Directors don’t need to have a long list of movies on their resume to be considered great; in fact, it seems the more movies once heralded filmmakers make, the more likely they are to sully their own good fortune and reputation, living long enough to become the villain–or at least retroactively wreck their own reputation.
Consider the limited output of the director under discussion today: Jacques Tati, who only completed 6 feature films in his career. But every one of them is a bit of visual magic brought to life: from his first full-length Jour de fête (The Big Day), which follows a hapless mail carrier as he interacts with the townspeople and explores the carnival that has arrived in town, to Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday), the first screen appearance of his most memorable character, the gentlemanly but often unknowingly clumsy Mr. Hulot, to PlayTime, his undisputed masterpiece about contemporary urban life.
Jacques Tati: A Perfect Director
Jacques Tati brought the screen to life with his visually inventive physical comedy, where inert objects spring to life to become characters themselves and the provincial, stuffy middle-class were brought down a peg by his spirited protagonists, who acted and lived as they pleased unconcerned with society’s proprieties and foibles.
Perhaps this barely concealed contempt for the French middle class was a personal one: after college, during the Great Depression, he rejected a comfortable bourgeois life to pursue the performing arts instead, studying mimery and taking an apprenticeship with the Cadres Van Hoof company. Seemingly determined to enjoy life as he wanted it to be, Tati struggled for years in a difficult economic climate as a cabaret performer, only interrupted by World War II, which of course was short-lived as France quickly fell to the German advance, after which he returned to his cabaret act.
During this time, he created his memorable character Monsieur Hulot, a gaunt, socially awkward (but never mean-spirited) middle-aged man whose ever-present pipe, umbrella, and raincoat would make him as immediately recognizable as Chaplin’s trademark mustache, bowler cap, and cane. Eventually securing his place enough in the entertainment world to make his first feature, from 1949 to 1974 Tati would make six feature films. While his work may not be very well known in the US, he is an international figure; however, his popularity and good luck began to wane by the late 1960’s, especially after directing the big-budget, ambitious PlayTime, which never recouped its cost.
Fortunately, he made the films he did, and film history is richer for it. His films are strings of carefully calculated scenes where intricate bits of physical comedy were composed and staged by Tati, who was often the one performing them. Dialogue was never his strong suit or even an interest of his: Hulot doesn’t speak much, instead getting by on his facial and physical reactions to the world around him. Instead, Tati created some of the best physical scenes of comedy since Chaplin and knew how to frame his shots so that none of it would be missed.
He built busy worlds of people enjoying their vacations, going about their day, navigating the gigantic modern city, and in general going about the business of life–which seems to hum along nicely enough until Hulot enters the picture to create a little chaos in their life (which also seems to be much-needed). A brilliant performer and director, he wasn’t a prolific one. But, like Hulot, sometimes the less said makes the statements that are eventually uttered more profound.
PlayTime & The Modern World
Monsieur Hulot was the ostensible star of all but two of Tati’s films, and it’s his perspective from which we view the world: a place filled with class-conscious, outward appearance obsessives trying to maintain their carefully constructed facade and perspectives; where the inorganic material goods that clutter up the world–from malfunctioning fountains to out-of-control machinery to the impractical nature of new technology–create more confusion than comfort; and how the encroachment of new fads and fashions are burying the old world as if there was something wrong with it.
The last two points are the major themes of PlayTime, where Monsieur Hulot–along with dozens of other characters–navigate the glass-and-steel modern city of Paris. Much has been written about this startlingly unique film, but perhaps the best summary comes from filmmaker Francois Truffaut, who described it as as a movie that an alien would make about human beings.
The plot–such as it is–captures in a giant scale the daily goings-on of a busy metro area over the course of a day, from morning to night. While Hulot could be considered the main character, there really are no “main characters” in the film, just people that you begin to recognize by sight as they are lead on tours, try to find their way through crowded buildings and streets, going to dinner, and then heading home for the night.
