Tati Time: Criterion Delivers The Complete Jacques Tati
By Jeremy Carr.
Aside from his general lack of recognition as one of film history’s great comedians, the most tragic part of Jacques Tati’s working life is his minimal output (indeed the two are probably connected). On the positive side of things though, while Tati directed just six feature films, this limited filmography is ideal for a concise yet thorough compendium of the his entire oeuvre. Realizing this anthologizing potential, the Criterion Collection has assembled The Complete Jacques Tati, an extraordinary compilation.
Along with Tati’s six features (Jour de fête (1949), Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Mon oncle (1958), Playtime (1967), Trafic (1971), and Parade (1974)) are six shorts that credit Tati as performer, writer, and/or director (On demande une brute (1934), Gai dimanche (1935), Soigne ton gauche (1936), L’école des facteurs (1947), Cours du soir (1967), and Forza Bastia (2002)), as well as Dégustation maison (1978), directed by Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff. All are presented here in new digital restorations (2K for everything except PlayTime, which receives a 4K treatment). There is also a multitude of bonus features, including essays (visual and textual), interviews, introductions, and documentaries. Were it not for the quality and appeal of these films to begin with, however, this set would not have been warranted in the first place. So now that it has been released, it provides as good a time as any to look at Tati’s work and see just why his was one of the most original, inventive, and humorous of cinema’s comedic voices, and to then wonder why it hasn’t been sufficiently heard.
This voice began in On demande une brute (Brute Wanted), where Tati assumes a soon to be familiar role of a genial, timid man who falls victim to a fallacious identity. Tati’s youth and height are more striking in this short than any aspect of the film’s narrative or, quite honestly, its humor, though we do see early examples of how Tati the performer utilizes surrounding objects as comedic props. Gai dimanche (Fun Sunday) is more representative of Tati’s future filmic and comedic approaches. There is the appearance of an automobile with its intrinsic difficulties, and there are several examples of Tati’s perception-based wit, where what the audience sees forms the punch line of character action: a customer seems to disappear simply because Tati and his cohort can’t see him; a one way arrow indecisively rotates back and forth, causing Tati confusion at the wheel while we are privy to its true cause. In Soigne ton gauche (Keep Your Left Up), an early short directed by René Clément, Tati plays a wannabe boxer and thus capitalizes on a key part of his stage routine at the time. He also emerges as a more formidable screen presence. In the earlier two shorts, Tati was but one of the primary players; here he is the star of the show, his mimetic physicality fully on display.
L’école des facteurs (School for Postmen) is Tati’s first (surviving) directorial effort and serves as the basis for Jour de fête, where he plays Francois, the same bicycling postman. In that later work, Tati rehashes and expands upon several of the same routines shown here. Cours du soir (Evening Classes) was filmed during Playtime’s production, on its immense sets, and features Tati as an acting instructor who basically demonstrates to his pupils a number of his most popular stage routines (playing tennis, fishing, boxing), all of which later reappear in Parade. As part of his lecture, he stresses the observation of multiple types of behavior as a critical aspect of comedy, as indeed it was for Tati.
Rounding out the shorts are Dégustation maison (House Specialty), Tatischeff’s award-winning short, shot in the same town as Jour de fête, and Forza Bastia (Festive Island), a soccer documentary started by Tati in 1978 and later discovered by Tatischeff, who assembled the footage and released the film in 2002. Taken together, these shorts are uneven though undeniably valuable entries into the Tati cannon and the Tati world, each in some way acknowledging crucial elements of the filmmaker’s initial mime acts and his feature length motion pictures.
In the first of the latter, Jour de fête, the small town of Sainte-Severe-sur-Indre is sent into a tizzy as a ragtag fair sets up shop, rousing the curiosity and fascination of the townsfolk. These individuals are not usually prone to personality alternation, but for this event they’re going get themselves and the town “gussied up.” Everyone puts their best face forward, everyone except a hunched over elderly woman who sees all and provides wry commentary over the goings-on. She’s not thrilled and she’s keeping tabs on everyone else, calling them out for their posturing. In a way, she voices a more acerbic view of what Tati’s cinema will also consider: watching people behave in ways that, while perhaps natural, are nonetheless peculiar.
