By Brian Susbielles
In November last year, Criterion Collection released a box set of all six full-feature films and seven short films from Jacques Tati. The French comedian was known for his observational, physical humor where sound and visual use trumped dialogue. From the 1940s to the 1970s, Tati played on critiquing Western society’s obsession with materialism and consumerism in a society that became more high-pressured, wih France’s superficial relations within the social classes and the impractical nature of technology. His work, as reportedly said by Buster Keaton, an idol of Tati’s, carried on the tradition with silent cinema, but with the ironic use of sound.
Tati, however, is known only for his performances as Monsieur Hulot, the tall, overcoat wearing, pipe smoking, odd-walking Parisian who nobody notices unless he does something wrong. The character appeared four times, each in a different, memorable setting. “Hulot is the guy you recognize because he was in the same barracks as you, even though he never became a close friend,” said film critic Michel Chion. “He gives you the illusion of familiarity, which really doesn’t exist. He develops into a real person only when you bump into him by accident one night.”
In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the introducing film of Hulot, he goes to a beachside town with many others. They are individuals, families, and older couples taking in the sun, playing tennis, and having fresh seafood. These people do not notice the harmless Hulot unless he has a mishap, to which he is looked at as a fool. This is true as Hulot’s canoe folds in half on itself and returns to shore like a shark, scaring those nearby. Hulot also causes a ruckus with a bunch of fireworks, giving fellow people an unintended show as he fails to stop the fuses all around him. In between, Tati pokes at the towns’ proprietors and dilettantes who are seen as petty profiteers and bourgeoisie without making a political statement as French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard, an admirer of his, would do in his works.
In Mon Oncle, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Hulot, living in the older, crumbling neighborhoods of Paris, cares for his nephew, who lives in a affluent, suburban, materialistic home. Here, Tati satirizes the ultramodernity of the times with automatic doors and appliances because “everything is automatic,” a solid grey house with a zigzag front yard, high standout of color, and, most notably, a fish fountain which is turned on only when an important visitor arrives. Hulot, despite the brother of the housewife, is not an important visitor when he drops off his nephew. These are among the standouts for the sole reason of showcasing the parents’ social position in society. The boy is basically a trophy child who is given robotic orders by his parents, so the boy finds solace and much-needed fun with his uncle, Hulot. Being childlike and more fitted to be with children, Hulot takes delight in watching the kids commit pranks on other adults.
In Playtime and Trafic, the last two of the Hulot films, Tati goes deeper into society’s fascination with modernization in the city and with vehicles. The scope is bigger and bolder; its massive set was nicknamed “Tativille” and the final cost of Playtime was a staggering 17 Million Francs shot over three years, but the its playful humor remains the same. Hulot is old fashioned and suffers a shock when he walks into a modern Paris with American tourists, wandering into glass office buildings with bizarre cubicle arrangements, a trade exhibition with the most ridiculous items such a door that slams “in silence,” and a high-class restaurant where the smallest of errors is bad service. In the lengthy sequence at the restaurant, Hulot, confused about the glass doors and windows he encountered, accidently shatters a door when he tries to walk through it. Hulot pretends to be a door, holding the large knob and swinging himself in and out like an automatic door. It seems to be an ode to the automatic garage door from his Mon Oncle, which, in relativity to Stephen Hawking’s warning about artificial intelligence, humans are not able to have full command of computerized items.
The last of the Monseiur Hulot movies is a slow road trip to an auto show in Amsterdam, as detour after detour causes their inevitable tardiness. Today’s vehicles include the GPS and satellite radio; in Trafic, Tati takes the idea of the motorhome to another comical level. His camping car includes seats that unfold from the bumpers, a grill that can actually cook a steak, and a horn that sprouts an electric razor. The film’s car accident sequence is incredibly meticulously choreographed like a ballet with one car skating on its front bumper and another spinning on its axis amongst other gags. There is also inhuman gags; a group of boys make an Afghan rug look like a woman’s dog who has been run over, but it does become a funny moment when Hulot, attempting to unearth the cruel joke, stomps on the “dog” upsetting the woman further. (Don’t worry, the dog is alive and the woman finds it moments later). The film is, overall, melancholic in nature, showing some emotion that is real, such as the woman thinking her dog is dead as well as Hulot being infused sexually, mistaking a baby’s bottom for a woman’s cleavage.
The works of Jacques Tati are not of hilarity, but of memory and nostalgia of the past, fondness of certain people and things, and enjoyment. He takes an interest in everything that society has to offer, as minor and insignificant it may be. Tati also doesn’t make himself the center of attention; he mixes in random characters he comes across and puts the camera on them to show their movements to show their own absurdity. He is (or was, as Tati died in 1982) a minimalist, using what we see – the gags – and its actions as the story rather than having people talk it out. There is no flashiness with the camera or editing, like a French New Wave film. His comedy is of the unconventional type, one of incredible observation, discipline, and imagination. If you thought French cinema stood out with Francois Truffaut, Jean Renoir, and Louis Malle, you now have another filmmaker to examine that is an attention grabber with a short resume worth viewing in one whole day.