Despite producing only six feature films (and a handful of shorts) over the course of his long career, Jacques Tati is one of the most famous and influential French directors and actors of all time. This is particularly impressive given how relentlessly unusual his work was at the time, and remains today.
Tati’s directorial style is incredibly meticulous, but eschews plot (at least in the traditional sense) to instead present films which are collections of related vignettes all building toward a central mood or theme – more like flipping through a photograph album than reading a single discrete story. Instead of using editing and tight shots to guide a viewer through the action, Tati allows the camera to linger on long wide shots of complex action – encouraging the viewer to look around, and in his words “do their own editing”.
Together with a tendency toward “slow comedy” – jokes that start very small and can take several scenes to begin to pay off – this approach can make Tati’s films difficult for modern audiences to get into, but they reward the effort. At their best, Tati’s movies are like beautiful, complex mechanical sculptures where you can look from place to place and see each part working in isolation, or look at the entire work and see how they function together.
Thematically speaking, Tati’s films tend to focus on the paradoxical inconvenience and social isolation of high tech (for the time) American-style modern consumerism, and to have a corresponding nostalgia for an older, slower, and more “human” way of living. These themes are often explored through the focusing lens of Monsieur Hulot – Jacques Tati’s most famous and best-loved creation.
Played by Tati himself, and instantly recognisable in his hat and overcoat, with his pipe, rolled umbrella and odd lurching walk, Hulot is a sort of antithesis to Charlie Chaplin’s witty and resourceful Little Tramp. Instead of a small man who extricates himself from various scrapes by cleverness, Hulot is an awkward giant who gets into them though a sort of vague dreaminess, and spreads chaos without ever quite realising what he’s doing. This sense of childlike distraction was a major inspiration to Rowan Atkinson in the development of his character Mr Bean. In keeping with the decentralised nature of Tati’s films, Hulot is often more of a significant character than the central one – the films may keep returning to him, but they’re often not exactly about him.
This box set collects together the entirety of Tati’s filmography – the six features, the early shorts that launched his career as well as his later short film projects and one short film by his daughter Sophie Tatischeff, together with a host of extras including a short documentary that covers Tati’s life and work and features interviews with a number of academics and high-profile fans. Whether you’re already familiar with the work of Tati, or wish to learn more – this is a great resource.
Jour de fête (The Big Day)
In 1947, Tati won the Max Liner Prize for comedy with a short film called L’École des facteurs (The School for Postmen) about an incompetent rural postman (played by Tati) and his attempts to adapt to new modern high-speed delivery methods. On the basis of this success, he got the opportunity to direct his first feature film, Jour de fête.
Filmed onsite in the village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre (and using many of the real villagers as extras) the film follows a travelling fair as it comes to the small town, sets up, runs, and eventually departs. In what would become the classic Tati style, there’s no real central plot as the film moves from micro-story to micro-story over the course of the fair but one of the more notable threads is a reprise of L’École des facteurs, with Tati returning to the role of the postman. In this version he is initially entranced by a film about the methods of postmen in America, and has his enthusiasm spurred on by a couple of fairhands who find his antics amusing and keep buying him drinks to encourage him.
Jour de fête was originally intended to be the first ever French film to be shot in colour, but the (then bleeding-edge) Thomson colour system turned out to be incapable of delivering colour prints. Fortunately, Tati had shot the film simultaneously in black and white so that version was available to the public immediately. In 1995, Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff restored the colour version, and this disc contains both prints of the film.
Due to the inclusion of the L’École plotline, the film has an odd lurch out of plotlessness and an equally strange relapse into it as the postman’s story wraps up and the focus shifts to the fair leaving town. That said, it’s a lovely and clearly affectionate portrait of village life in France and shows many of the stylistic traits that would go on to become staples of the Tati style.
Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday)
In his terrible, noisy, endlessly-malfunctioning, car, Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) descends upon an unsuspecting seaside resort. Despite the best of intentions, he spreads chaos among fellow holidaymakers and has numerous misadventures.
Les Vacances is the film which introduced the iconic Mr Hulot first to French and then to international audiences, and presents the youngest and most agile version of the character (long gaps between films meant that Tati aged visibly between each one). This provides the film with much more in the way of classic mimed visual jokes from Hulot than Tati’s later work. It also establishes the convention that Hulot, while a major participant in the film, is never quite its central character and the other characters give the impression of noticing him, but never quite “getting” him. It also introduces the tradition that Hulot will bond with, but ultimately miss out on “the girl” in the piece.
