Criterion: The Complete Jacques Tati
It is both fortunate and tragic that we can package an innovative filmmaker’s life work into a 7-disc box set. The tragedy is that he was not able to share more of his artistic vision, either due to financial or creative issues. You would be hard pressed to find another auteur who matches the quality of the heart of his output from 1953 until 1967 with Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, and PlayTime. The last film of the trilogy, which is arguably the best, essentially ended his creative freedom and harnessed his talents. His career ended with a whimper, and his final projects never made their way out of development.
On the other hand, despite the lack of production, it is quite a journey to wade through all of the creative works from someone of Tati’s caliber. The Jacques Demy box set that came out earlier this year similarly captured the essence of his career, but not the entire narrative. There were notable omissions, some of which would be a good fit for Criterion (Model Shop), while others wouldn’t (Parking). For Tati, even the lesser films are Criterion-worthy, as they highlight his talents and his style in various ways. He had financial problems after PlayTime, but that did not force him to compromise his artistic integrity in order to make a fast buck.
Tati began his career as a music hall performer and a mime, and in many ways, he remained as such throughout his career. The oddball characters of of François the Mailman or the popular Monsieur Hulot showcased his physical talents and comic ability. Since his characters were mostly mute, he was a mime without the makeup, a music hall performer without the music (at least not the same type of music). And he could always make us laugh.
People fascinated Tati. He used his films as a way of observing the habits of ordinary people, however odd and nonsensical, and how they transformed during the period of economic prosperity and American innovation following the war. He was always an observer, and his film style made us observers as well, rewarding us for our attention to details, with hidden gags buried layers below the surface or in the background of the frame. He challenged us to be curious like him.
Tati denied that he was critical of modern architecture. He constantly claimed to be impressed by it, but not always by the people who inhabited it. A large part of his work satires the preposterous lengths that people go in order to improve their lives, whereas deep down they are merely trying to impress others. Hulot as a character and Tati as a person were less than impressed by these displays. To them, having the latest gadget, or the most immaculately manicured landscaping, or an appliance that has an inexplicable additional feature were pointless. He wanted to get to the core of humanity, get people away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This sometimes meant meandering around a small town where garbage lies in the middle of the street, or transforming a ludicrously designed restaurant into a relaxing bistro where companionship and revelry were most important.
These little treasures from the old France were being lost, little by little, but there was beauty still to be found among all the chaos. Few scenes illustrate this point better than PlayTime when Barbara opens Hulot’s gift en route to Orly airport, to uncover a lovely flower arrangement, which not-so-coincidentally resembles the streetlights that guide their way back home.
The box set is a delight, and ranks at the top of the Criterion sets that I’ve explored to this date.
Criterion Rating: 10/10
Jour de Fete
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
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
Criterion: Parade, Jacques Tati, 1974
I wrapped up my discussion of Trafic by quoting Tati from an interview about why he made so few films. His answer was that he did not want to make something that failed to meet his standards. His quote was that, “in life, you only have so many ideas.” Parade is most certainly one of his big ideas. It is ultimately his lifelong idea, a culmination of all his years working in the entertainment industry, beginning in the music hall, continuing with his mime training, and to a lesser extent, his experience in films. This is Tati the showman, which was ultimately what he was all his life, even if that side of him was disguised in his most popular works because the real Tati was somewhere within the character of Hulot.
By that same token, ideas for a variety show on TV and a feature film are drastically different. Parade stands apart from all of Tati’s cinematic output because (and apologies to Jafar Panahi), this is not a film. This is a TV show that was later converted to film. As a TV, show it would be quality entertainment. As a stage show, it would be an experience one would never forget. As a film, it is a decent and fleeting experience. As a Tati film, it is the outlier, the movie that does not belong and cannot be measured or even categorized with all of his previous efforts. For that reason, Parade is a disappointment.
The show is a form of a circus with Tati as the host. There are acts of juggling, balloons, magic, animals, and musicians (especially during the latter third of the film). The acts that take place when Tati is not on the stage are at times enjoyable, at others trite and uninspired.
It is when Tati is on screen that the film shines. He does a few pantomimes. My favorite was his attempt at boxing. His act is coordinated with the drummer to register the punches and the end of the round. It is short, but absolutely hilarious. Other acts are also good. The soccer goalie is a joy, whereas the tennis match is a riot, especially when he performs his mime in slow motion and captures the anguish of the tennis player on every shot to comedic effect.
