Scatterbrained Angel: The Films of Jacques Tati

Jacques Tati has a feeling for comedy because he has a feeling for strangeness. —Jean-Luc Godard

“Comedy is the summit of logic,” Jacques Tati pronounced, a paradox that turns out to be only seeming once one experiences his singular body of work, where the slapstick and the cerebral coexist. Aptly dubbed “Tati-World” by scholar Michel Chion, this is a universe whose comical chaos is organized with the utmost rigor. Tati’s triumph was to employ formal experimentation to intensify hilarity, to wrest rapture from rationality. Both a backward-looking performer, mining the traditions of silent cinema, mime, the music hall, and variety, and a foremost modernist in the history of cinema, Tati has been celebrated as one of the screen’s greatest comedians, but his work has also been endlessly analyzed for its spatial and aural innovations, his gags examined for their “marks of rupture” and “syntactical disequilibriums.” That he belongs to conflicting cinematic lineages, from Buster Keaton and Mack Sennett through Mr. Bean on one hand, and on the other Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean-Luc Godard—“Tati and Bresson are the twin giants of French cinema,” Marguerite Duras once proclaimed—only confirms the complexity of his achievement.

Much has been made of Tati’s noble Russian ancestry—early in his vaudeville career, he shortened his real name, Tatischeff, to fit the music hall marquee—and the story of his family, rife with transcontinental conspiracies and kidnappings, may help explain his sense of precariousness in the world, embodied in the gawky walk of his signature character, Monsieur Hulot. Tati shrugged of all suggestions of Russian influence on his comedy, however, just as he had abandoned the family trade, picture framing, in which he was trained. After a frustrating apprenticeship in that ancestral business, Tati fled the comfort of his bourgeois home in the suburbs of Paris and took up with a group of bohemians and artists. Exploiting a new national mania for sports—he himself belonged to a rugby team, Racing Club de France—Tati developed a mime act involving tennis, soccer, fishing, and horseback riding that would serve as a compendium of gags for his movies. (Perhaps his cockeyed tennis, which he intended to display in his first, unfinished film, Oscar, champion de tennis, made in 1932, and which would appear most memorably in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and in such later works as the short Cours du soir—directed by Nicholas Ribowski—and Parade, also appealed to the tennis-besotted Godard, who titled one of his own late films, a slapstick comedy in homage to Tati, Soigne ta droite, obviously after the 1936 short Soigne ton gauche, which stars Tati as a farmhand who dreams of becoming a champion boxer.)

Colette immediately recognized Tati’s genius in her 1936 review of the show: “He has the suggestive power of all great artists,” she wrote, and Tati parlayed her commentary into a career, reportedly carrying the piece with him everywhere. Between his stints on the stage, Tati appeared in various films by such major directors as Claude Autant-Lara and René Clément, and then in 1946 directed his own short film, L’école des facteurs, in which his ungainly frame became a force of grace, skittering into an abashed jitterbug or racing to catch a departing plane on an antiquated vélo. The cyclist as recycler, Tati would expand L’école des facteurs into his first feature, Jour de fête, made three years later, which maintained the setting, premise, and gags of the short film and established the director’s reputation for deadpan virtuosity and technical experimentation.

Jour de fête was shot both in black and white and on the now-extinct Thomson-Color stock, a disastrous French effort to copy Technicolor, with two cameras placed side by side. (It was painstakingly restored, frame by frame, to its original color scheme in the early nineties by Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff, herself a film editor and director.) Tati plays a village postman who sees an American newsreel championing the superefficient U.S. mail system. His attempts to modernize his own delivery methods make for high-velocity comedy, including a blissfully funny sequence in which a drunken Tati cycles his bike into a hedge at night. Though Godard finds in the film’s affectionate postwar portrait of la France profonde the birth of French neorealism, making it akin to Roberto Rossellini’s epochal Rome Open City, and while others sniff a whiff of Vichy ideology in its celebration of traditional agrarian values, the hardly Pétainist Jour de fête remains beloved for its flurry of gags, many of them recalling the music hall or silent cinema, and for its evocation of a place and time seemingly immune to modernity. (Tati’s portrait of la France profonde in his early works is mostly affectionate, unlike the provincial terrain of cruelty and malice found in the films of Bresson or Henri-Georges Clouzot, a fondness Tatischeff clearly inherited, as evident in her 1977 short film Dégustation maison, in which the habitués of a village patisserie get soused on booze-soaked tartlets.)