This is also the beginning of the classic nearly-plotless Tati film. There is no main story, simply a series of scenes which affectionately lampoon various “types” from contemporary French society, either through simple observation or through Hulot’s hapless attempts to interact with them. Dialogue is also kept to a minimum – mostly used as simply another sound effect to colour a scene.
For modern non-French audiences, the comedy suffers a little because the types that Tati pokes fun at are not as recognisable for us as they would have been for the audience. That said, there are physical jokes and sight gags aplenty, and many situations that require no cultural translation to be funny.
Ultimately, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot is beloved for a reason. Hulot is a very sympathetic sort of fool, and the film is manages to be wistfully beautiful as well as funny.
Mon Oncle (My Uncle)
The affluent Arpel family live in a large ultra-modern house in an upmarket suburb of Paris. Mr and Mrs Arpel are completely consumed with their materialistic lifestyle and showing off for their similarly shallow friends, but their 9 year old son Gérard finds it all dull and stifling. His only relief comes in the form of his genial but shambling uncle Mr Hulot, who spreads well-meaning chaos when he visits and endlessly disrupts the Arpels’ meticulously-planned lives. Frustrated by his constant intrusions, the Arpels hatch a plan to try and settle Hulot down with a job and a wife.
The first of his films to be successfully presented in colour, Mon Oncle is probably Jacques Tati’s best-loved movie and the one that presents the most iconic form of Mr Hulot – older and less agile than the Hulot of Vacances, and less well-understood by the more “responsible” adults in the film, who all see him as a problem that needs to be solved rather than a person.
In a direct contrast to the Arpels, Hulot is unemployed and lives happily in an odd, tumbledown house (fans of Miyazaki will see where he got some of his architectural influences) in a rundown part of Paris. He is surrounded by friends and acquaintances, including his landlady’s teenage daughter whose relentless (if fairly innocent) flirting he receives with the same bemused amiability as everything else. Where the Arpels have a fancy car, Hulot relies on a disreputable-looking moped (which nonetheless has space for Gérard on the back) and where Gérard’s life with the Arpels is all structure and rules, his uncle allows him to run riot with a gang of local kids.
Tati’s pet themes (the perverse impracticality of modern technology, the dehumanising effects of materialism, etc.) are all on full view here. Despite being obsessively designed down to the last detail, the Arpels’ house is horrendously impractical – the chairs are impossible to sit in, the kitchen appliances are deafening and impossible for a stranger to use, and the paths force people to execute bizarre little dances in order to walk past each other. The Arpels themselves are ridiculous caricatures of a shallow, status-absorbed materialism – their garden’s crowning glory, a fish-shaped fountain, is switched on only when they have guests they want to impress, and Mrs Arpel endlessly brags about how well-planned her terrible house is despite all the evidence to the contrary.
It’s easy to see why Mon Oncle remains Tati’s most popular film. Tati’s trademark “democracy” is in effect – allowing many of the other characters to rival Hulot for screen time, but the story (light as it is) provides enough of a through-line that the film always feels like it’s going somewhere. The contrast between Hulot’s Paris and that of the Arpels is consistently funny, and Tati also has a deep nostalgia for the “old” Paris – the scenes of Gérard and his friends playing on the overgrown waste ground and pooling their cash to visit the “jam and bread” man are particularly affecting.
The sound design also deserves a mention here. All the sound for Mon Oncle was performed as foley (sounds created for the purpose – not stock samples or recorded live on set) and Tati meticulously layered samples (by hand, on tape) to get the exact sounds he wanted for comedic effect. This is an incredible achievement considering that the film was released in 1958.
Neatly balanced between Jacques Tati’s inclination toward total democracy, and modern audiences’ need for a clear central character, Mon Oncle is the film I’d pick to bring a total novice into the world of Tati and Mr Hulot.
Following on from the success of Vacances and Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati was finally given ultimate creative control. He was free to make exactly the kind of movie he wanted, and the movie he chose to make was Playtime – his masterpiece, but also the movie that financially ruined him.
Jacques Tati was never a director who was willing to settle for a sure thing. Mr Hulot was conceived (at least partly) as a way to preemptively avoid having to endlessly reprise his character from Jour de fete, and by the mid 1960s he was bored with Hulot in turn. As a result, Playtime is the ultimate “democratic” Tati film. There is no plot at all, and while Hulot does appear, he is very much on the sideline and the audience are endlessly faked out by countless “false Hulots” – men who dress exactly like Hulot, and serve to point out his fundamental ordinariness. Instead of a story about Hulot, Playtime presents a series of loosely-connected scenes which follow the course of a day in a hyper-modern and utterly characterless future Paris. Hulot participates in some of these scenes but is rarely central.