The audience participates in the escapades. During the tennis match, they look left and right using the sound effect of the ball as their cue. At times it is clear that they are plants, such as when an audience member does a magic act that upstages the amateur on stage who fails at his act. There is also a husband and wife couple in the audience during the mule sequence. The husband is tempted to walk onto the stage and try his hand at the mule, but his wife gets in the way. When he finally gets away from her and onto the stage, he manages to ride the mule. He follows it up with a couple pratfalls and we catch on that the joke is on us. He was part of the entertainment. There is another family with two small children who are given a great deal of reaction shots during the entirety of the film with no explanation as to why, but they come back into “play” at the end of the film. It was probably a blast for the children, but as a film finale, it was unsatisfying.
It begs to wonder why Tati brought this to screen in the first place. The simplest explanation is the lure of money. He had been critical of the idea of ‘selling out’ to get a paycheck, but after two failures in PlayTime and Traffic, he may have had no choice. He may have needed the cash. On the other hand, he is clearly proud of his background as a pantomime and entertainer, and what better way to exhibit such hidden talents than on a TV screen? Given that he shot it in video (and it shows), it also begs to wonder whether this is something he wanted to stand on the same footing as his artistic films. Whatever his reasoning, it is a disappointment that this is the final appearance on film for such a cinematic genius.
Film Rating: 3/10
In the Ring – This is Stéphane Goudet’s critical analysis. He has provided a lot of the better content on this box set. His commentary is useful here in pointing out some of the background of the production, such as the fact that this was the first French movie filmed on video that was shown in theaters. He points out that the cinematographer was Gunnar Fischer, the same DP who filmed many of Ingmar Bergman’s classics (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night). The filming style is different than Tati’s other works, not just because it is filmed on video, but it also has close-ups and zooms, which capture the action of the performance. Of course Tati’s traditional long shots would not work with this type of production.
He provides some background on what Tati brought to his performance. Many of the acts were developed 40 years earlier as he was a developing pantomime and comedic actor. Goudet is fond of this work because it shows that side of Tati, and he dismisses the argument from a Tati biographer that this was a tragic mistake. Goudet feels like this is an extension of Tati’s earlier work. I disagree with Goudet, as is clear in my write-up above.
“In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot” – This documentary is one of the better special features of the set. It was directed by his daughter Sophie Tatischeff, and separated into two parts. The first part is about Tati’s early life, how he developed his comic sensibilities, and through the filming and exhibition of Mon Oncle. It shows a lot of 1930s footage of Tati doing his mime acts in the music hall as a young man, and these are a treasure to see. There are interviews of Tati, and he discusses his move into short films, the first of which he considers to be terrible, but he learned from it, and eventually made features. He wrote Jour de Fete while in the war, stationed at Saint-Severe, and promised to return to film there. He kept his promise and that launched his film career. The whole town participated. He based Hulot on someone he had met in the military, someone good natured and goofy. From there, as we know, he made Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, the latter of which launched him to international stardom.
Part two follows the remainder of his career. He tours the world for Mon Oncle. He wins at Cannes and an Academy Award. He gets to meet the star of his choice after winning the Oscar, and chooses Buster Keaton, and eventually spends time with Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett, and Stan Laurel. From there they cover PlayTime, with the construction and destruction of “Tativille,” and the economic failure of Tati. Traffic is glossed over, but Parade is cherished by Tati. He made it in Sweden because he felt they had supported him in his career, even during the bad times. It ends with him giving a parting quote: “If I’ve managed to bring a little smile to people’s everyday lives, in the end [ … ] I think I did well in choosing this marvelous means of expression.” You did well, Jacques.
“An Homage to Jacques Tati” – This is a 1982 episode of the French TV show Magazine. Artist and set designer Jacques Lagrange pays tribute to his friend. He talks about how he created the Arpel house from a sketch, and they received letters of outrage from architects, all of which they cherished. He talks about the process by which they would write their gags, which was carefully thought out and visualized.
Even if the film itself is not up to the quality of the rest of Tati’s work, the disc is worth watching for the supplements, especially Tatischeff’s feature length documentary.
Criterion Rating: 6/10
Criterion: Trafic, Jacques Tati, 1971
As workers and mechanics are preparing to send their model car off to Amsterdam for a car show, we hear them whistle a number of familiar tunes. We hear snippets from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, and probably various others if you listen carefully. The trace of Hulot’s presence is immediately evident, even if we do not see him for a few minutes.
The shock of Hulot’s introduction in Traffic is that he is employed. Previously, he was nearly unemployable. In Mon Oncle, he bombed an interview and got fired from a job for incompetence, and in PlayTime, he could not even navigate the modern world to get time in the same room with a potential employer. Even in Jour de Fete, where Tati’s Francois could be seen as a prelude to Hulot, he has a job and is absolutely terrible at it.
