It makes me sound old-fashioned, but I think I am an anarchist. —Jacques Tati
Comedians are often our best historians of the present because they are at once intensely invested in and poorly adapted to their moment, at one and yet out of sync with their surroundings and situation. Unlike professional historians, who feel compelled to try to explain why the present had to evolve in exactly the way it did from what came before it, comics trade in making the lived elements of the present appear to be as unnatural, as unexplainable as possible. Commenting upon the strikingly memorable soundtracks that he designed to accompany all of his important films from Mon oncle (1958) to Parade (1974), Jacques Tati remarked, “Well, when people are in strange surroundings, natural sounds always sound louder.” Each of Tati’s films works to turn the most familiar lived landscapes of postwar French society into strange surroundings.
Tati’s first feature-length film, Jour de fête, appeared in 1949; his last, Parade, twenty-five years later. His work in the cinema spans roughly the three-decade-long period that has come to be known in France as les Trentes Glorieuses—the thirty glorious years—evoking the happy effects of continual economic growth. The term was coined in 1979 by Jean Fourastié, one of the many avid promoters of the state-led postwar modernization effort, and its ubiquity as the name for the years between the end of World War II and the oil crisis of the mid-1970s has gone mostly unquestioned, then and now. Historians still refer to the postwar period that way as though it were natural, a periodization and not a value judgment, as though that span of years were uniformly glorious and not interrupted by violent political disruptions surrounding the end of the French empire in Indochina and Algeria (as well as the insurrections of May ’68), or as if those decades were uniformly “glorious” for all French alike, the country’s economic well-being visited bountifully and evenly upon farmers and bureaucrats, immigrants and developers, bankers and small-shop keepers. Proponents of capitalist modernization in France used the phrase (and continue to do so) without a second thought to summon up the image of a French society surging forward in consensual lockstep, marching to the cadence of increased productivity, higher salaries, and the rewards of privatized consumption into a dazzling future of all-electric kitchens—with an American-made lifestyle to match. Anyone who has caught a glimpse of the peculiar gait of Tati’s recurring character, Monsieur Hulot, cannot help but see in it an indication of how Tati viewed the vision of the world forged by postwar modernizing technocrats. Hulot’s walk, his way of moving through the world, contains within it a certain built-in aesthetic reflex against that image of uniformity, against the rationality to which the postwar economic surge aspired. “Our world becomes every day more anonymous,” Tati once remarked. “In other times, the butcher was a man with a colored shirt. Now he puts on white overalls like a male nurse. The world is in the process of becoming an enormous clinic.”
Tati borrowed the physical elements, the governing tropes, and the urgency of the modernization program and made them strange; he denaturalized its sounds and textures at the same moment that advertising and Hollywood movies were busy making them appear natural. He arranged the automobiles and domestic trappings, the new social types and transformations in the built environment into an elaborate choreography designed to show the psychotechnics of exhilaration and fatigue that occur whenever groups or individuals, obliged to adjust to abrupt changes to home and transport, leisure and labor, find themselves leading two, and sometimes more, lives at once. Parisians of the postwar period lived in one Paris intersecting with and colliding into another in a process of demolition and reconstruction on a scale equivalent to the one Haussmann had overseen one hundred years earlier. And, as in the earlier moment, the transformations Tati was to make the subject of his filmmaking were completely given over to traffic.
Already in Jour de fête, the new watchwords of speed, efficiency, and mobility coming from America are seen to have penetrated into the furthest reaches of French village life. A provincial postman named François goes to see a promotional film about the postal service in the United States; daring Yankee mailmen are seen diving out of helicopters to deliver the mail. François takes the lesson to heart, and soon the whole village has become a spectator to François’s “doing things American-style!” But it is not until the three major films—Mon oncle, PlayTime (1967), and Trafic (1971)—that the central vehicle of twentieth-century capitalist modernization, the automobile, receives its full due for starring in the creation of a modernity mediated by objects. In Mon oncle, the arrival of the enormous pink-and-green Chevrolet (“Everything is automatic!”) is treated by the camera as an outlandish, even alien visitation. But that moment of singularity lasts only an instant; turn the corner and the car has joined an endless row of similar vehicles, creeping forward at a snail’s pace. At the conclusion of PlayTime, pinwheels made of cars filmed from an aerial view bring to mind Siegfried Kracauer’s analysis of the Tiller Girls as ornament, each dancing girl no longer individual but part of indissoluble girl clusters whose movements are demonstrations of mathematics. Here the car becomes a fatal element in a geometrically precise ballet of seriality and repetition. The aptly titled Trafic opens with footage taken of an auto assembly line and ends with acres and acres of stalled vehicles. In between, the film recounts the story of an ill-fated journey to bring the model “camping car” from France to Amsterdam, a trip beset with breakdowns and mishaps—even the car, being transported inside a truck, has an accident! In the final sequence, the windshield wipers of the hundreds of stalled cars take over the aesthetic task of rhythmic synchronized movement at the point when driving and parking have become, in the final analysis, virtually indistinguishable. The traffic jam emerges as Tati’s most effective figure for conveying how cumbersome any movement has become in a new environment that demands that absolutely everyone comply with higher levels of speed and mobility.