Four years after Jour de fête, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) introduced the character who was to be central to the rest of Tati’s career: a bourgeois man in a mackintosh, abbreviated pants, and striped socks, the director’s eternal alter ego—Monsieur Hulot. In the midst of the film’s carefully orchestrated chaos, the absurdly angular Hulot advances like a starched ostrich—several critics have come to grief trying to describe Hulot’s awkward amble— tilting into one mishap after another, serenely initiating damage and distress. (Entropy is a cardinal theme in Tati’s cinema, and a generator of some of his funniest sequences, most majestically in the disintegrating Royal Garden nightclub in PlayTime, though as Chion has pointed out, Tati is more witness to than cause of the “panic” of PlayTime.) Tati was himself prone to gaffes and misunderstandings, as either instigator or victim, his encounters with the pope and Charles de Gaulle, for instance, turning into comedies of misapprehension. He transformed his own intimacy with error into Hulot’s seraphic aptitude for debacle, beautifully characterized by André Bazin as the acts of a “scatterbrained angel.”

Called “Tati’s most perfect film” by his biographer David Bellos, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday extended the innovations of Jour de fête, confirming Tati’s status as both popular comedian and formalist master. Many critics cite it as a pivotal work in film history, placing it alongside Antonioni’s Story of a Love Affair (1950) and Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday can also be more fundamentally appreciated as a semiotic circus. There have been many comedies about the hell that holidays can be, but none as transcendentally hilarious as this, its seaside bedlam set in motion in the film’s opening sequence at a train station, where a series of unintelligible announcements send holidayers scurrying from one platform to another, up stairs and down, back and forth as one mad organism. (An abiding theme in Tati is collective behavior, as seen, for instance, in his sweet-natured satire of American tourists in PlayTime, which may have influenced Godard’s harsher treatment of his cruise ship holidaymakers in Film socialisme.) Tati had wanted to make the film in color, but like Jacques Demy with Lola, he resorted to black and white because of budgetary constraints. Ever the artisan, perfectionist champion of the handmade, Tati took four years to make Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and it shows; each accident and casualty is meticulously achieved, often through the exacting and peculiar use of sound, the anarchy that Hulot innocently unleashes orchestrated with Swiss precision.

Transposed from the Normandy beach to the city, the hapless Hulot became in Tati’s next three films—Mon oncle (1958), PlayTime (1967), and Trafic (1971), all made in color, thanks to larger budgets—a bumbling signifier of individuality, introducing what Bazin called “a disorder of tenderness and liberty” into the sterile, standardized postwar world of urban Europe. (Tati’s dehumanized world enjoys fine weather, the skies almost always clear and sunny, as in Yasujiro Ozu’s world.) Ironically for a character so singular, little is actually divulged about Hulot—from film to film, he seems to have no job, no home, no discernible personality or origin, no first name—and Tati’s bland features and beige dress intensify this sense of neutrality. Hulot is that rare thing: an icon of unfinishedness, made indelible by his air of anonymity. The narratives of Tati’s films are often themselves “ghosts”—barely there, mere floating motifs on which he hangs his gags and shapes his vision—and their soundscapes are awash in little cries of delight or dismay, floating phrases and nonsensical fragments in various languages and accents, noises and announcements whose source is often unrevealed. Accompanied by a soundtrack of clicking heels, exhaling chairs, holy choirs, and cocktail tunes, the polyglot in PlayTime is subsumed into Tati’s version of musique concrète. Language and sound seem freed of their statutory significations, sometimes deployed for joking little conundrums; for example, the mysterious canine whine at the beginning of PlayTime—its source unseen, as with the infernally buzzing wasp in Jour de fête—that momentarily distracts Barbara, who then watches a woman stroking a bag that may or may not contain a dog.

