Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 5, 2012

Jacques Tati: an appreciation

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

In late 2010 I watched a screener for an animated film titled “The Illusionist”, an homage to Jacques Tati being submitted to NYFCO for our yearly award ceremony. Not only did the film leave me cold, it also left me with a nagging thought: who was Jacques Tati and why was he so admired? “The Illusionist” certainly did not offer any kind of hint, despite its best intentions.

All I knew about Tati when I was first developing a passion for art movies in the early 60s was that he was some kind of clown beloved by the French, just as Cantinflas was beloved by the Mexicans. Also, like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, he played a character named Mr. Hulot who kept getting in trouble because he either ignored or flouted social convention. Somehow, I managed to go through life without having seen a single Tati film, despite the fact that Andre Bazin ranked him with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as an all-time comic genius.

A couple of months ago, TCM was airing “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” and I decided to give it a shot to see what all the hoopla was about. I am glad I did since it was an eye-opening experience in more ways than one. For one thing, the limpid cinematography was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen in a black-and-white film, from Ingmar Bergman to Akira Kurosawa. Beyond that, the comedy had much more in common with Buster Keaton than Chaplin. While I am a fan of both masters, it was Keaton’s absurdist, surreal vision that stuck with me even though I was more partial to Chaplin’s politics.

I am not exactly sure why but the Netflix DVD version that I extracted this clip from abbreviated the speech of the pipe-smoking Marxist to his girl friend on top of the rocks. When I watched it on TCM, I am quite sure he went on at some length spouting a bunch of rhetoric. The character makes another appearance in the film along the same lines and it is just as funny. Tati has as much fun with a Colonel Blimp type character that is always going on at length to anybody who will listen about his exploits during WWI. I don’t think there is much going on here ideologically but works on the level of one of your more sophisticated New Yorker Magazine cartoons.

Tati was from an aristocratic Russian family named Tatischeff that settled in France. Born in 1907, Tati developed into a promising athlete in his teens, eventually becoming a semiprofessional rugby player. After launching a modest career as a film actor in the 1930s, his career was interrupted when drafted into the French army. After the war ended, he formed a film company that produced his first three films, all of which incorporated a theme that preoccupied him throughout his artistic career, namely the empty promises of “modernization”.

In “Jour de fête” (The Big Day), his first major motion picture that debuted in 1949, Tati played Francois, the postman in a tiny French farming village that is hosting a yearly fair. As part of the festival, there is a newsreel shown to villagers that demonstrates the prowess of the American postal service. Rising to the challenge, Francois tries to beat the Americans at their own game traveling about the village at a breakneck speed on his bicycle, all the while declaring “rapidité” to all the bemused bystanders. (This clip is from an Italian-dubbed version of the film that I was able to extract, unlike the French version that can be seen here.

Four years later “Mr. Hulot’s Holidary” appeared, introducing the signature character. Some of you might be aware that British comedian Rowan Atkinson appeared in something called “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” that if meant as homage to Tati scarcely does him justice. As Steve Rose put it in the Guardian:

They’re saying this is Mr Bean’s last appearance, but if Rowan Atkinson hasn’t got the heart to kill off the character, I’ll gladly throttle him by his necktie myself. In a post-Borat world, surely there’s no place for Bean’s antiquated fusion of Jacques Tati, Pee-Wee Herman and John Major? Perhaps he’s a version of British masculinity the rest of the world can relate to.

Unlike Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, Mr. Hulot is not a “wild and crazy” character that is meant to be the butt of the joke. Instead, he is an eminently reasonable and civil character always anxious to please who manages to reveal through unintended consequences the comic idiocy of middle-class life. As Andre Bazin, the legendary editor of Cahiers du Cinema, once put it:

The warmth of Hulot’s characterization, plus the radiant inventiveness of the sight gags, made Les Vacances an international success, yet the film already suggests Tati’s dissatisfaction with the traditional idea of the comic star. Hulot is not a comedian in the sense of being the source and focus of the humor; he is, rather, an attitude, a signpost, a perspective that reveals the humor in the world around him.

