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, 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