You can consider gags as decoration—little nuggets of entertainment dispensed on the way through a story—or you can view them as architecture, structural elements that tell the story using action. Or you can see them as Jacques Tati did, which has very little to do with story at all.
Tati moved away from narrative that relies on momentum just as soon as he could. His early shorts as writer-star are situational, and only the first surviving one, On demande une brute (1934), really sets up a situation brimming with suspense and demanding a resolution. By the time of Jour de fête (1949), his first feature as director, story is abandoned in favor of loose structural devices. A fair arrives at the start and leaves at the end. A small boy chases the wagon carrying the wooden horses; an old woman introduces us to the village; there is François (Tati), the postman. At the end, the old woman and François finally meet, and the small boy, dressed in François’s cap and carrying his satchel, again runs after the wagon. A series of characters, objects, and situations are shuffled and reconfigured, and when they fall together again, the experience is over.
In Tati’s hands, plotlessness isn’t just the absence of narrative; it’s a positive tool in the same way that a three-act structure would be for most other filmmakers. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) perfectly evokes the endless drift of a childhood vacation in the sun because there is nothing to tie it all together save the setting. Even Hulot, the catalyst for the gags, is himself aimless, wafting from one pastime to another. Mon oncle (1958) seems to have more at stake in its family dynamic and old-new contrast, but when you try to summarize the story, it’s oddly elusive. PlayTime (1967) contains not one story but a million, all happening at once. Trafic (1971) is based around a journey, but instead of getting there being half the fun, it’s all about seeming to get nowhere. And Parade (1974) is a variety show, often dismissed as a footnote to Tati’s career but arguably a summation of its fragmentary, sketch-based, amiable dilatoriness.
One way not to enjoy Tati’s films is to anxiously await the next laugh. It’s possibly better to watch them without bothering with whether you find them funny or not. Tati doesn’t portion out gags evenly, and he isn’t concerned with getting us laughing as soon as possible. He also seems interested in finding difficult ways of doing things, avoiding the obvious, and serving up comedy that isn’t funny in the expected ways. This becomes increasingly the case in his later films, and if the perception of most contemporaneous viewers was that he peaked early and went into a steady decline that bottomed out with the bloated and shapeless PlayTime, it now looks to most of us as if PlayTime was the climax of his life’s work, a project to render the gag abstract, and to find a beauty in it so intense that we may be afraid to laugh.
Tati liked to claim that he’d learned everything he knew about screen comedy from watching Little Tich and His Big Boots, a minute-long 1900 Gaumont movie directed by Alice Guy and starring a diminutive English music-hall comic (whose name gave us the term tichy, meaning “small”) wearing elongated flap shoes and doing some tricks with his hat. Of course, Tati was attempting to avoid invidious comparisons with more famous antecedents, but there is something in Tich’s act that does speak to Tati’s art—it’s all about movement. There are no jokes, just impressive feats (Tich walks on tiptoe in shoes almost as long as he is), eccentric dance, and strange contortions (see the little fellow lean forward at an ankle-straining 45 degrees!).
Thus, in Jour de fête, one of the delights is the postman’s bag, swung into position in such a way that it arcs around his shoulder in a perfect 360 and comes to rest under his elbow. It’s funny however many times he does it, but it’s humor that raises a smile, not a belly laugh (though with a sympathetic crowd, all those smiles can generate some volume). There isn’t really a joke there in the sense of a setup and payoff.
François wants a stake hammered into the ground, but the man with the mallet keeps hitting an area to the side of the target. François looks into his face and realizes that he’s violently cross-eyed (how he never noticed this before in such a tiny village is unexplained). Compensating for the defect, François positions a second stake, and the man, aiming for it, hits the first. It’s a Keatonesque gag, depending on a surprising problem thrown up by a vaguely maleficent universe and solved in an ingenious way using the elements at hand. Keaton himself credited Tati with being the only comedian who had picked up the visual approach of silents in the sound era. Tati’s approach to language is to reduce it to mutterings, snatched phrases, and mere noise, which can be used to enhance the visuals but cannot ever deliver a joke by themselves.
In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, one of the funniest things is the sound of a kitchen door, which can hardly be called a gag. But by raising the volume on the effect and clearing away all competing noise, Tati draws our attention to how funny things really sound; the effect is comic yet quite accurate. And that quality also extends to the social interplay portrayed. The idea that a spare tire stuck with wet leaves could be mistaken for a funeral wreath strains credulity, but the reluctance of the tire’s owner to protest when a confused mourner takes it from him is quite true to life.
This observational quality must have suggested the idea of a collaboration with Tati’s documentarian friend Bert Haanstra, whose own films, such as the portrait of a brass band Fanfare (1958) and the hugely successful study of the Dutch national character Alleman (1963), caught quirks of behavior (human and animal) on the sly and shared with Tati’s work a focus on environments rather than storylines. But Tati’s need to reconstruct reality—watching the way an actor walked, copying it from him, and getting him to copy Tati’s imitation of his own walk—meant that when they got together to make Trafic, no true partnership was possible.