In the years after PlayTime, Hulot has clearly had a change in ideals. Not only is he employed at an auto company, but he is an actual designer. The car that he ends up designing would be admired by the Arpels from Mon Oncle or by the invention expositioners in PlayTime. It is an entirely modern camper, a way of getting outdoors and enjoying life, but with a lot of clever, innovative and sometimes useless features that are the exact type of thing that baffled Hulot previously.
The fact that he obtained the job and designed something modern and silly is a mystery, but that’s not at the heart of the story. He and his team are responsible for transporting his model camper car to an auto show in Amsterdam. As can be expected, a lot of hijinks occur along the way that slow down and threaten to half the trip entirely.
In some ways Traffic is similar to the previous three films. They are mostly in long shot without close-ups, with sight gags that are easy to miss the first time through, not too much dialogue from the main characters, plenty of background noise, a mixture of languages, and of course, Monsieur Hulot is at the center of it all. Despite these similarities, this does not feel like the same type of Tati film. Perhaps it is unfair to compare it to the previous trio, which are arguable masterpieces, but everything seems a little more watered down this time out. The jokes are not quite as inventive. There are big laughs, such as when Hulot hangs upside down while trying to fix some ivy, but it feels like it has been done already. Previously Tati had been pushing his art a little further each time, and that resulted in PlayTime, his finest film. Traffic feels like a creative step back.
That is not to say this is a bad movie. Lesser Tati is still enjoyable and worth watching, and there are plenty of quality scenes. The traffic accident scene ranks up with the best of Tati’s scenes across his entire filmography. There are other lighter touches, such as the windshield wipers reflecting the look and personality of the drivers, and the mass of umbrellas at the end, that are full of the Tatiesque charm. Yet, for all of those, there are other scenes that don’t quite work. I could have done without the anonymous nose-picking in cars, which is too easy and not nearly as intelligent as most of Tati’s humor. There is also the cruel practical joke that makes Maria mistake her dog for dead, when the doppelganger is a mop with a button nose and far from realistic. Tati was probably trying to connect the children’s pranks from Mon Oncle, but those were organic and fun, whereas the dog prank is tired and transparent.
The ending is up to par with the rest of his work. When Maria is on the boat in the water, we see her appreciate the beauty of her surroundings, which is consistent with Tati’s typical arc of anti-technology and humanizing his characters. When they get away from the hustle and bustle, they find themselves refreshed and their personality changes for the better. Like with PlayTime, they go in circles rather than squares, only in Traffic they embrace quiet and solitude as opposed to the everlasting automobile congestion.
The end is bittersweet. Even though this film is not quite up to par with the remainder of Tati’s work, it is the final film for an endearing character. The outcome for Hulot is no surprise, but we’d like to know what awaits him next. We’ll miss him. It is not easy to say goodbye to Monsieur Hulot. Adieu, my friend!
Film Rating: 6.5
“Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” – This is a 1976 program from the British show Omnibus. It begins at the beach house of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Most of the special consists of interviews with Tati about his craft and his films, jumping backward and forward throughout his work. The one thing I have learned from this set is that Tati is not the greatest interview, which is perhaps because of the language barrier, but more likely because he is protective, defensive and not too revealing about his art. Nevertheless, he does say some interesting things about his work. Tati says he is not criticizing modernity, but is defending people who feel they have to change. This makes sense with Traffic because Hulot tried to assimilate into this new, high-tech society, only to fall on his face yet again. My favorite part of this special was his comparing himself with the old masters, specifically Chaplin. His comedy is passive rather than Chaplin’s active. He talks about the wreath and tire part from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and how differently Chaplin would have orchestrated the gag.
People ask him why he made so few films over the years, but he liked to do them in his own way with creative freedom, without making something that doesn’t live up to his style. He adds that “in life, you only have so many ideas.”
With only one major supplement and a film that doesn’t measure up to Tati’s filmography, this disc is the most disappointing, yet still worth a watch.
Criterion Rating: 5/10
Criterion: Playtime, Jacques Tati, 1967
One of the recurrent statements found in the PlayTime supplements is that you have to see it more than once to truly appreciate. Due to the continual long shots, the wide frame, and the crowded amount of characters, there are many gags or comic touches in the background that will be missed. I first saw PlayTime years ago, as my first exposure to Tati, and I fell in love with it right away. This marked my third viewing, and as expected, I found plenty that I had missed during previous viewings, and I adored the film even more.
PlayTime is the culmination of Tati’s artistic and comedic exploits over the previous twenty years, which shockingly only resulted in three feature films. In this time he developed his ‘silent yet noisy’ comedy film, inspired by the giants of silent film, all the while making artistic statements about the modernization of society after the war. While PlayTime is just as hilarious as Mon Oncle or Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, it is grander on every level. It has more comedy, a more direct and pointed message, and is a more ambitious and impressive production.