Thematically, the film is familiar Tati – concern about the dehumanising and homogenising effects of consumerism and an obsession with the impracticality of modernity. The difference here is that, freed from all budgetary and artistic constraints, Tati took his vision to the absolute limit of the available technology. He built “Tativille” – a town-sized movie set complete with streets, cars, functional buildings and movable frontages on rails. Combined with then-new panoramic (ultra wide-screen) camera technology, this let him present huge vistas of blank hallways, seas of cubicles, forests of unchanging skyscrapers, and vastly complex scenes of crowds of people. The effect is spectacular and at times unsettling, but the emphasis on long wide shots can leave the audience feeling shut out – especially in the absence of a clear story.
Ultimately, this is what destroyed Tati financially. The film cost all of his, as his sister’s and his mother’s money, and audiences (despite Tati endlessly recutting the film to make it shorter) stayed away. He got to make the film he really wanted, but it cost him everything he had.
Playtime is called Tati’s masterpiece for a reason – the scale and complexity of the various scenes is mind-boggling, Tati’s humour is as sly as always, and each episode is crammed with fascinating interconnected micro-stories all waiting to be discovered. The penultimate scene in the nightclub, in particular, is amazing. However, the film’s unusual structure and occasional sense of detachment will make it a difficult watch for some.
Following the commercial failure of Playtime (and of Tativille, which he’d hoped the French government would buy so that other film makers could use it) Tati could no longer make films in France, and had no financial independence. Trafic is a film made with Italian and Dutch backing, and a corresponding loss of creative control.
Mr Hulot is a designer who has created an innovative “camping car”, which is crammed with technological gimmicks. His company sends him on the road with a truck driver and a PR woman to take the Altra Camping Car to the prestigious Amsterdam Auto Show. On the way they suffer breakdowns, encounters with police and Customs, and traffic accidents. All of this compounded by the characters as Hulot is well-meaning but incompetent as always, his truck driver is astoundingly lazy, and the PR woman forever takes charge of situations only to find that they are hopelessly out of her control.
Trafic is in many ways a return to the classic Hulot movie template – while he’s not central to every scene, Hulot is the main character and the one who drives the plot forward. This certainly represented a backward step artistically for Tati, but he still had fun making the film and that shows through. Rather than a wide satire of modern society, Trafic focuses entirely on the automotive scene. There’s a gleefulness in the way the film pokes fun at driving and drivers, and the chaotic set piece scenes are spectacular. Trafic is also the last film to feature Mr Hulot, and there’s a sense that Tati realised this – having him end the film by opening his perpetually-furled umbrella, and leave the scene with the girl sheltering under it.
While Trafic does feel minor in comparison with the earlier Hulot films, it’s still a warm and enjoyable piece of work.
An audience gathers into a great circus hall, and (though the set is being constructed as they arrive) are welcomed by Tati as Master of Ceremonies. As the performances move on, the line between audience and performer begins to break down…..
Produced for Swedish TV (though conceived as a theatrical release) Parade is Tati’s final completed film. It’s a strange beast – technically as well as performance-wise. It was shot on (then-new) video tape as well as on film, and the change in quality from scene to scene is dramatic. Structure-wise, the film follows the circus’s various acts (some of whom are disguised as set-builders or audience members) broken up with performances from Jacques Tati himself.
These are mostly mime pieces based on his famous Impressions Sportives (Sporting Impressions) – the music-hall act he began his pre-film career with. The routines are justifiably famous, as Tati’s particular knack was to embody all parts of an activity – the horse and its rider, or the angler and his rod – all at once. However, since the Impressions formed the basis of much of his earlier film work (particularly the shorts) that this feels at times like watching a once-innovative band reduced to playing “greatest hits” shows.
All in all, Parade (while it has its moments) is one for the die-hard Tati enthusiast.
This disc collects all of Tati’s survivng short films (because he began acting in the mid-30’s, at least one of his early films is known to be lost, and it’s acknowledged that there may have been more) and one by his daughter Sophie Tatischeff.
- On demande une brute (Brute wanted) (1935, 24 min, Directed by Charles Barrois)
Tati stars as Roger, a shy and weak young actor. When he is fired from the play he is rehearsing, he answers a job ad for a “young man, used to violent parts” and finds himself thrown into the ring for real against a terrifying wrestler.
