Jacques Tati remains one of my favorite filmmakers even though he made only six feature films during his lifetime. Four of these six films are masterpieces and among the funniest films I have ever seen. A true auteur, Tati wrote, directed, and starred in his films. His vision is a completely unique one and his films recall the artistry of silent cinema while making new innovations in sight and sound.
Sound is incredibly important in Tati’s cinema. Every object is given sound often to a comedic effect. These aural gags are scattered throughout Tati’s films. For example, in his first feature length film, Jour de Fete (1949), the viewer is introduced to Francois the postman as he dodges a fly that can only be heard but not seen. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), many sounds are exaggerated for a comedic effect such as the sound of Hulot playing ping pong in the hotel and the restaurant door that is constantly opening as the hotel’s guests walk in and out of the room. In his films, Tati proves that the slightest of details can generate a lot of humor. One could argue that no one utilized sound in cinema better than Tati. Most of the humor in Tati’s films is generated from his manipulation of sound.
Tati shot his films without sound and recorded the soundtracks after filming was finished. There is little dialogue in Tati’s films. The dialogue that is present is not necessarily indiscernible but almost always insignificant. Speech acts as just another sound in Tati’s vast soundscape. There is no doubt that Tati’s films are highly organized works and meticulous care and detail went into creating them.
The character of Francois the postman in Jour de Fete is surely the prototype for one of cinema’s most enduring characters-Monsieur Hulot. Played by Tati himself, Hulot is as iconic as Chaplin’s Tramp. Always sporting an overcoat, pipe, and hat, Mr. Hulot appeared in all four of Tati’s masterworks-Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967), and Trafic (1971). Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Hulot is constantly getting himself into situations. However, unlike the Tramp, Hulot is not necessarily a central character. This is especially true in Playtime, a film that has no central characters.
Each of Tati’s films captures the zeitgeist of its era. The 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s were a time of economic prosperity and technological progress for France. Tati mocks modernity and man’s reliance on technology. From the idyllic, simple existence that people inhabit in Jour de Fete and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday to the sterile technological, modernist world of Playtime and Trafic, there is an undeniable progression in Tati’s work. Mon Oncle sits appropriately in the middle of these works as it exists in both worlds. In Mon Oncle, Hulot can at least hold on to a simpler existence, for which he tries to provide for his young nephew who lives with his parents in an ugly modernist home complete with a water spouting fish fountain. The dialectic between the old world and the new world is present throughout Tati’s films. Ultimately, Hulot cannot stop the inevitable passing of time nor the acceleration of technological progress.
Playtime is Tati’s most daring film. It took Tati nearly a decade to make and at the time, it was the most expensive French film ever made. The film flopped at the box office and sadly, ruined Tati’s career. The irony is that today, many consider Playtime to be Tati’s greatest achievement.
In Playtime, the cityscape becomes a playground for Tati to exercise his clever and hilarious manipulations of image and sound. In most films, the viewer’s attention is directed at a specific action. This is not the case in Tati’s cinema, in which multiple gags or actions may be happening simultaneously and competing for our attention. Playtime is the ultimate example of this concept. Simultaneous gags and actions challenge one’s observation skills. This is precisely why Tati shot the film in 70mm instead of 35 mm. There is simply so much going on in every frame of Playtime.
Playtime emphasizes the sterility of glass and steel in modern architecture. This is without doubt Tati’s most sterile world. The viewer sees only reflections of Paris. Hulot is of a bygone era and does not belong here. Playtime also presents a critical view of America and globalization with the parade of American tourists. Mass tourism was a theme first introduced in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.
In Playtime, the viewer’s attention is directed in creative and unexpected ways. During the hour long restaurant sequence, for example, a small model airplane in the background is painted red so that the viewer notices its wings droop from the heat of the restaurant.
Tati’s films are about observation and capture things with a childlike wonder. This is especially evident in Mon Oncle, in which Hulot spends time with his young nephew. In many ways, Hulot has a childlike sensibility, which is reflected by children’s love for him. It seems fitting then that Tati’s final film, Parade (1974) ends with two small children playing in the aftermath of the circus. However, it is difficult for me to even consider Parade among Tati’s films because it is such an anomaly in his career.
Made for television, Parade does not seem so much a film as it is a filming of a circus with Tati as its master. Tati’s second to last film, Trafic is vastly underrated and should be reevaluated as the masterpiece that it truly is. If one were to ask me what my favorite Tati film is, it would depend on the day. It could be Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, or Playtime. These films show Tati at his absolute best. As for Jour de Fete, it is a solid debut that features many themes that Tati would explore in his subsequent films.
Cinema is a form of expression and Tati used the medium to his full advantage as his films constantly challenge our perception of image and sound. Watching all of Tati’s films, some of which I had seen before and many that I was seeing for the first time, was a pure joy. Tati was a true artist who who will never be forgotten.
Tati’s Feature Films:
1) Jour de Fete (1949) ***
2) Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) ****
3) Mon Oncle (1958) ****
4) Playtime (1967) ****
5) Trafic (1971) ****
6) Parade (1974) **
Note-Tati made several short films that are not included in this discussion. The Criterion Collection lovingly put together a video release of all of Tati’s films complete with a plethora of supplements.