Tati poured everything into this project, his time, fortune, property, and his credit, leaving him in shambles. Although it is a shame that the film ultimately was a failure and he suffered devestating consequences as a result, at least we were able to see on the screen exactly the type of film that he aspired to make. He even said that he had no regrets because of the final product.
The targets in PlayTime can be isolated and listed as modern architecture, tourism, invention, privacy, taste, or many, many others, but that takes away from the primary message he is trying to convey. Like much of his work, it returns to tradition versus modernity, just like the dogs that contrast with the humans in Mon Oncle, the revelry and lack of boundaries that the partiers experience when they finally get to ‘play’ is the message of PlayTime. Why be so serious and distracted by the trappings of modern society? It does not matter whether you can buy a pair of glasses that allows someone to apply makeup without taking them off, or buildings made of glass so clear that one cannot distinguish what is inside or outside. They are all ludicrous, tasteless, and take away from the essence of humanity, which I think Tati is able to illuminate at the end film.
The first half of film shows various characters, including American tourists, Monsieur Hulot, businessmen, and others frequenting a number of sleek and modernized locations. There are some instances where true French landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Sacre Couer are reflected from opening doors, but those momentary images are all that we see of the beauty of Paris. Instead, most of the people spend their time at an expo with ridiculous inventions, most of which are impractical and some worthless (like a broom with lights or a silent door). We know that the tourists see some of France, because buses take them to Montmarte or Montparnasse, and they return with baubles and mementos, but they always return to these lifeless and nondescript buildings.
The latter half of the film takes place almost entirely in a restaurant and nightclub called the Royal Garden. It has been undergoing construction until literally the very last minute before customers arrive, and we soon find out that the restaurant is not quite ready to function. That does not stop people from flooding in. For awhile a doorman does what he can to keep the riffraff out, until Hulot destroys the glass door, allowing everyone entrance. Some are humorously guided there by the light fixture at the entrance, that turns them in a circle and points them into the restaurant. The restaurant is an absolute disaster until, yet again, Hulot’s clumsiness does more destruction. This time he destroys the framework of the architecture, and in it’s wake, leaves a more traditional looking bistro. This is where PlayTime begins, where he encounters a number of different characters, some of whom are locals and others tourists, but it does not matter. They all have quite a time by breaking the rules set forward by modernity.
What Tati is saying really comes into form through the last few images. He takes a liking to one of the American tourists, Barbara, and gets her a parting gift that she opens on the bus ride to the airport. It is a flower arrangement that resembles the street lights that enlighten the trip to Orly, reminding us that beauty can be found in the most unsuspected and curious places, but it is not some type of artificiality and disconnection to be manufactured, packaged and sold. As the cars continue towards the airport and day turns to night, the beautiful imagine remains in the unlikeliest of places.
Film Rating: 10/10
Terry Jones Introduction: He first saw it on a 70 mm screen, which I can only dream of. He could see all the detail in the long shots, and understood why there were not many close-ups. It was the most expensive French film of all time, a failure, but a ‘tour de force’ of filmmaking. Jones calls it the “most ambitious expression of Tati’s genius.”
Selected Scene Commentaries:
There are three commentaries. Historian Philip Kemp looks at roughly 45 minutes of footage and points out how the plot structure is that a number of straight lines in the beginning of the movie become curves towards the end. The statement is abstract, but he is able to demonstrate it by the on-screen behavior.
He talks about how PlayTime was a failure and bankrupted Tati and his family. He goes into the details of how Tati and the family put up so much of their own property and inheritance to finance the film, but it was a financial disaster and wasn’t screened in USA until much later.
Stephane Goudet looks at the beginning scenes in the office and expo, and then the later scenes with the “shopwindow” apartments. Even though the office setting appears intent on creating a more organized and efficient environment, it does the opposite. The spatial proximity of the cubes provides distance and disconnection. The apartments show no boundary between private and public life, and resemble the class conceit previous exhibited by the Arpels. It is no surprise that this scene was originally written for Mon Oncle.
Jerome Deschamps, a Theater Director, looks at the early scenes in the office. One scene in particular, which happens to be one of my favorites, is Mr. Giffard’s long walk down the corridor, coming from the background while Hulot and the secretary wait on the left in the foreground. They can hear his footsteps, but cannot see the long walk like the audience can. The scene takes a long time to unveil, but is worth it. Deschamps then looks at the scene in the waiting room, where Hulot encounters and is fascinated by Mr. Lacs, and then misses Giffard because he is staring out of the window.
“Tativille” – This is an interview on the set of playtime from 1967 British TV. It was built on a hilltop outside of Paris. Tati escorts us through the set, which is barren and deserted, even more so than in the film. It shows how he choreographs actors, especially during restaurant scene. They are all amateurs and Tati orchestrates their actions a person at a time. The crew talks to the American wives from the nearby base, who really have no idea what type of film they are in, but they are enjoying the experience all the same.