Tati’s later Mr. Hulot character is rather affable and generally well-liked, but here, Francois is a frequently mocked town fool; he’s never treated cruelly, but he isn’t exactly taken seriously. And when he becomes enamored by the prospect of delivering mail by helicopter, “American style,” the support he appears to receive from his neighbors is actually ridicule at his own expense, as they alone realize the absurdity of such a highfaluting endeavor. These aerial postmen are all the rage in America, where there is even a contest for the “sexiest Apollo in the US post.” But this is not America and Francois is no Apollo. He has trouble enough just getting around normally; add alcohol into the mix and he struggles to even get on his bike.
You know Francois is doomed to fail when he falls for the allure of speed and the idea of keeping up with the Americans, for in a Taiti film speed is seldom a good thing. Jour de fête stresses a leisurely pace preferred by most of Tati’s more endearing characters. Such a lifestyle is frequently given preferential screen treatment; a world is better when it is slower and calmer, when dogs laze in the street and geese block traffic. Speed is an affront to Tati’s largely unhurried tenor. Speed leads to stress, anxiety, anger, and frustration. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Tati’s next feature, a fast car shows up and causes great distress as it zips around, and the titular holiday itself is shown to be less carefree than one might assume, due largely to its burdensome temporal requisites. Part of that film’s humor is in its depiction of the coordinated work it takes to get away from work, the hassle of a vacation: catching trains, setting up at the beach, loading and unloading luggage, having a meal on time — this isn’t easy!
When the dust settles in Jour de fête, things are returned to their easygoing norm. “News is rarely good,” says the old lady, who comforts Francois about his inability to deliver the mail as fast as the Americans. “So let it take its sweet time.” Jour de fête may end with the beauty of just another day, but these days are changing, and as Tati’s work progresses, the speed of post-war modernity is unavoidable.
In Tati’s work, one also notices the dehumanizing habit of routine: fixed intervals of driving to work and driving home, of lunch and dinner, of waking in the morning and going to sleep at night — regular events of a regular day held with regularity. Not quite synonymous with speed, though likewise a similar symptom of modern life, comically customary routine is frequent fodder for derision. When the dinner bell rings in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the herd of tourist cattle promptly gathers inside and the beach becomes deserted and the streets are at a standstill (perhaps routine in this case actually helps counter some of the bustle?). The individuals might be there to have fun, but one must still follow the rules.
Mon oncle (1958), Tati’s third feature, goes even further in its good-natured disdain of the modern and its inherently overpowering progress. It also moves beyond the countryside and detached beach resorts (locations that would ostensibly cater to the laid-back), and situates itself primarily in a contemporary domestic milieu. The picture begins with scenes of construction and housing developments on the rise. Contrasting with this imagery of the new is Hulot’s residence on the outskirts of the city, a rustic old-world setting. Hulot is shown reaching his room at the top of a multistoried house via various windows and hallways looking in, resulting in one of the film’s greatest visual set pieces. Seen from a distance, he appears, disappears, and reappears as he makes his way through this erratically organic structure that bears no rhyme or reason in its blueprint.
At the other end of the architectural spectrum, his sister’s ultra modern home desperately strives to be unique from the other homes that are exactly like it. Its interiors and exteriors are artificial and rarely convenient. The meticulously arranged outdoor area, with every sleek element situated just so, conveys nothing natural and certainly doesn’t suggest a homey comfort. It also seems to take an awful lot of effort to maintain. Cleanliness in particular goes with the territory, and we see that Madame Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) makes it an obsessive habit to tidy up any and every surface around her, wiping off the gate, her son’s book bag, the car bumper, and so on. The residence and its bells and whistles are clearly superficial. “No, it’s just me!” assures her husband, Charles (Jean-Pierre Zola), when she switches on the ridiculous fish fountain as he enters the property. No use wasting the device on him. It needn’t be on for the grocer either. No reason to impress him. The family even eats dinner outside and they sit outside to watch television. This house is a good show, but is it livable?
