This feels like a combination of Jacques Tati’s sense of humor, an experiment from Ingmar Bergman, and the storytelling format of Federico Fellini. When Roger Ebert reviewed the film he called it a doodle, and I think that’s a very good way to distill Tati’s final effort, made for Swedish television. Effectively a variety show, it’s a series of disconnected comedic bits and ideas without much of an anchor to it. There are fun bits throughout, but without any sort of throughline with a story of some kind, it becomes a mere balancing act between those that are good that get countered by those that aren’t so good. It’s a mixed bag. It’s a doodle.
An audience arrives at a theater, a circus, and they filter into their seats. They are met by their master of ceremonies (Tati) who announces that the audience will be part of the show as well before going into a couple of mime routines around sports (tennis and boxing) that demonstrate Tati’s wonderful physical abilities. Trained as a mime decades prior, he makes good on the promise of one man boxing against a phantom opponent. His bits are probably the highlight of the film. They’re the kind of delightful comedy that defined his earlier films, and they often feel like Tati simply making it up as he goes along (though I imagine them to be highly practiced and precisely choreographed).
The rest of the bits have some charm, the best of them probably being the duel between a magician and a workman who just wanders onto the stage from his workspace off to the side (half-lit because we’re supposed to see them there as part of the show). The magician does some simple sleight of hand that the workman shows him up by doing similar, but more spectacular, things. It all ends with someone from the audience doing a trick with a cane and a handkerchief that is better than the rest, followed by a girl popping out of a box unexpectedly and the workman messing up the disappearance of a microwave in comedic fashion.
There’s an extended bit with a mule where members of the audience try to ride it, all failing, until a little boy offers the mule a treat after which the mule lets him on. It’s an overextended bit that’s never really funny and an ending that’s not really all that much more than thinly sweet. There’s a juggling bit where three workmen juggle large brushes in a variety of ways (including the three standing atop each other’s shoulders) that’s fairly impressive. There’s a running gag of a group of physical performers in different costumes, depending on the larger bit around them (marching band, rock band, orchestra) that always end up with them vaulting over the piano which is actually a flat pommel horse and trampoline. It’s amusing the first time and less so every other time.
I hope I’ve painted the disarray of sights and sounds that is the show. There are bits that are funny. There are bits that are not. In and out of it walks Tati, miming a man riding a horse or showing what traffic police are like from different countries (probably his funniest moment). As a variety show, it’s intermittently amusing. I think there’s supposed to be something in the end about clowning getting people, in particular children, getting interested in the arts because two children that had been highlighted throughout the film end up walking onto the now empty stage and playing with the paint and hammers and balloons left around. It’s an idea, not much of one, but it’s still there.
There’s honestly not much to say about the film because there’s not much there outside the surface. It feels like a relatively cheap way for Tati to have one more effort at a film, adapting some of his stage work into a television special for another country. Filmed on video (and looking not all that great for it), except for a handful of shots filmed on 16mm, Tati’s final feature length film is an intermittent entertainment that is the roughest form of his humor without the long, hard effort to hammering it into something much smoother and cohesive. It’s worth a few chuckles.