Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jacques Tati - Sublime Comedian

Fake Paris Skyline used in Playtime

Several weeks ago, I was watching Unfaithful (2002) on television. I enjoy that film, particularly Diane Lane's performance. There was a scene where Richard Gere was viewing photos of Lane (his wife) and her lover (Olivier Martinez) around Manhattan. One of the photos showed Lane and Martinez in front of a theater marquee. The name on the marquee was Jacques Tati.

Prior to January, I had never seen a Tati film. In fact, before December, I was not familiar with Tati. The PFA recently concluded a Tati retrospective. I was able to watch three films in the series. A fourth film from the series also screened at the Red Vic where I was able to view it.

Playtime; (1967)
Jour de fête; (1949)
Mon Oncle; (1958)
M. Hulot’s Holiday; (1953)

Playtime was followed by Night Class (1966), a 30 minute short film.

Jour de fête was preceded by The School for Postmen (1947), a 18 minute short film.

I watched M. Hulot’s Holiday at the Red Vic.

All the films were directed by Tati and starred Tati. Playtime, Mon oncle and M. Hulot’s Holiday featured extensive English dialogue (dubbed I believe). Jour de fête and the short films were French with English subtitles.


Discovering Playtime justified a full year of PFA membership in my opinion. Playtime was an uproarious comedy with minimal dialogue and amazing sets including an über-cube farm, a chic restaurant and modernist architecture which only existed in the film. Tati also used heightened sound effects (such as the footsteps echoing on a stone floor) to comedic effect.

The plot is quite sparse. It's more a series of vignettes - the airport, the cube farm, the restaurant and the drugstore/automobile carousel. Tati's comedy is more physical. The best gag came when a glass door was shattered. The doorman continued to hold the door handle, swinging his arm as if to open the non-existent door. Tati's misadventures in the office building also amused me greatly.

The strength of the film comes from Tati's keen and unerring eye for the fashionable architectural aesthetics of the era and their incongruity with people in general and Tati's Hulot in particular.

Hulot was Tati's primary role for 20 years. Of the four films I watched, Hulot was the main character in three of them - the exception being Jour de fête. Even that film may have featured Hulot's cinematic progenitor. I recall his character was named François in Jour de fête and Mon Oncle.

I can't really add much to the tremendous amount of written work on Tati and Hulot. Tati's films are quite accessible given that they are 40 to 60 years old and French. I saw a number of children at the screenings and they laughed at the same things I did.

Writing about Tati can never approach watching Tati so I recommend everyone watch a Hulot film and see for themselves what I (and countless others) are talking about.

Jacque Tati (facing away from the camera) in Playtime

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