Tati’s films make palpable a daily life that appears to unfold in a space where objects dictate to people their gestures and movements—gestures as yet unlearned. Such a world conjures up whole new professions and career opportunities in middle management, like the American “public relations” woman in Trafic—go-betweens who exist to mediate the new technologies and their hapless users. What, after all, is “public relations”? Often broadly referred to as “communications,” PR is a set of vague practices designed to promote products and people, practices that themselves intersect with or, like the ultramodern layout of Madame Arpel’s domestic interior in Mon oncle, “communicate with” nearly every other industry. Job definition in such a world is always in flux (“That’s not my job!” “You’re doing my job!”—these phrases punctuate the soundtrack of Trafic). But newer incarnations like the public relations woman have an easier time than most negotiating what in Tati’s world is, more than anything else, just a new relationship of bodies in space. “Actors like to have their legs showing” was one of Tati’s favorite rules of thumb, and we see it best put to use in the elongated physique and leggy stride of the PR woman, in the gymnastic ease with which she changes clothes in a tiny car and emerges, transformed, on the sidewalk, utterly chic, more than Parisian, and ready to take on the world. Physical flexibility—having the elastic body of the clown—is the visual translation of the mental and psychological adaptability needed to survive and even flourish in the ambiguous positions of the new corporate structure.
Those in older or more traditional professions adapt less easily. The character of the architect who built the restaurant in PlayTime whose chaotic opening night takes up much of the film’s second half is kept busy all evening rearranging tables and chairs to facilitate the flow of dinners, dancers, and diners—exhausted, he balks at adjusting the furniture one more time and barks: “Bring me waiters who know how to move around tables!” Unemployable in Mon oncle, Hulot in Trafic has now become one of the masterminds of the new built environment, and can even occasionally be seen directing traffic. He is the designer and inventor of the most advanced of commodities, the camping car, a truly wondrous item, an automobile whose every working part doubles as a household appliance: barbecue, soap dispenser, coffeemaker, electric shaver. It is a commonplace that all of twentieth-century capitalist modernization flows along the horizontal plane from the countryside to the city, and Tati’s films follow that progression: from the provincial village of Jour de fête, to the family beach of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), to the quaint old neighborhood of Mon oncle, to the city as airport of PlayTime. But in Trafic, we have come full circle: the camping car unites and synthesizes not only interior and exterior space but also the lost countryside and the most sophisticated of urban gadgetry. Carrying atop its vehicles enormous tree limbs needed to build the bucolic decor they will use to frame their fabulous creation at the International Automobile Show in Amsterdam, the small caravan tries to make its way from Paris. But a final irony awaits the car’s designer at the end of their journey: though the camping car has brought joy to all those along the way who experienced it, the entry arrives too late to compete in the automobile show, and Hulot is unceremoniously fired.
Fired, but not, in the end, fallen. There is never a moral dimension to Hulot’s adventures, and there is no moral lesson for us to learn. As Serge Daney has pointed out, Tati’s comedy contains none of the verticality of the catastrophe, or even of the felix culpa, the fortunate fall that allows the protagonist to redeem the fallen world or become a hero through losing everything, à la Chaplin. Despite the enormous vulnerability of Hulot’s overexposed and childlike ankles, falling is not a part of his comic repertoire. But wobbling, maneuvering, sidestepping, teetering, beetling, reversing direction, retracing his steps, attempting to stay on his feet, propping himself up with an umbrella—all of these are. This is why it would be wrong to say that Hulot moves more slowly than the world around him, or that Tati is turned fatally to the past, longing nostalgically for a Vichy-infused model of la vieille France. For one thing, the image of an immobile Third Republic village mentality was itself an invention of the postwar promoters of capitalist modernization, an idea promulgated to increase the urgency with which the French of the 1950s and 1960s were supposed to fling themselves into American-style consumption habits. Hulot may well be out of step, but his step is often brisker than other people’s. His body leans forward— purposefully—into the future. He rarely drags his feet.