The Saturday Auteur

Jacques Tati: the graceful comedian who bridged silent-era mime with new wave
By Arijana Zeric | Film+TV | 26 February 2020

Playtime by Jacques Tati, 1967

This article is part of The Saturday Auteur

A lamp post, an office chair, a bird chirping, a tennis ball…all these things are elevated to a heightened status with Jacques Tati. The french actor, director, mime and comedian had a unique ability to recreate all of his everyday surroundings and present us a refreshingly innocent perspective.

Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati, 1958

Born in 1907 as Jacques Tatischeff to a noble family in the wealthier outskirts of Paris, he was an indifferent student but excelled in sports. After joining a semi-professional rugby team, he discovered his comedic talents and The impressions sportives (Sporting Impressions) were born: a series of highly physical mimes he performed on stage for a few years and later in his final film, Parade. After his beginnings as a pantomime on stage, he ventured into films, creating six well-loved full-length feature films

Trafic by Jacques Tati, 1971

Portrayed by Tati, the well-meaning but hapless Monsieur Hulot is present in nearly all of his films, with his slim, tall stature, A-line coat and pipe. A straight man to an absurdly comical world, Hulot discovers his environments like a child in wonderland, bringing joy to the most mundane structures and routines. In Hulot’s world, glass doors shatter, chairs deflate and kitchens buzz, much to the confusion of our protagonist.

One of cinema’s greatest comedians, his mimes and movement comedy bridged silent era icons – Buster Keaton and Max Linder – with his new wave contemporaries – Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson – Tati’s genius was not only in his stylistic set designs, innovative narrative and unmatched observational skills; his most ambitious moves were in sound. Entire conversations are depleted into carefully crafted mutter and the absence of dialogue is replaced with a meticulous and costly sound arrangement: compositions that serve as storytellers, guiding the narrative. In Mr Hulot’s Holiday, French film critic André Bazin acknowledges that the sadness the audience feels at the end comes from the fact that the sound has stopped. Where there was a cocktail of beach noises, there is now silence. The vacation is over.

Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati, 1958

The principle Tati used to create his sonic summaries was also applied to his visuals. Not a fan of close-ups, Tati chose to provide us with the bigger picture – visually and sonically – capturing society in joyful vignettes, establishing a sense of discovery through every detail. When he opens his windows in Mon Oncle, who would notice that the bird sings when the sunlight hits just right? This delicate approach would lose its magic if there were any sort of harsh interruptions such as spoken words. Instead, Tati gives room to breathe, expand, and let the little things come to life.

Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati, 1958

Mr Hulot’s Holiday, 1953

Mr Hulot embarks on a summer beach holiday to the West coast of France. His arrival at the hotel is not without turbulence, as he encounters the most charming enemies: revolving doors, a sea breeze, candy machines, paddling boats and whatever else you could possibly find at an ordinary beach is suddenly disturbing the peace.

As Mr Hulot stumbles from one misfortune to another, the elegance of his movements makes each trip and fall look as if he is dancing around his involuntary playmates, light and graceful like a ballet dancer. His stature is enhanced by cropped trousers, making him look larger and clumsier, but really they are in place so we can admire his choreography better.

Bazin stated that the significance of Mr Hulot’s Holiday cannot be overestimated and declared it to be the most important event in film comedy history since the Marx Brothers. It introduced the audience to a new character who infused poetry into a common universe that only attracts those who are perceptible.

Mr Hulot’s Holiday by Jacques Tati, 1953

Playtime, 1967

Conscripted in 1939, post-war, Tati’s Mr Hulot shifted somewhat, now he was dropped into worlds exploring the consumerist obsession, the speed of modern life, social classes and technological advances. Never was this clearer than his 1967 work, Playtime.

Here, Mr Hulot is trapped in a futuristic 60s vision of Parisian work life. From the airport to the office to the after-work party, the setting displays at least 50 shades of cement grey. The film starts with a shot of the sky, the camera slowly panning down and finally settling on a skyscraper, which could also be seen as a modern-day place of worship. Overwhelmed with the geometric arrangement of cubicles, overly polished floors and brand new leather seats, Hulot provokes trouble as he tries to get a grip of it all. He appears as if from a different time, unequipped for this shiny new world.

Typical for the decade that brought us The Jetsons and 2001, stylish minimalism meets an enormous amount of space, which only Le Corbusier could have imagined. This immaculate design is so innovative that all machines seem to have a life of their own, dominating the rhythm of society. When the working crowd gathers for dinner, drinks and a dance, we finally recognise ourselves inside this architectural structure. Instead of being this dehumanised, sterile, so-called civilisation, under Tati’s eye, Playtime becomes a stylish homage to the pulsating city life.

Shot on 70mm and with the gigantic construction of ‘Tativille’, Playtime was by far Tati’s most expensive and ambitious film. It took over three years to complete and ultimately bankrupted Tati, even though it was acclaimed by critics. While Mr Hulot’s Holiday marks an important milestone in french cinema, Playtime is widely considered his most remarkable achievement.

Playtime by Jacques Tati, 1967

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