I think it is reasonable to state that “Mon Oncle” is Jacques Tati’s crowning achievement. Appearing 5 years after “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”, it is a comic assault on French society’s infatuation with modernism in all its appalling varieties, from glass houses to the latest kitchen gadgets. It is probably safe to say that Tati’s heart was always with the simple values of the French farming village that served as a location for “Jour de fête” even though—ironically—he was always pushing the envelope of film technology. (“Jour de fête” was, for example, the first French film shot in color, using Thomson-color, an early and untried color film process.)

Mr. Hulot is the brother-in-law of a French industrialist who lives in the glass house and whose wife is devoted to the latest electronic kitchen gadgets, most of which fail to work to great comic effects. Mr. Hulot gets a job at the plastic-pipe making factory, only to find that he and the assembly line were not meant for each other. While I have no way of knowing what Tati’s intentions were, this scene appears to be a perfect blend of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”:

Nearly a full decade will pass before Tati’s next film “Play Time” debuted in 1967. This is his most ambitious film, costing millions of dollars to erect a soulless city very much in the spirit of Brasilia and other “modern” monstrosities that were found in the Soviet bloc. Without any connections to the past and in utter defiance of the organic ties that make urban life pleasurable, such cities become oppressive to the human spirit. Even though Tati’s intention was to generate laughs, his deeper goal was to decry the sterility of modern society. In this clip, you see Mr. Hulot wandering about a Kafkaesque super-modern workplace, using what appear to be the first cubicles ever seen in a motion picture, even if they are grotesque caricatures:

Tati’s last film was “Trafic”, made in 1971 as a TV movie to be aired in the Netherlands. It featured the Mr. Hulot character in the unlikely role of a car designer and much of the action takes place on the road. I have to admit that I found it kind of tiresome but it does have its moments such as this (the traffic cop is not Tati) Does the VW at the end of the clip remind you of anything? It should—it is very similar to the boat shark in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”:

In one of the more unlikely pop culture partnerships that ever existed, Jacques Tati explored the possibility of making a film called “Confusion” with the rock twosome Sparks just before his death in 1982. Like “Play Time”, it was about a sterile super-modern city. While the film was never made, the band did record the theme song for the film:

What makes this remarkable is how at odds it is with the theme of “The Illusionist”, one in which a vaudeville style magician—a Mr. Hulot character—is being forced into involuntary retirement because of the rise of rock-and-roll. The rock musicians in the film are depicted as complete jerks, projecting as it were a cultural predisposition onto Jacques Tati that did not really exist.

Coming back to “The Illusionist”, I can say that whatever it was, it was not in the spirit of Tati’s body of work even though it was based on a script he wrote. Rather than try to unravel the connections or disconnections between the men behind “The Illusionist” and Tati, I would refer you to a letter that his grandson wrote to Roger Ebert that ends:

If the integrity of my grandfather’s work means anything to you then please take into account the wishes of his only three grandchildren who united stand loyally by their adored mother, the daughter he had heartlessly abandoned as a child and later addressed l’Illusionniste to. Together we ask that you please show moral compassion and chose in the future not to participate in the misrepresentation of our family history to suit the parasitic benefit of others. That Sylvain Chomet, Pathe Pictures, Sony Picture Classics and Les Films de Mon Oncle dare to rub my grandfather’s remorse on our doorstep without respectfully acknowledging the facts is intolerable. The truth deserves a voice so that at the very least we do not forget the sacrifices made by others for our liberty.

Looking at Tati’s body of work, it is hard not to feel that the “good old days”, at least when it comes to film, were really better.

In early December, I watched another award screener for our NYFCO meeting that my colleagues voted best picture of the year: “The Artist”. Like “The Illusionist”, it is an homage to an older genre, the silent film. From the torrent of awards this film has garnered, including one likely from the Academy for best picture as well, you would think that it was what the world was waiting for—the first artistically realized silent film since the days of Keaton and Chaplin. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is a tolerably amusing novelty, but nothing else.

The greatest silent films in the modern era were Tati’s. Despite a plentitude of sounds (like birds chirping, or people making small talk), they were about visual interaction between people, or between people and nature, and especially about the miscues between people and machines.

