My Introduction to the Genius of Jacques Tati

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Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
Directed by Jacques Tati
Filmstruck (1:27)

5/5

MPW-30743

PlayTime (1967)
Directed by Jacques Tati
Filmstruck (2:04)

5/5

These two films represent many “firsts” for me: the first time I’ve seen anything by Tati, the first time (as far as I can remember) that I’ve watched two works by a new-to-me director back-to-back, and the first time (again, as far as I can remember) I’ve given five stars to back-to-back works by the same director.

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Having said all that, I’ve done almost no research on Tati, his background, his philosophy of film,   or much of anything else. All I know is what I see on the screen. But I can tell you that these two films alone impressed me enough to buy the Criterion box set The Complete Jacques Tati, which, in addition to the two films I’ll discuss today, includes four additional movies and a disc of short films.

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Other than being directed by Tati, these two films also star Tati as the character Monsieur Hulot (who also appears in Mon Oncle [1958] and Trafic [1971]). At first we’re not sure if the tall man wearing a hat and smoking a pipe is clumsy, goofy, a clown, a simpleton or all of the above. Hulot finds himself vacationing at a seaside resort in Brittany, a man both fascinated with his surroundings and yet unable to completely grasp them. Yet this is neither cause for alarm nor frustration. We get to know him from a distance as if we’re also on vacation. We’re observing, not privy to close-ups of Hulot or facial expressions or much else that would reveal his thoughts. He rarely even speaks.

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Hulot himself is a casual observer of the other vacationers and they take little notice of him until something goes wrong, which happens with uncanny frequency. But Hulot’s missteps are treated (usually) as mild disturbances in an otherwise cheerful, relaxing vacationer’s atmosphere. Although we see vacationers from places other than France (in particular a British woman who is the only English-speaker throughout the film), it is Hulot who’s the fish out of water. He’s almost like an alien visitor from another planet. In fact, it’s not the most ridiculous idea in the world to think of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday as a charming sort of “first contact” story.

The film contains so little dialogue you might as well think of it as a silent film. Yet I should caution you not to expect the same types of laughs you might get from Keaton, Chaplin or Lloyd. I did find myself laughing out loud at time, but mostly grinning or nodding in recognition of a familiar foible of human nature or the universe’s inexplicable sense of humor.

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An example of the first: Hulot steps into the lobby of his hotel and absent-mindedly leaves the door open, bringing in a sudden gust of wind that wreaks havoc with every visible aspect of the hotel’s operations. Hulot, of course, is the last to recognize this.

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As an example of the second, we see Hulot readying himself to take his kayak out but first decides to paint it. With the kayak on the shore, Hulot sits in it with his back to the water. He dips his brush into the paint can but doesn’t realize that the tide has come in, carrying the can away from him, then bringing it back just in time for him to dip his brush into it again. (This happens more than once and how Tati was able to time this without any noticeable special effects is miraculous.)

Anyone who has ever taken a vacation can relate to Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. No matter where you are, there’s always a sort of time-out-of-mind feeling to the world, a sense of not belonging to the other vacationers, yet also a competing sense that you’re connected to a special community for a brief time. There’s something at work binding these people together, both those working at the resort and those vacationing. The Hulots of the world wander through these experiences and you can almost hear the other vacationers and the hotel staff wonder, “What in the world does this guy do when he’s not on vacation?”

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Which brings us to PlayTime, in which Mr. Hulot returns, but is he in Paris as a tourist or on business? We find him in an ultra-modern office building attempting to see one of the office’s busy managers, but he’s also exploring the building’s furniture, elevators, art, and more. But is this an office complex, an airport, a hospital or all of the above? In contrast to Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the glass-and-steel surroundings of PlayTime convey a constantly buzzing flurry of work-related activity. Hulot is not the only fish-out-of-water here, but at least the buildings here provide guided tours of its properties and products (mostly furnishings for the home or office), tours designed to impress and sell you something.

Things move with a clockwork-like precision that allows for no interruption and if Hulot disrupted the calm, breezy atmosphere of a seaside resort in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, he’s bound to reduce at least one building to rubble in PlayTime, right? Yet PlayTime is not really a sequel to Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. It’s a different film with a slightly different sense of humor, but Hulot himself is certainly a connecting factor (although he appears in PlayTime far less than he does in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday).