Place, too, even if recognizable, seems illusory, as in Trafic, where Paris and Amsterdam, the start and terminus of the film’s voyage, are rendered as indistinctive locales, or in PlayTime, where Orly Airport appears clinically sanitized and Paris is identifiable only when its famous monuments are briefly glimpsed, reflected in glass doors. Tati’s open, “democratic” cinema may not initially suggest much kinship with Bresson’s closed, severe filmic system, which Bresson called le cinématographe, but the two directors’ precision and sense of rhythm, their emphasis on gesture and propensity for sonic close-ups, and their evocation of the modern world, especially Paris, bear telling similarities. For instance, in its emphasis on reflecting surfaces—glass doors, vitrines, and storefront windows—Bresson’s L’argent (1983) recalls the visual design of Paris in PlayTime, though Tati’s glass is deployed in service of a vision of amusing inutility and entropy (and frequent wonderment), whereas the city’s transparency in L’argent is grimly ironic, bespeaking its opposite: deception and the opaque workings of fate and the state that make Bresson’s innocent protagonist first a victim and then a mass murderer. (The primitive ATM that appears underneath the opening credits in L’argent, which helps to instigate what Bresson called the film’s “avalanche of evil,” would also be at home in Tati’s mechanistic city. Indeed, Tati had already envisioned the cash machine more than a decade earlier, in a 1971 advertisement he made for Lloyds Bank of London, in which he contrasted Lloyds’ friendly, personal service with a computerized cash dispenser meant to suggest the dehumanized future.)

Winner of the Academy Award for best foreign language film, Mon oncle was an enormous international success, though Tati would later claim that he went “a little astray” with it, and that he tired of Hulot thereafter but could not profitably let the character go (he intended to kill him off in his unrealized final film). In this hyperdesigned satire about the impersonality, tedium, and sterility of modern life, Tati plays the uncle of the title, whose sister is married to Monsieur Arpel, a plastics manufacturer. The Arpels live in a white horror of hygienic perfection, with a pristine yard, an arsenal of gadgets, and a fountain shaped like a fish that reminds one not of nature but of the factory that produced it. Importing disorder into this cold, soulless place, with its forbidding gate and garden, Hulot delights his nephew with his aptitude for accidents. Tati coordinates some of his best gags—malfunctioning garage doors, a very long car trying to maneuver into a small parking space, a house that looks like a human with moving eyes—to comment on the way modern life traps humanity within its contrivances.

Mon oncle, which Tati made in both French and English versions—like Godard and Jean-Marie Straub, he reportedly loathed subtitles as excrescences in his carefully composed images—is pure, abstract slapstick, full of delightful visual wit, droll physical humor, and Gallic irony. But it is also a “contradictory text”: the film’s visual compositions and soundtrack are precisely (and technologically) designed to achieve Tati’s effects, thereby indulging in the very mechanics the director is criticizing. This contradiction is central to understanding all of his work. His Cartesian comedies inveigh against order and logic but generate beauty and laughter from both. Works shaped on accidents and anarchy—his last film was to be called Confusion—are fastidiously designed to allow little contingency, their critiques of modernism and technology reveling in the absurdity of the modern world and relying (spectacularly) on technology. For instance, though Tati intends the automobile to signify the impersonality of modern life in Trafic, he is obviously transfixed by the dreamlike stream of cars on the superhighway and by a gleaming acre of auto chrome in a parking lot. Unlike Godard, Tati does not traduce the world that so often vexes or alarms him, though the directors share a penchant for dwelling on the splendor they discover amid the detritus of modernity.

Tati’s satires champion humanity over mechanisms, and individuality over uniformity. Still, their mise-en-scène determinedly (and delightfully) subjugates humans to decor, design, architecture, mazes, and machinery, and none more so than his masterpiece, PlayTime. A work of inexhaustible invention—François Truffaut called it “a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently”—PlayTime cannot be seen too often. (My four encounters with the film in 70 mm count among the most pleasurable—and overwhelming—experiences I’ve had in more than five decades of moviegoing.) The film’s dense plurality of sound and image means that if you attend to one thing, you’ll miss something else unfolding in another part of its teeming screen and soundtrack. Hulot, as affectless as ever, wanders through a modernist maze of glass and steel, encounters a group of American tourists that includes a lovely naïf named Barbara, and finds himself at the opening of a “chic” nightclub, which, in what is perhaps Tati’s greatest set piece, collapses, quite literally, after hilariously escalating mayhem. Decor and design predominate in Tati’s pristinely composed images of a Paris that is there but not there— a mirage that the tourists never seem to penetrate. The chairs in the nightclub brand the undraped backs of the women with their insignia, and one can imagine what Tati might do with today’s proliferation of gadgets, logos, and screens. This elaborately organized sequence took seven weeks to shoot; Tati was such a perfectionist that he re-created one complicated scene just so that a waiter’s underwear would not cause a lapse in continuity.