In Tati’s modern times, gadgetry might provide a fancy service, but it seldom does so practically, efficiently, and consistently. The house of Mon oncle is populated with conveniences such as bouncing dishes, lest they be dropped (other dishes, as Hulot finds out, well, they don’t bounce), but inevitable technical difficulties arise, as when the fish fountain succumbs to sputtering in its death throes. And even when everything is working, it’s still not sensible. At one point, when the family has seemingly every device in the house running, the final joke is that the machinery even cuts off communication. Mr. and Mrs. Arpel can’t hear or speak above the clamor.
If the house itself is representative of the pompously extravagant, many of its visitors are the same way. As with the arrangement of the home, the people and their interactions are similarly artificial. When the Arpel’s receive company, their pleasantries are punctuated by false modesty and pretentious exchanges of well wishing. When they host a party, it starts as prim and proper as possible but, in no small part thanks to Hulot, it dissolves into minor chaos … a much more enjoyable minor chaos.
Once away from the house, it’s more of the same: a banal pattern of customary intervals and regulated conformity. Lines dictate where to go, for safety sake, true, but also to keep everyone in order. These strict linear designations are in contrast to the more haphazardly developed province in which Hulot resides. The world of Mon oncle and Playtime, Tati’s next picture, correspond to a general Tati theory of heightened color only when necessary and illustrative, and is therefore otherwise cold, grey, and sterile, further contributing to a sense of dehumanization, as do the incessant geometric patterns that give the settings their regimentation and orderly drabness.
The sequences at Mr. Arpel’s factory and the scenes of his traversing back and forth also point toward Playtime, which opens the scope of Tati’s observations. This time he is examining the whole of modern city life, from industry to retail to entertainment, from 9-5 workaday behavior to fun-loving nighttime shenanigans; the 50-minute restaurant sequence is an elaborately choreographed representation of Murphy’s Law, where the best laid plans of the new venue’s opening is a nearly never-ending series of disaster and destruction.
The opening airport scene reveals a procession of people coming and going from all angles and from any number of entryways, all emphasizing how densely layered Tati’s labyrinthine mise-en-scene can be, and is especially in this film. People can emerge from anywhere, often accompanied by a single associative sound that comically draws attention to their entrance and exit. Deceptive windows and reflections form visual layers upon visual layers. The fish bowl corporate interiors betray their division from the exteriors, the separation oftentimes confused as the settings appear undifferentiated. Yet at the same time, people are sealed off from one another. Cubicle culture is not at all conducive to human interaction. Characters in close proximity to each other don’t even realize it because they are cut off by dividing walls; they will cross rooms to call one another on the telephone when they are unknowingly within speaking distance.
All of this is part of Tati’s geographic plan of humor, whereby he places the camera at an ideal vantage point from which to cover a given area. We see what the characters can’t, and thus we are in on jokes they are oblivious to. Such a masterful sequence comes later where the camera remains outside an apartment building, with the accompanying exterior sounds, while the drama unfolds silently through large windows; we are essentially watching screens within screens (perhaps a nod to Tati’s picture framing background). The view of the apartments suggest an interchange between the neighbors, but the joke of the insinuation is for our eyes only.
If there is a single symbol to associate with the pace and shift of the modern way of life, it would be the automobile, and Playtime ends with a carnivalesque procession of vehicles that lead directly to Tati’s next film, Trafic, where rows and rows of cars signal a specific sign and form of modernity. The automobile is an emblematic consequence of a speed-centric, mechanized existence, as well as its dual innovation and frustration. If the cars aren’t going recklessly fast they’re breaking down, further evidence of the fallibility of technology. In Trafic, as its name implies, there are cars … and cars, and cars, and cars. Cars everywhere. As if in a Dr. Seuss book, there are cars on ramps and cars on freeways, cars that are parked and cars that speed; old cars, new cars, nice cars, worn cars. As Hulot and his crew make their trek to an automobile exposition in Amsterdam, their biggest impediment along the way? What else? Car trouble. One sequence even culminates in perhaps cinema’s most amusing multi-car pile up.
