Moving from one French director to another, it’s emblematic of why I don’t like genre labels in general and the Foreign label in particular. Jean-Pierre Melville was a cold, exacting, and precise filmmaker who worked firmly in movies about men who lived dangerous lives in constant threat of being found out and killed. Jacques Tati, on the other hand, was a comedian and mime. He told stories of the individual getting lost in the modern world with incredible production design, sometimes taking years to make a single film. In no way should Melville and Tati be considered in the same genre just because they made movies at the same time in the same country. It’d be like someone from France thinking that Michael Mann and Woody Allen were pretty much the same filmmaker.
Anyway, Tati is one of those filmmakers where you can see the DNA of his films pretty prominently in certain specific sectors of modern film. In particular, he had a large influence on the two Pythons of Monty Python who went on to actually direct films (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones) as well as Wes Anderson. He was an exacting visualist who spent a long time figuring out how to best build a gag while filming (one of the reasons his PlayTime took so long to film and why the film made in his honor based on a script of his, The Illusionist, doesn’t carry the same magic). He was one of those filmmakers that seemed to just get better the more self-indulgent he got. That’s really rare, but it was all, I think, about how he built his comedy.
His films were never about himself, his central character, or indulging his own ego. His films were about his central idea and then finding funny ways through comedic gags to dramatize the absurdities of the things he was pointing out. There was also never any sense of maliciousness regarding any of his subjects. The people caught in these worlds are never bad. They may be misguided or clueless, but they’re never anything like evil. There’s a warmth and humanity present through those choices that make Tati’s films wonderfully accessible even decades after their productions.
So, who was Tati? I think the best way to talk about him and his films is to talk about his two main characters.
Francois and M. Hulot
Tati’s first directorial work was a short film titled “The School for Postmen” about a small town’s postman, Francois, racing through town to meet up with the airmail plane in time before it takes off. This is, of course, just a thin line on which to hang a series of gags involving Francois, his bicycle, and his bag that he wears over his shoulder. Tati, when moving to direct feature films, expanded on “The School for Postmen” into Jour de Fete. Francois was, again, front and center.
Francois is a pretty obvious effort to mimic Charlie Chaplain’s Tramp character. The mustache, way he walks with wide steps that swing back and forth, and how he holds his feet out all feel like an attempt to replicate Chaplin in the physical. However, the film is easily Tati’s most dialogue heavy film, functioning like a more generic comedy than any of Tati’s other films. This seems to work against Tati’s comedy a bit. None of his funniness extends from dialogue, and his large cast of characters who function like most other characters in movies kind of stand in the way of the comedy. This also works a bit against Francois himself. He worked in the short film, being the center of attention, but as part of an ensemble he gets lost while trying to be funny around lesser efforts that are often not supposed to be funny.
Tati moved in a different direction with his new main character in his next movie. He introduced Monsieur Hulot, and he’s not only different in appearance and manner but in purpose as well. Francois was an obviously comic character designed to elicit laughter, but Hulot is not. Hulot, who walks on his toes, is always smoking a pipe, and is eminently polite to everyone around him, is a source of comedy but rarely on his own. He acts as a contrast to the world around him, his politeness in particular contrasting with the impatience of people around him. A wonderful early example from his first film, M. Hulot’s Holiday, about Hulot taking a seaside vacation, is when he dances with a nice young woman, putting on some music which drowns out a national address from a politician, angering the other guests in the hotel. Where’s the comedy? It’s in Hulot’s befuddlement at his fellow vacationers’ inability to actually enjoy their vacation. Hulot is a key part of that joke to work, but he’s really just creating contrasts rather than mugging for the camera.
In a way that reflects intent (not form, execution, or efficacy), Hulot reminds me of how Ryan Reynolds plays most characters these days. Both are removed from the action around them, but where Reynolds reacts with smarmy sarcasm, Hulot reacts with befuddled politeness. Tati’s Hulot films are remarkably gentle comedy, and they create a sense of delight from beginning to end. And yet, they’re not just strings of comedic bits in a row.
If anyone wants to study how to insert a theme into a film without having any character talk about it explicitly, it would be harder to find a better example than Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot films. All four (M. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, PlayTime, and Trafic) contain a central idea that actually feeds from one to the next. It’s a stupid and trendy bit of nomenclature, but Tati created a small cinematic universe across those four films. What ties them together is Hulot himself and the idea of the old world dying out, replaced by a newer one that dehumanizes the individual.