The futurist world of PlayTime was laboriously created in a studio in the derelict Paris suburb of Vincennes, which one can glimpse at the end of Cours du soir—shot on PlayTime’s set—as two trompe l’oeil glass facades part to reveal the hovel to which the intrepid Tati returns after delivering his lessons on the smoking styles of various French types to a class of earnest actors. (Cours du soir’s opening sequences recall the reflective visuals of PlayTime, though contrary to the suppression of company names in the mise-en-scène of its “parent” film, one can clearly make out the name of Thomson Medical.) Jacques Rivette proclaimed PlayTime “a revolutionary film,” and perhaps it was both too revolutionary in its abstraction and strangeness to be an international success and too serene in its blithe conceptualism for the culture emerging in France from the political and social upheavals of 1968. When PlayTime, then the most expensive film ever made in France, failed to recoup its immense costs, Tati was forced to sell the family home, and his career began a downward slide, ending in the shambling Parade, a 1974 film made for Swedish television, in which the director, abandoning Hulot for the persona of Monsieur Loyal, returned to the music hall variety of his early career.

Tati’s last aesthetic success, the Dutch-funded Trafic (1971), sought to retrench, with Hulot as a car designer whose company sends his latest creation, a camper car decked out with all manner of ridiculous gadgetry, in a convoy from Paris to the International Automobile Show in Amsterdam. (Tati’s mother was half Dutch, the daughter of the Amsterdam frame maker who supplied the frames for van Gogh’s paintings, and there is a Mondrian-like purity to the director’s perfectionism and visual abstraction.) Pursued by the company’s brash, “swinging” American publicist, Hulot heads north into an endless series of accidents and misfortunes. Malfunctioning and destructive vehicles are a motif in Tati’s cinema, apparent even in an early short he coscripted, Gai dimanche (1935), in which a faulty Bernard jalopy with a broken horn and sequentially erratic doors is repurposed as a tourist bus—an early incarnation of Hulot’s noisy, antique Amilcar rattletrap in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday—and Trafic’s slow-motion car crash is as funny and beautiful as the famous autoroute jam in Godard’s Weekend. In Trafic’s opening sequence, Hulot is at his drawing board when his boss distracts him. His pen slips, and the line he was drawing dips and zags. In Tati’s cinema, this brief, unassuming joke proves to carry great import. As much as Tati (and Hulot) tries to contain the disorder of the world within straight lines (like Mondrian), the grids and horizontals inevitably devolve into curves, corkscrews, circles, loops, or, in the case of the roads and highways that frequently appear in his films, confounding roundabouts, deceptive forks, or worrying switchbacks—akin to the nightclub sign in PlayTime whose spiral neon arrow directs a drunk right back into the Royal Garden he has just departed. In Tati, the straight and narrow remains both untenable and unattainable.

Just as Bressonian has become a ubiquitous (and somewhat tiresome) term, Tatiesque has slipped into common parlance to evoke a certain kind of dry, abstract comedy, best embodied in the absurdist cinema of ex-Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, whose Favorites of the Moon would be unthinkable without Tati. But Tatiesque also applies to our experience of the everyday world. Like Antonioni, Tati transformed the way we envision urban space and architecture, and he made us keenly aware of the interchange between the human and the mechanical. When, for instance, all five elevators in my office building once arrived in unison, their doors whooshing open and their automated voices chiming, “Floor 16, going down!” as a chorus, my first thought was not “Oh, Lord, which one do I take?” but “How Tati!” Many claims have been made for Tati as a social realist, and he himself emphasized that his comedy was always based on observation, and that he never exceeded the possibilities of logic. Such critics as Chion and Serge Daney have noted that Tati was certainly as much a documentarist as a stylist. His genius was to isolate and exaggerate elements of the workaday world so that they seem rich and strange, and his generous art confers upon us the ability to make, through acute observation, our own Tati movie in our head, every day.

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