“Beyond Playtime” – This is a short 2002 documentary from Goudet. There are more tours through Tativille, with background about the process. It took two years of filming, where a gigantic set was built from scratch, and it cost 15 million euros. Sadly, the set was later destroyed. Tati affectionately says “Playtime will always be my last film.”
“Like Home” – 2013 Visual essay from Goudet.
Talks about the criticism that Playtime has a lack of structure, but gives the same ‘straight lines turn to curves’ argument. He goes through many of the themes and points out gags that are easy to miss. Finally, he talks about how the film ends with a sense of poetry. Tati said that “I want the movie to begin when you leave the theater.”
Sylvette Baudrot – Interview about the behind-the-scenes process with Baudrot, She talks about a gag that they were not able to pull off, which was an attempt to make the streetlights appear to be watering pots that are hydrating the tourists in the buses as they pass. Instead that premise is used in the restaurant where it appears the waiter pours Champagne onto the ladies hats. She talks about how Tati was an ultra perfectionist with timing, color, and just about everything else. They used cutouts of the Paris buildings that we would see through the windows, as well as cutouts of people as extras and side columns on the building. These were expensive, but in some cases it was cheaper than the alternative, like hiring 100 more extras. One terrific touch that she shared was how funny Tati could be when he acted out the parts to the actors, which included the ladies. Because of his early career as a mime and experience as an actor, he was able to show them virtually everything.
Criterion Rating – 10/10
Criterion: Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati, 1958
Jacques Tati can be an absolute riot at times, and in my opinion, Mon Oncle is his funniest effort. While he does not relax his recurrent theme of tradition versus modernity, he has more fun with these characters, and the material is ripe for comedy with big laughs. Playtime also has some scenes with big laughs, but is a little quieter, slower paced, and takes the theme a little further. The latter is my favorite of the two, yet Mon Oncle is one I could see myself watching more frequently just because it’s a lighter and more pleasurable experience.
The fact that the movie is bookended by dogs running around randomly without a care in the world is no accident. The dogs are contrasted by the silly adults who spend the majority of their effort on appearances, trying to show off their nifty little gadgets and elaborate architecture. The Arpel family are pre-occupied with exemplifying their higher class, while the dogs care less – and that includes the house weiner dog. Even though he wears clothing that would only come from an upper class family, the dogs are seen as equals. They run together where they wish and do not discriminate, nor do they care about such symbols.
The behavior and attitude of the dogs are similar to that of the children. The young Gerard Arpel is dressed in a fine suit representative of his class, yet when he goes out to play with the lower class children that wear patchwork sweaters, he is treated as an equal. Like the dogs, they collectively gallivant around, have fun, and engage in whatever mischief they can find. This can be doing cruel things to others, like pushing on cars to make people think they were in an accident, or whistling from hidden locations and placing bets whether people will hit the signpost. Gerard cares nothing of the technology back at home. He would prefer to eat a cruller with jam and sugar rather than a technologically advanced boiled egg.
Gerard looks to his uncle, Monsieur Hulot, as a mentor and influence. Hulot is from an older, traditional France. Like with Villa Arpel, his home is a maze of sorts, but his is out of necessity and not intent. His is run down and he has to go through a variety of different paths in order to reach his loft apartment. The path to his door is not aesthetically crafted and manufactured like the Arpels. He has no fish fountain. Instead he finds that a bird sings when he opens the window enough to let the sunlight shine on it’s cage. This he does for his own amusement, and not to impress others.
Villa Arpel is another matter entirely. Their house is the height of design. They have a winding S-shaped pathway to get to the front door. There is a small pond with a gigantic fish standing vertically with mouth in the air, which will erupt with blue water when the correct button is pressed. The courtyard has small square pads for walking, surrounded by gravel, grass, or some other brand of landscaping, requiring people to walk carefully if they venture off the main path. The house is modern even for today, with two large portholes that can appear as eyes in some scenes (which Tati uses for great comic effect!).
The house is ostentatious if not completely ridiculous. It is actually quite nice. What is ridiculous is the behavior of the Arpels that inhabit it. They are only concerned with what the neighbors think. The most obvious example of this is that they wait for the doorbell before turning on the fish fountain. If the visitor is a deliveryman or anyone else from a lower class, including Hulot, they immediately turn it off. It is not meant for the lower classes. If it is for a neighbor, co-worker, or any other guest, then the fountain continues to flow as long as the guest is present – or if the fountain breaks, which is another hilarious scene.
