Criterion: Tati Shorts, Jacques Tati
When accepting the Honorary César award in 1977, Tati urged the film industry to support short filmmakers, even if they had to sacrifice a small percentage of their profits. It is through shorts that filmmakers are allowed to get creative and take risks. He points out that without shorts, the careers of people like Keaton, Chaplin, Fellini and Rene Clement would not have flourished. The same is true of himself, even if he humbly left his own name out. Through his short films, we see the evolution of his style that would materialize in his six feature films over fifty years, three of which are arguably masterpieces. This disc has all of the films shorts with his involvement, either as actor, writer, director or even father.
On Demande Une Brute, 1934 – This was written by and starred Tati, but written by Charles Barrois. It is pure slapstick comedy, that is not so much Tatiesque. He claims in one of the supplements that the first film was not very good, but he learned from it. I don’t agree with his assessment, as I think it works as a comedy, even if it doesn’t resemble what would become a Tati comedy. Tati played a naïve youngster, caught in a tough position having to accept a wrestling match with a menacing champion. Plenty of shenanigans ensure, including a major plot point that involved an umbrella, perhaps foreshadowing things to come. 7/10
Gai Dimanche, 1935 – Tati co-directed this short with Jacques Berr, co-starred and co-wrote with Enrico Sprocani (circus clown that went by name of Rhum). This is a better effort than his first film, even if the direction is amateurish and there is some poor framing. I’m a little more forgiving because I know the filmmakers were young and learning their craft. The results on screen are more in line with what Tati would later do, including using long-shots and creative sound effects in order to enhance the humor. There’s even a scene with a malfunctioning sign, which is nearly mimicked in Jour de Fete, and signs would be a recurring motif in all of his future work. 7.5/10
Soigne Ton Gaughe, 1936 – This was directed by René Clément, only his second credited project, and starred Tati. Even though Clément was not yet the accomplished director he would become, it is apparent in this early work that he had potential early on. Even though Tati did not write the story, it played to his tastes and his strengths. He starts out as a bicyclist that resembles Francois from Jour de Fete. He does a boxing routine when he thinks nobody is looking that is much like a performance he gave 40 years later in Parade. Tati again proves himself to be a capable comic actor, and the shot selection and framing are the best of these early works. 8/10
L’Ecole Des Facteurs, 1946 – This is the first sole directorial credit for Tati, and anyone who has seen Jour da Fete can tell. This is the first introduction to Francois the Postman, and is essentially a truncated version of what would become Tati’s feature length debut. Many of the shots look identical to the feature, and it they were not the same shots, then I have to give Tati kudos for recreating them so efficiently. The story begins with the bicycle school, where Francois and two other postmen learn the proper way to ride and hand for certain types of letters. There’s also the famous bike riding itself scene, which ends with it parked comfortable at the café. While it lacks the charm and character development of the feature film, it is quick to get to the point and highlights some of the better gags. 8/10
Cours du Soir, 1967 – This was made on the set of PlayTime, directed by Nicolas Ribowski, starring Tati who dresses in Hulot clothing. But this character is not Hulot! He is teaching an evening class about an unknown subject. If anything, the class is to become Hulot. He starts by doing impressions of different sorts of smokers, then segues to sports impersonations and other pantomimes. Finally they have to practice stumbling on a step and then running into a column, which of course Tati can do masterfully. The students cannot quite manage, and they perform nonsensical calculations (using shoe size?) to figure it out. Even though this is a showcase for Tati’s talents, the humor is not as effective. We’ve seen him do many of these same routines in other places without making up an absurd classroom scenario. 4.5/10
Degustation Maison, 1977 – This was Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff ‘s directorial debut. Tati was not directly involved, but most likely gave his daughter a great deal of assistance. The short film has some Tatiesque elements, and is filmed in Saint-Severe, the same location as Jour de Fete. The premise has locals frequenting a bakery and having an insatiable demand for tartlets. Most of the short just watches them interact, which is the type of observation that her father favored. The joke is that the café is like a bar. As they eat the tartlets, they get looser and eventually appear drunk and get cut off. While the short was one-note and the joke is not very funny, it was a decent debut. 5.5/10
Forza Bastia, 1978/2002. This is a film that Tati began and did not finish. His daughter Sophie wrapped it up over two decades later. This is very much unlike any other Tati film. It is a pure documentary, which I don’t believe he had previously attempted. This is about a football match between Eindhoven and home team Bastia. Not so surprisingly, Tati is more interested in the behavior of the participants rather than the actual match. He films the town as they represent and celebrate their team in the days leading up to the match, waving flags and honking horns through congested traffic. Even during the match, he captures more footage of the fans in the crowd and curiosities on the field, such as the groundskeepers creatively trying to make the soggy field playable. He shoots some of the match, but very little, and the results are anti-climactic. Instead he accomplishes what he most likely intended, which was to capture the culture surrounding the match. This is my favorite of his shorts. 8.5/10
Professor Goudet Lessons – Stéphane Goudet is all over this box-set as the preeminent Tati scholar, so it is only fitting that he conclude the disc with a half hour lecture that concludes the themes and methods of the filmmaker.
One of the more common recipients of Tati’s ridicule is the education system. He made fun of schools, which we see more in his short films rather than his features. He is primarily interested in leisure, especially sports and holidays, and these do become prominent themes of his features. Constant targets are those who take themselves too seriously at anything.
The basis of Tati’s cinema is observation. He likes to show us people looking, and subsequently, he challenges us to observe as well. It is curious as to why he made so few films in such a long timespan. At first it was because he needed time to observe humanity, to pick up on personal nuances and trends that he could ridicule. He says that PlayTime was the only film that the French didn’t like because they didn’t know how to watch it.
For someone that is consistently compared to silent filmmakers, sound is a major attribute of his films. He likes objects or people to have one sound to characterize their function, which he often manipulates in order to highlight ridiculousness or humor.
David Lynch, Olivier Assayas, Michel Gondry, Patrice Leconte and Wes Anderson all contribute snippets to this lecture.
Tati Story – This is a brief bio of the life of Tati through his works. Begins with his silent period, then feature films, and shows many examples from the short films on this disc. For someone with such a limited output of work, his reach and genius was limitless.
Criterion Rating: 8/10