Yet in this road trip structure, Tati incorporates his clearest and, for the most part most conventional, sense of narrative progression, where the characters have a clear goal and the film itself has an obvious forward momentum that begins somewhere and ends somewhere else, with dramatic conflicts hindering the progress in between. While there may be an ostensible destination, the diversions along the way are plentiful and diverse, ranging from running out of gas to the burdens of bureaucratic rigmarole and misunderstanding (more symptoms of this modern age).
En route to the expo, Tati sets his sights on car culture: gas station giveaways (free busts with a fill up) and those who regard their vehicles as invisibility vessels (drivers picking, poking, and scratching in a bodily display of amusing private behavior). A further consequence of all these vehicles is the effect they have on human conduct. Anticipated road rage shows just how foolish people can look when they’re angry, and when windshield wipers mirror the body types and movements of the drivers, we see just how accordant technology and its users have become.
While Tati’s humor may reside in this realm of unique individual portrayal based largely on mute imitation, his exceptional audio design should not be ignored. Just as there are these observational segments that don’t rely on sound for their effect, there are also symphonies of trunks and hoods and doors opening and shutting with occasionally rhythmic flourish. Likewise, one can’t overstate the importance of the score in a Jacques Tati film, the sublime audio accompaniment to what are in many ways silent pictures. The score of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, for example, is never elaborate or varied. It is more of a recurrent musical motif that chimes in and out on a whim and sets the tone of lighthearted respite. It is not in any way manipulative in terms of narrative response or character development. The same holds true for all of Tati’s work.
Diegetic sounds are also sporadic at best. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday screeches with intercom squawks and squeals that sound like the disembodied adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. And when certain characters speak, it’s more of a grunt than a discernable language. In Playtime, mechanical thingamajigs give off ambient hums while funny sounding furniture mixes with punctuations of isolated noise, humorous in their solitary context: zippers, shuffling of papers, brushing of clothes, etc.
Sound is quite important to Tati’s art, there’s no doubt about that. It’s just dialogue that is of little concern. Though there is often background chatter, verbal exchanges are largely superfluous. Aside from something like Mon oncle, where the pretentious exchanges between the pretentious people are part of the point, words seldom matter; noises maybe, but not actual dialogue. This is evidenced in the irregular subtitling. In many cases, not only would it be difficult to pinpoint the dialogue worthy of translating, it simply isn’t always important.
Some examples of where dialogue does have relevance is when the old man in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday relays his army experience while a youngster espouses ramblings about ideology and the bourgeoisie. Both bore the daylights out of those around them, and when the two meet, sparks predictably fly. They both would have been better off keeping quiet. Jour de fête also has an interesting early twist on dialogue’s unreliability, where the soundtrack of a movie showing at the fair plays over the silent interaction between two characters as they flirt, their interactions appearing to coincide with the dialogue from the film.
This then leads to an additional component of Tati’s aural design, his use of sound emanating from unseen sources. The smallest of sounds are accentuated and highlighted to emphasize their comic peculiarity (the dong of the swinging door to the dining area in Hulot, for example), and they will reoccur as comedic refrains of silly sounds that in real life would go ignored but when presented as isolated noises are rendered amusing. When the aural and the visual work in tandem, some of Tati’s finest moments emerge, as when in Jour de fête Francois swats at a buzzing bee. From a distance, where the sound of the insect is less audible, he looks ridiculous. But when the bee makes its way to the farmer looking down on the postman, he too starts swatting and it all makes sense.