There are two worlds in this movie: The Arpel’s world and Hulot’s world. In one of the supplements, Francois Truffault is quoted as saying that one world is 20 years in the past, while the other is 20 years in the future. The old France is the traditional France. The colors of the town are muted and drab, mostly earth colors, with clutter and disarray everywhere. There is one notable pile of garbage that remains in the middle of the street for the entire film. There’s even someone who is sweeping (a reference to the postman in Jour de Fete), but he is doing his job as slowly and inefficiently as possible. The Arpels, on the other hand, are immaculate and obsessed with cleanliness. Mrs. Arpel goes so far as to wipe off her husband’s car to make it as shiny as possible as he is departing for work.
A lot can be said about the contrast between old world, pre-war values and the coming modernization and Americanization. It is no secret that the shiny cars that Arpel and others of his class drive are all American. Mr. Arpel drives a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. By contrast, those in the old France usually walk or ride bicycles. The plastic factory is another statement of modernization and industrialization, and the film mocks how they are merely making plastic hoses. Hulot is so out of touch with this world that he cannot even make a simple hose, and ends up making what looks like sausage links.
Did I mention this movie was funny? There are a few scenes that had me roaring with laughter. The Arpels’ dinner party scene was a riot, and I loved that one of the guests (one from a lower class) couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness as it took place. Another funny scene was when they mistake a neighbor for a rug salesman, but she was just trying to impress them with flashy clothing.
After all of this poking fun of modernity and technology, the dogs are shown running around. The ending is perfect, and reminds us yet again that this artificial world, the high tech gadgets, and the attention means absolutely nothing in the big picture.
Film Rating: 9/10
Terry Jones Introduction. Jones was disappointed with the film at first, and then came around and it became his favorite Tati film. He thinks that the main titles speak to the primary theme just like anything else in the film with hand-created nameplates showing the production credits amid heavy industrial background.
My Uncle. This is the English-language version, which was filmed concurrently with the French version. There are English signs and dialog, which was dubbed in later. The background voices are still French, but that does not matter since the audio is unintelligible. The spoken language version does not make much of a difference because so much of the film is silent, at least not spoken, and the sound effects are all the same.
Once Upon a Time: My Uncle. This featurette talks about the production and puts it into historical context. There are many interviews, including some archived with Tati. Pierre Etaix speaks a great deal as his assistant. He talks about how well Tati choreographed each character’s movement down to the smallest detail.
“Lines, Signs and Designs.” This is a short feature about the architecture behind the house. They talk to different architects about the house, who give their opinions about the designs. Many of them agree that the design was a little much, but they do not overly criticize. Some of them get a little defensive. One architect says that Tati would have slammed his early work.
“Fashion.” This feature talks with a fashion designer about the outfits. She said the apparel was very 1950s. She singles out the rug lady that resulted in funny misunderstanding, all because she was trying to outdo Ms. Arpel. Back in the 1950s, there was a lot of attention to matching colors. One instance where this is seen in the film is with the dog’s vest matching Mr. Arpel’s scarf.
“Have a Seat.” Some designers reproduced the rocking chair, the “kidney” couch and the two cylinder couch. The latter is not very comfortable until people relax in it, and experiment with different ways to use it. This was not mentioned in the feature, but the entire house is reproduced here.
Everything’s Connected. Visual essay and critical analysis by Stephane Goudet. This is the most conventional plot of all his films.. Tati is not against modern archictecture, but the way people use it to show off. It is more of a class contrast. She compares it to other films, like in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday where Hulot becomes a role model for the kids, but not what the parents probably want. That’s the case with the Arpels. He is more of a role model for Gerard and the child adopts Hulot’s values more than his parents.
With walking on the water lilys into the pool, Tati’s character enters water just like in his two previous films, but this time he is not submerged because the water is not deep enough. This provides continuity between the films and his world, but this instance of water is distinctly artificial whereas the others are real.
This was subtle and probably not noticeable to non-French speakers, but the name Hulot is mixed up with “hublot” on at least one occasion. “Hublot” means means porthole. There are many portholes in this movie, such as the holes in the garage, the holes upstairs as windows (or eyes), and the porthole in the interview scene.
“Le Hasard de Jacques Tati.” In this TV special, Tati talks about all the dogs in the film and his relationship with them, including Chance the mutt, his own dog. The dogs for the film were obtained from the pound, and afterward he put out an ad for people to adopt the “stars” of the film. He wishes he had 30-40 dogs because he could have found homes for all of them.
Criteron Rating: 9.5/10
Criterion: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
MONSIEUR HULOT’S HOLIDAY, JACQUES TATI, 1953
Summer vacation is a time to get away, to adventure, relax, and get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Jacques Tati plays with this logic, as some of his characters make the most of their vacation, while others bring their city lives with them. At the center is the theatrical debut of Monsieur Hulot, who aligns with and is arguably the catalyst for people enjoying themselves during their time off.