But it’s how Tati accomplished this that’s singular and frankly awe-inspiring: he built an entire city-sized set to shoot the film that cost 17 million francs, an absurd amount of money for an experimental film such as this one in 1967 currency. Playtime is also a visually stunning film thanks to Tati’s decision to shoot it in 70mm to capture the detailed action–which he needed, since everything is shot from medium range and further. This gives the film dimensions and a sense of depth that few filmmakers have ever achieved, and this is the scope the entire film takes place in.
Every frame of this film is stuffed with details and actions that are impossible to catch in one viewing; I’ve personally watched this film numerous times and have begun to focus on just sections of the screen just to see what’s going on in, say, the lower left corner or just in the background of some scenes. Imagine sitting on a busy intersection in New York City on a lifeguard tower and trying to catch all of the details as the busy world goes by, and it’s akin to what Tati orchestrated in PlayTime.
And he makes his point about how modern technologies and urbanization tends to make life much more chaotic and confusing than it needs to be throughout the film: tour groups drift through consumer goods trade shows instead of taking in the sights of Old Paris; Hulot gets hopelessly lost and continually defeated by technology and its needlessly complicating machinations; and supposedly efficient office layouts make the workplace more of a labyrinth and a chore to find one’s way through.
And the effect of this sterile environment has a psychological effect on the humans that have to live in its strict, straight lines: people walk robotically, begin to address and interact with each other in an overly formal fashion, and–in the case of the tourists–are continually put into a line and follow the instructions of their tour guide like they are children, despite being adults. Hulot–always the odd duck–seems to suffer this sort of rigidity worst, constantly at odds with modern design, stainless steel machines, and even reflections on glass that project an illusion of the man he’s trying to meet like he’s in another building across the street. Nothing in this city is built for humans, and Tati makes sure to detail just how these environments affect human behavior and understanding.
Of course, this commentary has gone on long enough without mentioning that the film is wonderfully funny: Tati’s epic scope also serves as setting for his fantastic physical comedy and creating complex set pieces where dozens of bodies are weaving in and out like delicate stitchwork that culminates in a magical sort of confusion for everyone involved. Very funny things are happening in every quadrant of the ample frame that Tati supplies to the audience, in the foreground and background, and all of it meticulously choreographed by the director.
It’s required viewing for any cinephile: no other film has ever been made like this, and most likely never will again. Tati nearly ruined his career over this film and certainly ruined his finances: it took three years to shoot this film, and the sets would have to be continually repaired after getting damaged by storms, and Tati took out sizable personal loans to finish the film.
Even if it was a disaster for him both personally and professionally, it’s incredible to live in a world where PlayTime exists. Still a beautiful film, it’s all the more poignant as we’ve moved into the brave new world of the 21st century where our technology has separated us even more from the tactile world.
Monsieur Hulot’s World
The pipe-smoking, befuddled Hulot–who seems to go left when everyone goes right, is the natural enemy of all machines and technology, and lives in a world just a little off from our own. The two essential Hulot films–Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle–focus in on Hulot as the main character and as a construction of a human being, trying to go on vacation and spend some time with his family, respectively.
Hulot being at odds with the world around him is one of the main sources of comedy: from his arrival in a loud jalopy to a small seaside resort to his clumsy negotiation through the arriving vacationers to his seeming inability not to accomplish one simple task without doors swinging the wrong way, an innocuous, polite action creating complex messes for everyone around him to accidentally causing a panic when his kayak folds upon him so that those on the shore think he’s a shark, Hulot is the definition of hapless.
But he’s also a rather sweet character, shy and polite, and trying his best to fit in with his fellow vacationers. He’s also a great contrast to the stuffy, self-conscious types around him: a major who never steps out of his military role even on holiday; a garrulous Marxist bore that bends the ear of anyone who will stand him the suffering of the proletariat; a hard-headed middle-class businessman that continually conducts business throughout the week; even the staff of the hotel are surly towards their guests. None of this affects Hulot, however: he’s largely a self-contained unit trying his best to throw himself into the spirit of vacationing, even if he’s almost constantly met with disaster at every turn.