Still, Tati’s comedy is generally based on the visual. In keeping with his thematic worldview, his camera is objective, with few close-ups and little intricate editing. He typically maintains a wider shot giving ample space for pictorial density and individual movement. His films are full of everyday dramas, sometimes more than one in any given frame, but we’re just where we need to be to see them. There is relatively minor camera maneuvering, with more attention paid to an appropriate angle (to best capture the joke) and maintaining an appropriate tempo (to make the joke work). Then there are the sight gags from Tati the prop master. If it’s in the frame, it very well may come into play. Like a life-size game of Mousetrap, Tati’s mise-en-scene is a complex contraption of elements springing into action and making their presence known. In Trafic, Tati takes his mastery of material objects to another level with the demonstration of the Swiss army knife camping car, a singular summation of his ability to take the standard and turn it into something ingenious and surprising.
Some bits of business in Tati’s films are so quick and subtle they can go unnoticed on initial viewings, and sometimes, as in the eyeball windows of Mon oncle, there can be punch lines more than an hour in the making. In Playtime (shot in 70mm and greatly benefitting from the detailed 4K transfer), his Tativille canvas is large and shown in great depth. A gag could be anywhere and it’s up to the audience to democratically scan the set, all as part of Tati’s passive vs. participatory sense of audience interaction. In Trafic, a long shot joke takes its very humor from its distance, when strings designating stations at the expo can’t be seen from our faraway vantage point. Subsequently, everyone appears to be high stepping over nothing. As his staging is distinguished by rigid compositions with little extraneous space, long shots full of fore and background material can concurrently reveal slivers of the screen that hide a nearly obscured joke.
Immediately with Jour de fête, Tati established one of his key aesthetic approaches, that of the observational passing glance, an objective survey of everyday surroundings to reveal the comical (the row of merry-go-round horse heads hanging out the back of a truck to start the film, for instance). But it’s not just the inanimate that spark comedic allure, though there are moments when objects amusingly take on a life of their own (runaway bikes, electrical devices on the fritz, uncooperative cars). There are also the pleasantly average foibles of pleasantly average people.
So who inhabit Tati’s carefully constructed worlds? The people of Playtime run the gamut, from corporate stiffs, to working class locals, to tourists. Aside from the family vacationers in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, there are the hiking revelers with their youthful, outdoorsy exuberance. The sweet blonde girl, Martine (Nathalie Pascaud), attains a degree of bemusement and humor in a way that no other adult is in the picture does, while the mischievous kids in Mon oncle exploit the tempers and temperament of the grownups. In Trafic, teenagers and young adults are given a considerable prominence. Whoever the people in a Tati film are, and whether they are exercising, working, or just walking around, it’s like a dance, a pure spectacle of bodies in motion, a helter skelter public mingling with people of all shapes and sizes bumbling and fumbling around one another as they all go about their typically banal business.
One of the funniest — and darkest — sequences in all of Tati’s films is the trick played on Maria (Maria Kimberly) by a few young people in Trafic. The hilarious bit is capped by Hulot wiping his feet on what is perceived to be her puppy, ripping off its nose (a button), and trying it on like a vest (which it is). But this is atypical for Tati’s characters. Usually goofiness is innate in their behavior; they do things they do and happen to look funny doing them. Rare are those who go out of their way to goof around. Another exception in Trafic is when the mechanic and another driver are inspired by footage of the moon landing and decide to continue fixing the car in exaggerated low-gravity slow motion.
Of course, the most memorable character in Tati’s fictional films is the character played by Tati himself, which, in all but Jour de fête, is Mr. Hulot. Aside from the pains he causes his brother-in-law in Mon oncle, Hulot is a generally beloved fellow, though he is, according to his brother-in-law, “no role model.” Mr. Arpel owns a Dachshund that goes to work with him sometimes, often running ahead of him and giving off a warning to the workers that the boss is coming, spurring on everyone to look as busy as possible. When Hulot sees the dog coming, he gets down on the floor and plays with it.
