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Wandering through the world of Jacques Tati

French actor-director Jacques Tati’s singular but finite filmography affords the chance to take in the whole thing in one go

Jacques Tati in ‘Trafic’
Jacques Tati in ‘Trafic’

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Last week, on a whim, I set myself a task. I decided I would watch all the films of Jacques Tati. I’d only seen his Playtime in full, and parts of Mon Oncle. I had time on my hands, a fever having deposited me on the couch, and a beautiful set of Blu-ray restorations courtesy a Criterion Collection box set. And there was that temptation that cinephiles know well—the opportunity to knock an entire filmography off the list. 

This exercise got me nostalgic for my early years of film viewing. If you’re a hardened cinephile, in India at least, an external hard drive is where it all begins. Most of these had films filed by country and genre, but you knew you were dealing with a serious fan if the contents were arranged folder-wise by director. I’ve known cinephiles who went about their viewing with a termite-like focus and industriousness, consuming one Kurosawa, then another and another until they were all finished, then moving on to Tarkovsky, and so on. 

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To appreciate the evolution of Tati’s style, I decided to proceed  in chronological order: Jour De Fête (1949), the four Hulot films—Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967) and Trafic (1971)—and the made-for-television Parade (1974). The first shot in Jour De Fête is of wooden horses being transported to a fair in the French countryside. Then we see actual horses, and an annoyed dog—two animals Tati favoured in all his films. He plays François, a postman who has a crisis of confidence when he sees an exaggerated documentary about postal services in the US, and starts to work American efficiency into his routine, with predictably unhappy results. Here, from the start, is Tati’s enduring theme: the relentless march of modernity and the comic failures of those who try and keep up with it.

Tati’s next film was his first as Monsieur Hulot, the character he would forever be associated with. With his hat, pipe, beige coat and pants that fall just a bit short, Hulot is a distinctive figure, but what really marks him out are his movements, alternately graceful and uncoordinated, an exaggerated slalom through the obstacle course of 20th century life. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday may be little more than a series of sketches set in a lazy seaside town, but it’s a remarkably relaxed and warm film, more directorially accomplished than Jour De Fête, less programmed than the ones that would follow. There are the wonderful elaborate physical gags—Hulot inadvertently launching a fireworks attack on the hotel is a showstopper—but also perfect small moments, like an infant buying two ice-cream cones, walking barefoot across the sand and up the stairs, through the door, handing a cone to his friend, and both sitting back to watch a banner being hung up.

Tati took a turn after this, not only switching to colour but developing a new kind of obsessiveness in his film-making. Mon Oncle, which won the best foreign film Oscar in 1959, satirised the drive towards ultra-modernity, with the boastful Arpels and their fussy futuristic house. Hulot, beloved uncle of the young Arpel boy, is a bumbling rube among their sophisticated, almost sentient appliances, but he takes the boy on adventures as funny and loose as his home life is sober and controlled. 

Mon Oncle onwards, Tati’s cinema becomes, to my mind, one to admire, not  revel in. The gags are brilliantly constructed, yet I found myself laughing out loud much less than in the first two films. This is not a criticism: The comic visions of Mon Oncle and Playtime are unrivalled. “It was as if the world had been created so Tati could turn it into a film,” screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière once said. In those two films, Tati didn’t just react to the world as it existed but created his own off-kilter one. Mon Oncle had the forbiddingly advanced house—you half-expect Hal, the sentient computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to speak up. In Playtime, he went even further, constructing a slice of ultra-modern Paris from the ground up: ‘Tativille’.

The first half of Playtime—with Hulot stumbling through soulless, gleaming offices and chic apartments—is a formidable, visionary thing. But in this, my second viewing of the film, I found it came to life after the restaurant set-piece starts: a painstakingly choreographed accumulation of slapstick chaos. After the pristine comedy of the first half, the chaos of the second brings the film to rude life. Even after it's over, the remnants of this energy spill over into the colourful, musical last 10 minutes. 

Playtime was shot on 70mm, and Tati fills the screen with several layers of movement and action. In most of the scenes, your gaze will flit across, picking up gestures and stray words (Tati dialogue is never fully audible; his are silent sound films). I would dearly love to see Playtime on the big screen, but even then I would never catch all the little things unfolding at once. “He wanted to see everything, all the time,” Pierre Étaix, director and assistant to Tati, said. It was his challenge to the viewer: He would show them everything but they would have to strain to see it. 

Like so many visionary films, Playtime wasn't a commercial success. You can see the fallout in Tati’s next film, Trafic, which is less elaborate and on a visibly tighter budget. An awkward rock music score suggests that it’s not just Hulot but Tati who may be out of step with the times. Yet, Trafic, a road movie in which Tati helps transport a typically ingenuous ‘camper car’ from Paris to Amsterdam, has moments of great charm, and is arguably the spiffiest-looking of his colour films. It’s the last Hulot outing—and the last real Tati film, with Parade a curiosity at best, the director fronting a circus act for Swedish TV, performing the mime routines that first brought him fame. 

Tati is a unique figure in cinema: a comic’s comic and a director’s director. He’s as deft a physical actor as anyone since the silent greats, but he was never central to his films like Chaplin or Keaton were to theirs, and his most famous work only has him on the margins. He had a singular directorial eye, placing modern life under a microscope to reveal all the awkward wriggling around. Mon Oncle and Playtime are unlikely to be displaced as the cornerstones of his art. But when I return to Tati, I think it’ll be to the warm embrace of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday

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