In M. Hulot’s Holiday, largely based on Tati’s vacation experiences from his childhood, Hulot meets the contemporary Frenchman unable to calm down and unplug while at the seaside (sound familiar? Some problems aren’t new). In Mon Oncle, there’s a marked contrast between Hulot’s living space, an older section of the French town, all brick and open air markets, and the house of his sister, an ugly modernist monstrosity with a hideous metal fish fountain at the center of the garden that his sister only turns on for important guests, the whole house hidden from the street by a wall and a gate. By the time PlayTime rolls around, the old world has been completely paved over with new high rise buildings, the only remnant a small flower stall on a corner. In Trafic, M. Hulot has become part of the world, holding his first job in the series of films as the designer of a new camping car that he must help transport from France to Amsterdam for a huge car expo. He ends up so sidetracked that he has to spend a couple of days by a lazy little river as an independent mechanic takes his time fixing some minor damage to the car, a bit that ends up taking so long that they miss the expo completely, Hulot’s work having gone unnoticed in the busy modern world (there’s definitely another subtext about Tati’s own cinematic work here as well).
Across these four films is the tale of a man losing his place in the world as it speeds him by, wiping out everything he’d known and replacing it with impersonal conformity. That’s really sad. His small, personal victory in the end is similar to the Tramp’s exit at the end of Modern Times. Hulot finds a kindred spirit (perhaps a stand-in for Tati’s own legitimate daughter) and gets swallowed up by the busyness of the new world. Tati would go on to make one more filmed thing (I struggle to call it a film) for Swedish television called Parade which is more a loose variety show with Tati as emcee than anything else (Roger Ebert called it a “doodle”, and I think that’s an incredibly apt description).
These ideas are, again, never addressed explicitly by anyone. In fact, Hulot himself often only has a handful of intelligible lines in any of these films. Tati’s body of work is a masterclass in dramatizing meaning.
That being said, these films are first and foremost comedies. Tati’s intention was to delight and entertain, not lecture, and in that regard, I find Tati’s films eminently successful and accessible as well. I think my favorite single gag in his whole body of work is a remarkably simple one that doesn’t even involve M. Hulot. In PlayTime, Hulot gets a bit lost in the cement and glass section of Paris, and he ends up outside of a travel agency office. There’s a travel agent talking on the phone, dealing with customers, and swerving back and forth behind his desk as he sits, effortlessly moving from one side to the other. We get a reverse shot of just his feet near the bottom of the shot, the rest of his body hidden by a poster, and his feet are going a dance as he moves. It’s a microcosm of how Terry Jones described Tati’s comedy when he said that Tati taught him that comedy could be beautiful.
The other side of thing is that Tati, as referred to before, took a very long time to get his comedy to work. He always worked from a script, but it was obvious that his comedy was found on the set. The infamous example is Tativille, the massive set created for PlayTime where he spent literally years filming. Construction on the sets began in October of 1964, filming started in April of 1965, and filming ended in October of 1967. That isn’t the workflow of a director with everything planned out and in his head ahead of time. That’s the workflow of a director who finds what he’s looking for on set. It’s an incredibly inefficient way to work, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
One key example from the production is the large climax of the film, the opening night of the newest restaurant in Paris where everything goes wrong. It took weeks and weeks to film as Tati had to direct dozens of extras in precise ways to highlight certain specific elements like the pressing of crowns from the back of all the seats onto the backs of the ladies and gentlemen, or the fish that keeps getting prepared in front of a pair of guests, or the waiter whose uniform steadily gets destroyed as he has to give up on serving in an unpresentable state and ends up giving away more of his uniform to the waiters still working. It all ends in chaos as part of the ceiling decoration comes down and a rich American uses it to create an exclusive area where only those with the crown backs can enter (Hulot ends up in it). The collection of things that go wrong, the escalation of chaos, and the overall good-natured spirit creates one of the most deliriously funny things I’ve seen in a movie.
The good nature is key to the rest of his body of work as well. There is not a single character that Tati creates, writes, or films that he seems to dislike in the least. He has pompous fools, oblivious jokers, and earnest clods, but no one who deserves anger. They’re all people like Hulot in that they are lost souls in an increasingly impersonal world, able to connect with each other if they can find their way past the distractions of the modern world, also able to find joy in the wonders of the world (not just older, natural wonders, the Apollo 11 mission is portrayed as a wonder in Trafic).
Entertainment for Everyone
I would never have said that Jean-Pierre Melville was entertainment for everyone (or, at least, a wide audience), but I emphatically say it about the work of Jacques Tati, in particular his four M. Hulot films.
Tati created his own little cinematic worlds, and they are wonderful to get lost in alongside M. Hulot, the innocent vessel one takes into them. The worlds are filled with good-natured people looking for connection, and visual gags and comedy to endlessly entertain. Yes, they are foreign. Yes, they are old. And yet, they are timeless.