From his first appearance as he is driving his meager, sputtering and backfiring, tine Samdon A3, Hulot is introduced as a different type of character. He’s odd, clumsy, sometimes uncomfortable in his own skin, and his unconventional behavior and tastes make him an outlier compared with the traditional vacationers. He barely speaks, and is the center of the comedic gags that take place. He is also the embodiment of the central theme of Tati’s film (and those to come) of tradition versus modernity. Hulot initially seems not to belong because he awkwardly interacts modern technology, but he ends up belonging in his own way.
Holiday is ultimately a comedy, and bears a strong resemblance to the silent comedies that inspired him. He does pack in quite a lot of big gags, the type of which would be familiar in a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd picture. One example is the shark scene, which was added to the 1978 version in order to satire the recently released Jaws. There are other big laughs, like in his unconventional method of tennis playing, where he trounces his opponents by playing by a different set of standards and rules, not unlike how he behaves during personal interactions.
There are plenty of little laughs as well, like him painting a boat and the paint can rolls away from and towards him without his noticing. Or the older man who casually throws away seashells as his wife collects them. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as there are countless subtle oddities that Tati throws into the scene, many of which are humorous and sometimes are hidden. He rewards people for paying attention to the details.
There are plenty of other scenes that are not funny, nor are they intended to be, and this is what separates a Tati film from plenty of other comedies. He slows things down and lets the film breathe. This is, after all, a vacation, and he conveys the sense of getting away.
Not all of the characters participate in the vacation. The businessman is constantly taking calls about his stock purchases. A young political idealist is consumed by continually talking about intellectual matters. The characters who interact the moat with Hulot, however, appear to leave life’s trappings behind them. The children take to Hulot, and they are at home away from home, caring only for enjoyment, music and treats. A number of females also take to Hulot, although not so much in the romantic sense. One young, attractive lady finds herself a dancing partner that keeps a comfortable distance. Another older Englishwoman is delighted by the klutzy Frenchman, and she embraces his quirkiness. Even the older couple adore Hulot,and they spend most of their vacation walking around quietly and peacefully.
Those who accept and enjoy Hulot get the most out of their vacation, and that’s because they challenge their comfort zone. They don’t just follow the herd of modern trappings, but they embrace being outsiders and distant from this quagmire of a society.
Film Rating: 8/10
Terry Jones introduction. The Monty Python member gives a short introduction by Criterion standards and basically highlights his favorite scenes. His presence on the disc speaks more for the influence of Tati. His influence on people like Rowan Atkinson is obvious — the Pythons less so.
Clear Skies, Light Breeze: Critical essay. This is a French critical essay by Stéphane Goudet. She talks about Tati’s art and his comedy, how he embraces the middle class and ridicules bureaucracy and technology. One example is the untillegible speaker at the train station, which people follow blindly. She compares many of these same themes to Tati’s later films.
Sounds of Silence: Interview with Michael Chion. He talks about Tati’s use of sound. The sounds in the film do not fill up spaces, but they are used to complement the space. Tati uses sound to guide our eye to the object (like the swinging door in the restaurant). It enhances the silence. There’s actually quite a bit of sound in Tati films, like the sea in Hulot and the music, and there’s lots of dialogue, but it seems to be primarily in the background.
Cine Regard. This is a French TV program where Tati watches clips from his films and discusses them. He begins by telling a funny story about how he went to a screening of Holiday anonymously, entering in the dark so that nobody would recognize him. He sits next to a man who laughs throughout the film, nudges Tati and constantly calls the director an asshole, not realizing the object of his ridicule is sitting next to him. Tati shares a bit of insight into his films, but it is clear during the discussion that he is protective of their integrity. They are like his children.
1953 version of the film. This original version is not the primary version on the disc, because Tati was a proponent of adapting and improving his films over time, which in my opinion he succeeded with Holiday. Many of the changes are cosmetic, especially with the sound. The older version is busier and slightly more political. The older version is also about 10 minutes longer. Unlike a lot of directors, Tati didn’t mind cutting things out to increase the flow, and he did the same with Jour de Fete.
Criterion Rating: 9/10
Criterion: Jour de Fete
JOUR DE FETE, JACQUES TATI, 1949
Jacques Tati’s debut feature film would be a sign of things to come. It was about a goofy, clumsy individual (played by Tati) in a small, provincial Franch town, going about things in his own, charming way, while being threatened by progress and pressure from overseas.