- Gai Dimanche (Fun Sunday) (1935, 21 min, Directed by Jacques Berr and Jacques Tati)
Tati and his friend Enrico Sprocani (aka Rhum) play a pair of down-and-outs who wrangle a bus for free, and con a group of tourists into believing they are tour guides.
- Soigne ton gauche (Work on your left) (1936, 13 min, Directed by René Clément)
Tati plays Roger, a young farmhand who is bored with his chores and begins to imitate the local boxers instead. He eventually gets roped into becoming a sparring partner for a fearsome boxer, and tries to fight him while learning boxing from a handbook.
Together, these three films represent the earliest examples of Tati’s film work. They are largely based on his Impressions Sportives and serve as a showcase for his impressive skills as a mime, accented by his unusual gangly physique. Vintage comedy buffs will really enjoy these, and Tati fans will see the seeds of what eventually developed into his signature style – particularly an emphasis on action over dialogue, and the amiable but basically incompetent character that sits at the root of Mr Hulot.
- L’École des facteurs (The school for postmen) (1946, 15 min, Directed by Jacques Tati)
This is Tati’s directorial debut, and the film that would form the basis for his first feature Jour de fête. It follows the misadventures of a bungling rural postman who is instructed to do his usual run in a shortened time in order to allow the mail plane to do more flights. He is alternately hindered and distracted by his friends as he attempts to do this. L’École shows Tati’s promise as a director even at this early stage of his career. There are a number of tricky stunts and some innovative camera work, as well as Tati’s trademark mime sequences. It’s easy to see why this was popular enough to base a full-length feature on.
- Cours du soir (Evening classes) (1967, 27 min, directed by Nicolas Ribowsk)
Jacques Tati (playing himself) presents a mock “evening class” on mime and physical comedy. Cours du soir was shot during the filming of Playtime, and is filmed on the Tativille set. The film consists of sketches from the Impressions Sportives acted out in front of an enthusiastic audience of “students” either in the classroom, or on various sets around Tativille (viewed from the classroom window). It’s a pretty lightweight piece of work but (as noted in the Parade review) Tati’s Impressions were famous for good reason, and it’s interesting to watch him work them out using real sets, props (and occasionally animals) as well as pure mime.
- Dégustation maison (Home tasting) (1978, 13 minutes, directed by Sophie Tatischeff)
30 years after Jour de fête, Tati’s daughter shot her own short film in Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre. The central conceit is to transplant the various relationships and conversations from a village pub to a bakery, and replace all references to alcohol with tarts, and other baked treats. It’s a loving riff on village life, very much in the classic Tati vein – though relying much more on dialogue than physical humour.
- Forza Bastia! (Go, Bastia!) (1978, 26 minutes, directed by Jacques Tati)
In 1978 the Corsican football team Bastia made it through to the final of the UEFA cup for the first time, playing a home game against PSV Eindhoven in Furiani and Tati was commissioned by the head of the Bastia club to film the occasion. He finished shooting the film, but hadn’t completed the editing when he died in 1982. The film was stored, unedited, until his daughter Sophie Tatischeff reconstructed it and released it in 2002. Even though it’s a documentary rather than a comedy, it’s visibly a Tati creation. Characteristically, he avoids a central narrative (there’s not even voiceover to give any of the scenes any context) instead focusing on the micro-stories of the excited fans he encountered in the town. When the game arrives, we see very little actual soccer – instead the camera lingers on the audience, and the men trying to mop up rainwater from the pitch. It’s a fascinating and unique take on the documentary, which hints at other avenues Tati might have explored.
The Magnificent Tati
This documentary looks at the whole arc of Tati’s career, and features a film-by-film analysis for all the feature films as well as interviews with experts and famous fans of Tati’s work (including Frank Black of the Pixies, among others). The Magnificent Tati is a great overview for people new to Tati’s films. It contextualises each of them in terms of where Tati was in his career and development at the time and gives some really useful insight into his influences, intentions and techniques.
If there’s one disappointment to be had here, it’s that the film entirely omits to mention the sexual scandal (and the resulting daughter who Tati never acknowledged) that lost him one of his early theatrical jobs and forced him to hide out in Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre for a while, thus discovering the future location of L’École des facteurs and Jour de fête.
Nonetheless, The Magnificent Tati paints a really interesting picture of Tati and his work and makes clear precisely how impressive some of the less-obvious technical tricks he used really were.