Along with ingenuity and a slightly cruel eye for behavioral and physical quirks, Tati also applies a genuine sweetness, which allows him to win the audience over with gags that don’t even happen. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the little girl carrying two ice cream cones must turn a door handle 180 degrees, in the process inverting one ice cream. We cringe, for who among us has not known the infantile trauma of the dropped cone? But Tati enacts a small, merciful miracle, as the ice cream defies gravity and stays in place. The tension passes, one cone is passed to an even tinier child, and a shared moment of reverent slurping is observed.
The perfect visual gag unfolds in a single shot. Editing violates the spatiotemporal continuity, and although it may make trickery possible, it destroys the pure experience of seeing something unfold as if it were real. This need for simplicity increases the difficulty of the filmmaker’s task. If the camera is the perfect distance from the action, the composition and the very space around the performer can become sources of comedy in themselves. But if the camera is too distant or the details too subtle or the surrounding action too distracting, the whole point of the joke can easily be lost.
Tati tests this principle to near destruction. Writer Jean-Claude Carrière witnessed the filmmaker’s agonies over the gag in Mon oncle where a dachshund’s raised tail triggers a photoelectric cell, thus trapping his owners in their garage. It was essential to show the entirety of the garage front in order to capture the comic contrast between the smallness of the dog and the enormity of its effect; the risk was that the audience might not register the dog or its tail at all.
What kind of talent creates problems like that for itself? The scene in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday where a pot of paint, carried by the incoming tide, always winds up in the right position for the oblivious painter’s brush to descend into took countless takes. When the gag exists quite clearly in the filmmaker’s mind but getting it out and onto celluloid proves so difficult, the process can be a joyless one—but Tati never quit. For him, the ability to find the perfect balance between detail and environment was an essential gift. And his compositions are inherently comedic, instantly identifiable as belonging to a comedy even when nothing funny seems to be happening.
If Keaton liked to “double-cross” his audience, leading them to expect one outcome and surprising them into laughter with another, Tati increasingly avoided the obvious payoff, to the extent that his comedy ventured into abstraction. An inattentive viewer could miss all the comedy in PlayTime or Trafic, because it is distant, tucked away in the edges of the frame, and often quite oblique. In PlayTime, a blast of air-conditioning makes a female restaurant customer’s bare back ripple like a choppy sea. Is this a joke, precisely? Tati wants to get laughs with the way a person moves, the sound he makes, or the sheer amount of time it takes to make something happen. The climactic shot of Trafic—people with umbrellas crossing a car park—is epic and beautiful and somehow funny, but if you try to pinpoint the source of amusement, you end up with something meaningless like “Everybody’s walking in straight lines.”
Tati is also having fun with his own process, as if filmmaking itself is a source of inspiration. This is most clearly seen in PlayTime. The gag about the new miracle product, the silent door, makes use of the fact that Tati added all his sound in postproduction, and generates laughs simply by neglecting to place a sound where you’d expect to find one. And later, when a plate-glass door is shattered, the doorman pretends nothing is wrong by resorting to pantomime, moving the disembodied door handle through space as if it were still attached to a hinged surface. It’s not just a gag using pantomime, it’s a gag about pantomime. The doorman is consciously doing what all the characters in Tati’s films do all the time, creating a narrative illusion with movement.
In PlayTime, Tati used cardboard cutouts as a cheap substitute for extras in long shot. In Parade, he foregrounds them, replacing his audience with flat replicants. If a device works once, unobtrusively, why not shine a spotlight on it next time? The comedy feeds off itself. Having created a famous trademark in Hulot’s distinctive costume, Tati in PlayTime turns loose a series of false Hulots to confuse the audience—and his other characters—teasing us with look-alikes and hinting at the universality of his persona. Some inner artistic perversity seemed to compel him to marginalize his most recognizable character, and it has taken most of us decades to admit that he knew exactly what he was doing.
Tati liked to refashion the world, an ambition that connected his increasingly large-scale set construction (how else, in Mon oncle, could he make a house transform into a cartoon face with darting eyes?) with his trompe l’oeil gags: a man crouching in front of a glass door becomes a goat preparing to butt, a group of men transporting a large sheet of glass becomes a hieroglyphic frieze come to life. Those last two bits are from PlayTime, a film all about transformation, as an obstreperous cityscape whose supposed modern conveniences conspire to trip, bewilder, and ensnare the hapless populace gets violently reshaped as a vast play area. When Tati suggested that, with this film, he was joining the students on the barricades, he wasn’t just jumping on the ’68 bandwagon: the film is calling for an imaginative revolution in the way we perceive and interact with the world. If only all revolutionaries had Tati’s creative mind.