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