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Jacques Tati: timeless comedy and satire with Mr Hulot

Jacques Tati was born in October 1907, and 2007 is the 100th anniversary of his birth. We are now in December, and it is not too late (yet) to celebrate this anniversary and mention some of his movies. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Tati’s niece, Macha Makeieff. She manages Tati’s artistic patrimony and she created Les Films de Mon Oncle, a company aimed to restore Tati’s movies and spread his work around the world. She held a conference about the design in the work of Tati and the place was almost full but not crowded, with elders who probably first saw Tati’s movies on screen when they came out in the 1950s-1960s, and youngsters who mostly discovered them more recently on DVD. His work is definitely appreciated by young and old alike, the movies Tati made still fascinate today and I’m among his biggest fans. Jour De Fête (The Big Day), Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday), Mon Oncle (My Uncle), Playtime are some of the classic movies I watch at least once a year.

Originally a mime, the action in Tati’s movies is tightly choreographed and there is little to no dialogue. The trench coat, the umbrella and the pipe of Monsieur Hulot are the trademark of one of the most memorable comic characters in cinema. The innocent and kindly nature of Hulot, his bafflement and confrontations with modern technology and the idiosyncrasies of the humanity, reveal so much about us, far beyond the definition of slapstick comedy. Especially in Mon Oncle and Playtime, Hulot is like a specimen in a laboratory experiment, the human figures look lost in a sterilized Paris in Playtime, or enslaved to technology like in the ultra-modernized Villa Arpel in Mon Oncle.

What impresses me the most, beside the timeless subject of his movies, is Tati’s perfectionism. He planned all the details in advance, his inventive use of sound with for example the squeaking door of the hotel dining room in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot or the metallic clip-clop of the secretary when she walks in Mon Oncle, are full part of the comic soundscape. Not to mention the music. Sounds that are crucial in comic gags are amplified, and Tati’s wry and witty humour doesn’t need any audible dialogue to be understood, it transcends language. He was a genius at extrapolating the absurd from the everyday (Curb Your Enthusiasm is in the same vein), and his films are a satire on the modern obsession with speed and efficiency (The Big Day), a satire of sterile modernity (Playtime) and how technical inventions deprive life rather than enhance it (My Uncle). All his movies are multi-layered, it is not only about the confusion and alienation of modern living, it is also about social order, behaviours and appearances. The difference between what you truly are and what you pretend to be, like the Arpels or the vacationers at the Hôtel de la Plage (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday)… Tati’s work is deep and repays repeated watching.

In a previous post, I talked about Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned The Power Of Satire). Both movies are very different but they show in a powerful satirical manner, two sides of the same coin: the antagonistic relationship between men and technology. And they make us ask ourselves some questions. In Playtime, the dignity of the individual is under threat from the spread of mechanization, and in Kubrick‘s film, people are keen to use technology to destroy humanity. Another movie I like is Blake EdwardsThe Party, with Peter Sellers playing Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi (this movie should indisputably have its own post on this blog!).

The dinner at the Hollywood Studio Chief’s house party and the final scene when the house is totally messed up have similarities with the Royal Garden atmosphere and when the whole restaurant falls apart. Like for Dr. Strangelove but in an opposite genre, The Party and Playtime are about slapstick humor at its best. On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of Mr. Bean’s Holiday, very much inspired by the work of Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. The character created by Rowan Atkinson may be funny sometimes but he is a bit too grotesque I think. Tati tried to point out every kind of excess about technology, individualism, modernity and personalities (mostly snobbish women). So Mr Bean is to me like a counterproductive effect of Tati’s message. But once again, there is no accounting for taste, it is only my personal appreciation.

Few are the directors who care(d) so much about their work. Tati’s comic precision and unique comedic universe is a gem and provides one of the most delightful and unforgettable experience in cinema. If you didn’t see any of Tati’s movies yet, run rent (or buy) one of them. He won an Academy Award for best foreign language film (but no subtitles required…) for Mon Oncle (1958), if this can help you pick one of his movies 😉

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