I apologize for the delay between this essay and my previous one. Recently, the French film director Jacques Tati came to my attention. As a person who believes that comedic writing and directing exist on a higher scale than many other forms of filmmaking, I wanted to dive into why this particular director’s comedies are considered some of the greatest of all-time. After experiencing three of his most famous movies and a sixty-minute documentary, my opinion on Tati is a complicated one. His movies fit into the definition of how most film experts see French filmmaking. But even though there is much to admire about Tati, his filmmaking style also has its imperfections. For an individual who was a professional mime known for his physical performances before and after World War II, it is fascinating how Tati evolved from working on the stage to becoming one of the most legendary French film directors. This essay will look into this background before revealing my own complicated history with French filmmakers. Finally, I will talk about the filmmakers that Tati’s films influenced before diving into a final evaluation of Tati’s three most famous films, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday-1953), Mon Oncle (My Uncle-1958), and Playtime-1967. These films deserve their place in the zeitgeist. But unlike some of the greatest films of all-time that hold up over the decades, can we really make this argument about Tati’s classical works?
Jacques Tati was born in 1907 into a comfortable middle-class life in La Pecq, a suburb of Paris. Showing no interest in academics, Tati spent his childhood being trained as a picture framer (How did this impact his filmmaking sensibilities?) by his grandfather before completing his compulsory military service in the late 1920s. Being introduced to rugby, he became a semi-professional player where his comedic talents were recognized by his fellow teammates. Taking a risk on his performing style during the dark days of the Depression in the early 1930s, he developed his comedic physical style as a mime street performer in the early 1930s. He eventually booked engagements at theaters in France and Germany and fine-tuned his craft as an actor in short films until the outbreak of World War II often working in night clubs and cabarets. When the war ended in 1945, Tati’s career as a filmmaker began.
Tati made six films during his lifetime. I watched his second, third, and fourth films in chronological order of release. You can definitely see an evolution in his filmmaking style during this almost decade in a half of time. On a personal level, I have always had a strong opinion about French films. While filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Jacques Demy are considered legends, I have always personally embraced the more unique styles of French auteurs like Luis Bunuel (His French films particularly), Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Michel Gondry. Godard, Truffaut, and Demy made some incredible films. But they also made some movies where the slow pace and visual style left me feeling empty and disappointed. With Bunuel, Jeunet, and Gondry, experiencing any of these films will give you a definitive idea based on their elaborate filmographies of the type of filmmaking to expect. Gondry in particular came to my attention based on the amazing music videos he produced in the 90s for many alternative acts like Bjork. Art is obviously incredibly objective. But I feel the French style of filmmaking is overrated. I feel the same way about most Japanese films (Not anime which is a different genre) and India’s Bollywood. In terms of films made by countries that do not get the same appreciation as the aforementioned nations, Russia/Soviet Union and their philosophically introspective filmmaking, the incredible talent of directors that have made fantastic films in theocratic Iran, and my favorite filmmaking country of the 21st Century, the immensely talented South Koreans, are underappreciated by film experts (Even though the talent of South Korea is now getting globally recognized). Tati slides between these two extremes. There are some truly fantastic moments in his films. Yet, I can’t help but admit that there were also long stretches in each film that meandered too long and often led me to divert my attention away from the film due to boredom.
After watching Tati, you can definitely see the impact his filmmaking had on some contemporary filmmakers. Particularly, Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, and David Lynch. In Anderson’s recent film THE FRENCH DISPATCH (2021), there is a comedic scene where a character moves through an M.C. Escher type building that looks like it was stolen from Tati’s MON ONCLE. Anderson has been very open about the inspiration that Tati has had on his filmmaking. Spielberg’s THE TERMINAL (2004) comes across as a homage to Tati’s most famous masterpiece PLAYTIME. Finally, David Lynch’s slow-visual style which can be seen in his most famous film can be partially attributed to Tati. Plus, Tati was fascinated with the modernism of the post-World War II era. The best jokes in each of these films revolves around the world that technology is creating and how his character, the simplistic Mr. Hulot, handles these changes. Tati’s films are a satirical post-modernist take on the rapidly changing world where technology and science would soon become ubiquitous.
