mention Harold Lloyd primarily because I'm not familiar enough with his work to make comparisons. But I definitely appreciate you and R.D. pointing out other key influences on Tati. The soundtrack of Tati's films really are worthy of their own analysis and post. The melancholy and simplicity of his stories really does endear them (and the Hulot character) to the viewer.

  8. Tati worked on a large scale but some of his most memorable gags are on a small scale. For me that includes the cigarette lighter in Mon Oncle and the doorman working with only a knob in Playtime. I'd say that Tati was the Kubrick of comedy except that Kubrick's own idea of comedy was rather different. As for influences, I wonder about Tati's nearest peer in his own time: Jerry Lewis. I just saw a write-up in The New Yorker of The Ladies' Man, for instance, that points out how the set Lewis built for that film arguably anticipates Playtime. Perhaps....

    I've only seen Playtime within the past year but it's become one of my all-time favorite comedies. Here's how the key four films rank for me:

    3.Mon Oncle
    4.Mr. Hulot's Holiday.

    But it should be understood that fourth place doesn't mean "least" on such a list.

  9. I saw Play Time on the big screen for the first time in December and since then I've been calling it my favorite film. It was the most overwhelming experience I've ever had at a movie theater, and I really, really stress that if you have the chance to see this in a theater, do. It was one of the most incredible moments, and really reminded me how much movies are capable of. My runner-up favorite is probably M. Hulot's Holiday, although I love all six of his features.

  10. Samuel - Very interesting to see Trafic so high... I liked it in spots but definitely thought it wasn't as tight as the other Tatis I have seen. And I agree with you completely on the doorknob gag in Playtime... hilarious!

    Doniphon - I would love to see ANY Tati on the big screen, so I am definitely jealous. I went back and forth on whether I would rank Mon Oncle or M. Hulot's Holiday at #1, and Playtime is not too far behind for me.

  11. Genius!

    Top 6
    1.Play Time 5/5
    2.Les vacances de monsieur Hulot 5/5
    3.Mon Oncle 5/5
    4.Jour de fete 5/5
    5.Trafic 4,5/5
    6.Parade 3/5

  12. I hear your point, and agree that the ratio is impressive, but don't think it reflects negatively on those with a high workrate.

  13. Anyone got any information or links for the life of Sophie Tatischeff? I am doing a research project on women artists in French cinema and hoping to write about the colour version of Jour de Fete she restored.
    Also, does anyone have any links to Rose Duvall?
    She did a hand tinted version of the film as part of her 1997 artwork "Enough Blue For a Dozen Sailors".
    Nathaniel Evans

  14. Dear Nat (Tate) Evans,
    Did you ever find out anything about Rose Duvall?
    Keen to know,
    Stephan Potchatek