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: 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