Tati’s greatest films (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Play Time) are available from Netflix. My suggestion is not to waste your time or money with the “The Artist” but to go to the real thing. Films become classic because they incorporate a superior form of expression, the gift always of an uncommon mind.

In May 1958, Jacques Tati did an interview with André Bazin and François Truffaut for Cahiers du Cinema. At some point, the question of art versus commerce came up. Tati told the two:

I am extremely worried when I see so many good filmmakers who are obliged to submit to all kinds of constraints. Today, all you have are constraints, everywhere. But I was able to make my film where I wanted, in Saint-Maur and I was able to build the house I wanted for Hulot. I think this is important in the end. There aren’t that many countries today where a guy in the movie business can say. ‘”Not only did I make a film, but 1 also made the film that I wanted to make.” Bresson is just such a director, and I love what he does. I find it a shame that he doesn’t make more films.

What is really a shame is that only one door is open to young filmmakers: that of commercial cinema. And this is very dangerous. After Jour de fete, and more so after Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, I had some offers to go and make a Franco-Italian co-production. It was to be called Toto and Tati. You get the idea! I said to myself: “No! Hulot does not have the obligation to be in Toto and Tati” It’s not that Toto is bad: in fact be is a very good actor; but the simple fact that the picture was going lo be called Toto and Tati already tells you more than you want to know. I believe that one’s artistic independence is a must, and it is up to the individual to defend it in all cases.

And yet, it is difficult to resist commerce when you realize that by making one such film or by accepting one such role, you will earn a sum of money that will enable you to change your life a bit, have more pleasures, have your house repainted, even change houses, in this modern world, people are after all, and no matter what, extremely driven by their material needs: money impresses them and in the end they will make quite a lot of concessions—not only artistic ones, alas—to achieve a more luxurious lifestyle. As for me, it is not courage that makes me resist; commercial considerations simply leave me cold.

Words obviously to live by.


  1. “Playtime” is wonderful, an engrossing display of the human spirit in conflict with the sterility of modern society, presented in the most charming, unpretentious way possible.

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 6, 2012 @ 6:03 am

  2. Tati’s stand against commercialism has to be admired. Still, it would have been a dream to see him together with Totò. Antonio De Curtis, or Totò, was Italy’s greatest comedian of modern times. He was less purely visual than Tati, less sentimental than Chaplin and sad as Keaton but with a barbed tongue. In fact words, often in dialect, kept his work from being exported. He was born illegitimate in one of the poorest quarters of Naples. Like Tati and the other greats he came from the vaudeville or music hall stage. His greatest showed through in the worst of the hundred or so potboilers he made. Late in life Pier Paolo Pasolini did him justice in “The Hawks and the Sparrows”, a film that Italian Marxists are still proud of.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 6, 2012 @ 9:50 am

  3. An admirable contribution…..

    As a long-time admirer of Tati and enjoyer of his Hulot films, I feel surprised that it has taken so long for him to be appreciated by my American friends. My wife and I, so many years ago (in the 1960s), even made sure to visit the bistro in St. Marc-sur-Mer where Les Vacances de M. Hulot was shot – and purchased some (very expensive) ice-cream after entering through the (still-creaking) door featured in the film.

    That day is also set in my memory because we had a trip in a punt on the waterways of the adjacent watery national park of La Grande Brière, where I had the temerity to ask the boatman whether he ragarded himself as Breton or simply French, and he replied “pas français, pas breton, je suis brièrois.”. It is just this local feeling, and the associated local quirks and humour on which Tati based his characterisation which resonated so well in both France and Britain when everything seemed to be in danger of being submberged in the overwhelming “Americanisation” of our cultures.

    In this, as well as in many other atributes of his humour, Jacques Tati certainly ranks as on a par with Charlie Chaplin, whose characterisations fitted so well with the feelings of his time and yet are still universally recognised and enjoyed. Tati certainly developed a French humour which fitted well with those in Britain at the time, and must have produced many a British francophile.

    Comment by Paddy Apling — February 6, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

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