Meanwhile, those who are more carefree tend to gravitate towards Hulot: a young woman alone on vacation, a boy who finds Hulot particularly interesting, and a British tourist befriend Hulot who–while not much of a talker–is always genial towards those who make the effort to connect with him. This can be seen when the resort throws a costume party one night: almost none of the more uptight revelers dress up save for Hulot, the young woman, and the boy. Left alone in the room reserved for the masquerade party, they simply put on some music and start dancing with each other–irritating the other guests but unaffected by their scorn nonetheless.
It’s a simply charming film filled with moments of serendipitous physical comedy. One particularly memorable moment occurs when Hulot paints a rowboat: he puts down his can of paint, which is then washed away with the tide; but every time he goes to dip his brush back into the can, it magically washes back right to where his paintbrush is headed to reapply, even though Hulot is unaware and cannot see its movement.
Much of the film carries this magical tone, and watching it is like taking a short mental vacation. Although it must have been maddening to work out and film some of those gags (some of which I’m still not sure how he accomplished them), the film comes across as effortless.
Mon Oncle zeroes in on M. Hulot’s personal life, as his life in old Paris is contrasted with the suburban, middle-class life of his sister and her husband in the suburbs; meanwhile, their son takes a shine to his funny, eccentric uncle much to his parent’s chagrin. Tati’s love for Paris as it was before modern urbanization and the development of suburbs is a large theme of the film, personified in Hulot’s comfort in his run-down part of town and contrasted by the discomfort he finds in the suburban setting. As Tati once said, ““geometrical lines do not produce likeable people,” and this is the philosophy behind Mon Oncle.
A freewheeling character, Hulot is unemployed and unattached, zipping around his motor scooter and in general doing as he pleases; his sister and her husband are just the opposite, living in a sterile suburban home and happy with acquiring material goods and trying to keep up appearances. Their son finds an escape with his uncle and spends as much time with him as possible, finding his unconventional lifestyle more enjoyable than his parents’ button-down existence.
Like all Tati films, the film lives and dies by its set pieces: from a disastrous picnic in the suburbs wherein the material world seems to fall apart around them (thanks mainly to Hulot’s own loose approach to the rigid world) to Hulot taking a job his brother-in-law arranged for him in a plastic tubing factory, where the orange tubes he’s supposed to be regulating instead spill out of control as Hulot tries desperately to contain it, Tati makes his point of the unnatural juxtaposition between the modern way of doing things and the natural order of human beings being imperfect and thus not well-equipped to work in conjunction with the machine age.
Still a great comment on the difficulty of conforming to the modern world when living for one’s own preferences and enjoyment is not only difficult to attain but even more difficult to reconcile, Mon Oncle was a huge hit for Tati, even winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Style and Influence
With only 6 films completed in his lifetime (three films not discussed in this essay are Jour de fete [The Big Day], Trafic [Traffic], and Parade), Tati’s influence in comedy is difficult to ascertain: a visual comedian, his films were also complex pieces that used sound–and even dialogue–as incidental commentary to the physical, visual elements, while M. Hulot went on to inspire the character Mr. Bean. Complex and always enjoyable, generations of filmmakers and comedians have taken note of how to make a character that should be insufferable instead come across as likeable.
Tati was a meticulous director whose work depended on impeccable timing and–as it became more complex–of grand vision. When one watches Playtime, it’s difficult to conceive in how much time and effort went into each frame, staging so many complex moving elements at play, and capturing all of it so that it makes sense. Even smaller productions, like Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, are filled with ingenious clockwork visual gags with objects and require an understanding of spacework that most performers–much less directors performing these routines–would be able to pull off.
Only six films and Tati created a holistic vision of the world; he commented succinctly and with great depth social, cultural, and physical issues at play in modern times; and created films that could be watched over and over for their humor, interest, and outright likability. It only takes six great films to make a perfect director, and nearly wordlessly that’s what Tati accomplished.