Tati’s characters (Hulot and Francois) frequently take time to fix problems. This can be productive (an ingenious method for helping a cross-eyed man hammer correctly) or it can result in the emergence of even greater obstacles (an elaborate dance/struggle when planting a pole). For all of his dimness, Francois is conversely clever at making do with what’s around, like hitching a ride on the back of a truck and using the bed as a table. But just as Hulot’s best intentions often go awry, he quite innocently causes trouble wherever he goes. He’s awkward and at times oblivious, and the world is a precarious one, with much that can go wrong. It’s an unsteady relationship. Still, Hulot, like Francois, is here to help. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, he is worried about taffy falling, he’s swift to carry Martine’s suitcase, and he’s quick to punish a perceived peeper. Yet when jazz disrupts a quiet evening, sending everyone into pandemonium, the angered tourists find the source. It’s Hulot, of course, sitting right beside the blaring record payer. He’s doing just fine.
A tennis match in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, with Hulot’s unconventional jutting and poking serve, upsets his playmates. (Knowing when a joke works and should reappear, Tati resurrects this serve when Hulot attempts to beat down some wayward fireworks.) Hulot also expresses some Chaplinesque panic when his shoe is caught on a fox rug and he think the beast is attacking him. Hulot is also a gentleman. When dancing with Martine, he finds a shred of fabric to touch on her backless dress, and in PlayTime, he’s especially kind to Barbara (Barbara Dennek), escorting her around and buying her gifts. By the end of Trafic, it seems Hulot may have actually made a romantic conquest, as he walks off under an umbrella shared with Maria.
By PlayTime’s production, Tati was having some fun with his Hulot persona, sprinkling scenes with false Hulots that tease the audience and the other characters. And the opening titles of Trafic proclaim, “Mr. Hulot in Trafic.” Indeed, the Hulot character (lurched forward, pipe in mouth, umbrella in hand, sporting a tan trench coat), had become a fully recognizable commodity. Jacques Tati’s final feature-length work, however, does not contain Hulot. It also isn’t a fictional film. Made for Swiss television, Parade, shot in a variety of formats and respectively presented as such for this Criterion release, covers an elaborate stage show put on by Tati, largely based around his “world-famous sporting impressions.”
With slight of hand routines and pratfalls are interactive performances where audience members are encouraged to move, sing along, dance, and even participate in some of the skits (a rather odd mule riding contest brings forth several eager attendees; the sequence ends with a sweet payoff). There are again many people clamoring together, and again, there is an unusually large amount of young people. These folks are dressed to the nines in the outlandish fashions of the day and many jovially ham it up when the fancy strikes them. Is this behavior staged, or simply in the spirit of the evening? Or in the spirit of a Tati film? The eclectic menagerie of sounds and colors and acts and antics include actors, clowns, acrobats, tumblers, props, magicians, musicians, and singers, all performing with great revelry. Parade can be a spotty hodgepodge of routines, yet Tati the ringmaster is clearly orchestrating his spectacle with great affection and for that, it feels like a truly personal project.
With the vast assortment of illuminating bonus features accrued for this Criterion set are alternate versions of certain films. Jour de fête comes in three variations, including a partly colorized 1964 version and the full-color 1995 rerelease version. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is presented in two versions, including the original 1953 theatrical release, and Mon oncle’s disc includes My Uncle, the version Tati created for English-language audiences. In the case of Jour de fête, which was originally filmed in an experimental Thomsoncolor process with black and white as a backup, the color is rather hit and miss. The partial colorization includes mostly dabs of red and blue on certain ornamentation (flags, banners and the like), and the full color version is rudimentary, minimally expressive, and generally inconsistent in quality; it’s a historical curio more than any giant step forward in the technology. The original Hulot, longer than the later cut, contains a different score, isn’t as tightly constructed, and, perhaps most lamentable, is missing the terrific joke of Hulot’s collapsed boat chomping through the water like a shark, which Tati shot and added in 1978 (no doubt in playful reference to Jaws). My Uncle similarly has differing sequences than the French version and is about 10 minutes shorter, to no great avail in either case. If anything, this mixture of variations on the same films show that Tati, despite his limited output, was never creatively stagnate. There was always some cinematic tinkering to be done.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Bright Lights Film Journal, CineAction, Sound on Sight, and Moving Pictures Magazine.