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Even more so than Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, PlayTime seems much more relevant to the present. All of the men dress the same in suits varying only in color. While the women’s fashions in the film display more variety, you can really narrow them down to two or three templates with slight variations.

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One of the film’s most literally revealing scenes involves an ultra-modern apartment building with enormous glass walls, allowing the audience to see four different apartments at once. They all look the same with the same furnishings we’ve seen earlier from the office building/store (which look frighteningly like they came straight from Ikea). Everyone – who already dresses the same – does the same thing, watching television sets that are all located in the same place. If Tati had filmed this today, everyone would be staring at their phones.

playtime-restaurant

The film’s most magnificent segment occurs on the opening night of an upscale restaurant, a extended series of events, each more disastrous than the last, that is such a wonder you never want it to end. (If you’ve seen Blake Edwards’s The Party, you’ve only experienced a small taste of what Tati does here.) Tati stacks multiple events happening simultaneously; it’s impossible to catch them all on one viewing, but you try anyway.

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One of the many delights is in following Barbara (Barbara Dennek), one of the American tourists as she frequently crosses paths with Hulot. She reminds us just a little of Audrey Hepburn, but Tati isn’t about bringing Barbara and Hulot together for romantic purposes. Perhaps, however, they are more alike than anyone else in the film, kindred spirits of a sort. Or perhaps not. I’ll leave that for you to decide. Theirs is just one of the many fascinating encounters (you can’t really call them “subplots” since there’s not a real plot to deviate from) you’ll see in the film. (For more on PlayTime, I invite you to check out this excellent review over at Speakeasy)

Both films are comedies, but not always the hilarious laugh-out-loud comedies you might expect. These are comedies of recognition, of shared experiences. They’re not mean-spirited, vapid, insulting, hurtful, condescending or negative in any way. They seem odd because we have nothing like them now (at least not that I’m aware of, anyway). Roger Ebert claims that PlayTime is a one-of-a-kind film that really has no genre and I think he’s right. You might as well say that Tati is a one-of-a-kind director. Is there really anyone like him who explores the human condition with as much grace, humor and good will? I wish I lived in a world with more characters like those in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. I feel as if I do live in the world of PlayTime, but long for the events that happen in the restaurant to happen in real life, if for no other reason than to teach us not to take ourselves so seriously and that we’re all in this together: we might as well treat each other well and do good while we can. Again, I know nothing of Tati’s life, worldview, or philosophy, but I wish we had more people like him. Watch these two films, both filled with wonder and delight, and try to make the world a little more like Monsieur Hulot’s.

Photos: , Movie Poster Warehouse, Lindsey’s Film Odyssey, The Invisible Dog Art Center, The Red List, Cinema Squid, El País, Eye on Film, Speakeasy, Senses of Cinema, Plaza

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6 thoughts on “My Introduction to the Genius of Jacques Tati

  1. Pingback: My August 2017 Purging Project | Journeys in Darkness and Light

  2. Thanks for the link! Haven’t seen HOLIDAY yet but wow PLAYTIME was a delight!! And somehow disturbing too, unsettling and brilliant. Clockwork precision is right, I marvel at how some of those set pieces were even imagined, let alone pulled off so beautifully.

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  3. Pingback: Movies Watched in August 2017 Part I | Journeys in Darkness and Light

  4. Thanks for reading! I always enjoy watching The Party, but it loses a little something each time I watch it. I suspect that I won’t feel that way about subsequent viewings of Playtime since there’s so much there beyond the sight gags – so much depth. Yes, I can’t wait to see the other films and dig into the supplements. Stay tuned!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Glad you enjoyed these so much, and I really enjoyed reading your insights. It’s funny that you mentioned The Party, because I first saw that after having seen Play Time two or three times, and it struck me as a Hollywood version of Tati’s film. (I’m not sure how direct the influence might have been.) If you’re interested in learning more about Tati, the Criterion set is absolutely loaded with great supplements — lots to dig into.

    Liked by 1 person

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