Jour de Fete also showcases what would become Tati’s trademark, charming style. Through his bumbling persona, we see hints of what would become Monsieur Hulot, and we see the inspiration of the silent slapstick kings like Keaton, Lloyd, and of course, Chaplin. We also find that the film is genuinely pleasant and comedic, which for the time, was a welcome reprieve from serious films such as Melville’s La Silence de la Mer and Cocteau’s Orpheus. In this regard, Tati was an outlier, a renegade, who made fanciful and silly films, yet they all had similar themes about the encroachment of technology and bureaucracy.
At its core, Jour de Fete is humorous and delightful, nearly silent physical comedy. There are plenty of voices and dialog, but not so much is heard from the protagonist, Francois the mailman. He is clumsy and is constantly the butt of jokes, especially from the visiting carnies. He is terrible at his job as a mailman, mostly because his priority is with helping out the townspeople their troubles and activities. He helps fix a fallen pole in the town square in one scene, while graciously delivers a cake out of his way in another. Even though he is a mischievous and troublesome character, he is endearing both to the audience and inhabitants of the small town. They enjoy joking about his hopeless ambition to deliver the mail in the American style, knowing that he will not succeed, but they are not malicious. His failings are part of his makes him such a charming character to us and them.
While Francois can be seen as a bumbling idiot a lot of time, at other times he shows remarkable ability and intelligence. In one hilarious sequence, he manages to re-arrange stakes in the ground so that a cross-eyed man can hit them correctly. In another sequence, he hitches his bicycle to a truck and does his paperwork on the rear flatbed. When he attempts to do his work quickly and efficiently, he finds brilliant ways of delivering the mail to people who are not in a hurry to receive it, such as fastening it to an animal’s behind, placing it into grain machinery, or sticking it onto a rake that someone is carrying. However goofy, he cannot be disregarded as a complete idiot.
A prevailing theme, which was prescient given the upcoming technological advancements, is tradition versus progress. Francois is happy to deliver the mail inefficiently with his bicycle, and he even curses at a speeding car that passes during one scene. He’s an advocate of a slower life. His mind is blown when he sees a video of aerial postmen in America, and how that sort of speed and efficiency will someday make its way to his country. With his livelihood threatened, he does his best to do his work “American style,” which means fast and with barely any social activity or engagement. Even though these scenes are funny, he loses his humanity and becomes merely a tool.
Even though he excels at first, the “American style” is not for him, nor is it for his townspeople. In one of my favorite scenes, he even loses his bicycle and it practically rides itself through the country roads until it conveniently comes to rest at the bar. “Even Americans take a drink, don’t they” he asks as a motorist beckons him to resume his American style. He ends up pedaling into a lake, and a lot of mail gets ruined. His experiment failed, but the movie is a delight.
Film Rating: 7.5/10
There are two other versions of the film on the disc:
1964 version. Tati was not pleased that after shooting with color cameras, he had to settle on a black and white film due to technological problems – how ironic given the themes of his films! – so for a later version he used rotoscoping to give his film a hint of color. He introduced a character of an artist in order to bring color into the story. Flags would be painted, as would the balloon he sees in the tavern and the rear light of his bicycle. In addition to the color additions, the film was re-cut, re-edited and had a different soundtrack. The dialog sounds more artificial than the original version, and while the color additions are a nice novelty, this version does not quite measure up.
1995 version: Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, obtained a negative of the color print and was able to get it developed. This color version was the result. While it is interesting to see how Tati originally envisioned the film, the color quality is poor, not nearly up to par with the quality of his later color films, and probably not up to the standard that he envisioned. Again, this is more of a novelty and not the ideal way to view the film.
In Search of the Lost Color. This is an episode from a 1988 French TV show that documents the process of filming in both color and black-and-white, and how the negative was discovered that would eventually lead to a color print being released. It shows two cameras on set during the shooting, both side-by-side. This was to be the first French film in color using a Thomson technology, but it failed due to competition from Technicolor and Agfacolor, and the development factory was never built. The shoot was a lengthy 6-months to accommodate both filming techniques, and we are fortunate that they had the black-and-white cameras as backups, otherwise this film and may have never seen the light of day. That may have also meant that Tati’s career would not have continued since his debut film was among his greatest successes.
A L’Americaine. This is almost an hour and a half documentary about the film. It again goes into the history with the color cameras and the multiple release versions, and then it goes a lot further. A lot of time is spent demonstrating the anti-technology themes that would materialize again in Tati’s work. The clips of [i]Playtime[/i] make for quite a contrast in what Tati was going for. It talks about about the comic inspiration from silent film stars such as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd and how some scenes were homages to their work. That said, Tati in some respects resented being compared to the old masters like Chaplin, because he felt it reduced his films to mere imitations while he was creating something he thought of as original. On that point, I agree.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10