Tati was inspired by the silent era slapstick of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. You can see it in the way that Mr. Hulot (Played by Jacques Tati in all three movies) interacts and navigates each scene. These films have almost no dialogue. Film is a visual medium and Tati understands the power of it. A Tati film moves from one scene to another with no underlying purpose. They are appreciations of the chaos of daily life. In Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Mr. Hulot takes up residence in a vacation resort. Of the three films I watched, this one is the most difficult to enjoy for two particular reasons. First, the movie feels incredibly dated with sight gags that probably worked well on a mid-20th Century audience but come up incredibly flat in respect to our modern tastes. Second, even though this is his second movie, it still feels really raw like Tati was trying out different visual gags to see which ones worked. Even though this film was a hit in France at its time of release, the movie feels unfinished like the best moments were left on the cutting room floor.
This is not the case with MY UNCLE. His third film, and the only one to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, became an international sensation. Significantly more watchable than MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY, this is the first film that satirizes the superficiality of French culture and the advancing of technology which was uprooting the world during this post-War era. The best scenes in the film all revolve around the house (Which inspired the design of the POWERPUFF GIRLS house in the cartoon). Whether it is the matriarch of the family turning on her distinct fish-shaped water feature every time a stranger comes to visit, or the incredibly well-shot scene of the husband and wife acting like eyeballs inside the windows of the house as Mr. Hulot moves around in the darkness of their yard, to an extended afternoon brunch that features inane social interactions followed by a water leak that changes the nature of the scene, the movie is Tati’s first that defines the type of filmmaker he will become. MY UNCLE is enjoyable and does not meander and lag like his previous film did. The only complaint is that the movie is a little long. A few extra scenes could have been cut to get the movie down to a more manageable 90 to 100 minutes.
Finally, we come to what I believe is Tati’s masterpiece PLAYTIME. Shot inside a city that was built from scratch (Affectionally called “Tativille” by the producers of the picture), PLAYTIME is Tati’s magnum opus. To describe it without explaining the visuals of the movie would not do the film any justice. The film is about a future city made of glass where technology controls every aspect of life. From a cinematography perspective, this is one of the best shot movies I have ever seen. After first experiencing the movie, I was unsure of my personal feelings towards it. As time goes by and my brain began to evaluate what Tati was trying to accomplish, this is an incredible picture. Being the second movie in his trilogy of three films about modern mid-20th Century technology (With TRAFIC being the last one), PLAYTIME is an amazing filmmaking accomplishment. First, a little background on this film. PLAYTIME costs so much money to make that it drove Jacques Tati into bankruptcy. The movie was not well-received at its time of release and has only been appreciated by future generations long after Tati died in 1982. This film has multiple scenes that are incredibly memorable. There is a scene of a receptionist at an office doing multiple tasks at once and moving from side to side in a dance-like state. The scene is improved when Tati shoots the receptionist from outside where you can only see his feet while his body is blocked by a sign. From this perspective, it does look like the receptionist is doing an interpretive dance. There is the great scene where residents from neighboring apartments are watching television, but the cinematography is framed in a way where it looks like they are watching each other. There is a wonderful visual Easter Egg where an individual is talking about taking a vacation. If you miss the posters in the background and what they are trying to tell you (HINT: Every city in the world IS THE SAME), then the entire scene is wasted. Finally, he ends the movie at a nightclub where the viewer comes into a restaurant at its grand opening. This entire scene is over 40 minutes long and gets more chaotic as the amount of people inside the club continues to increase and the problems that the nightclub faces get more complicated. The movie needs to be experienced just for these reasons alone. If I had to reflect back on the best movie of Tati’s career, the only one I would recommend that every person experience is PLAYTIME.
Looking back, I believe it is difficult for our current generations to appreciate a filmmaker like Jacques Tati. So many of the innovations in his movies have long been appropriated by other directors. The first thing I thought when watching Mr. Hulot was Peter Sellers performance as Inspector Clouseau in the PINK PANTHER franchise. The same physical slapstick comedy is present. The one significant difference is that Blake Edwards dialogue and Seller’s incredible performance gives these films a more modern-day edge which makes them more enjoyable to present day audiences. Tati’s Mr. Hulot is a slapstick character that can only be appreciated visually. It is incredibly different than watching the non-stop jokes that made A SHOT IN THE DARK one of the funniest movies of all-time. But if you have the patience to watch a filmmaker who was a truly innovative comedic force during his era, then I would recommend diving into Jacques Tati. It will help you understand the tropes of many modern-day filmmakers.
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