Jacques Tati: Not the Charlie Chaplan of France, but the Ingamar Bergman of Comedy
Tati as Hulot: I am convinced that he was
the model for Inspector Clouseau. The above picture
In front of the "mos French Looking house" form Mon Oncle.
Part of the mission of this blog is intellectual reflection upon life as well as faith. The appreciation of Great art counts in that endeavor, and if the great art makes you laugh so much the better for Sunday, the day of rest. Toward that end I sometimes do little film reviews, always of old art films from the golden age of artistic cinema. Recently (in the past couple of years) I have really come to appreciate the great French filmmaker Jacques Tati (Oct 9, 1907--Nov 5, 1982). American film critics always call him "the French Chaplin." That is a dismissive injustice. He was a brilliant filmmaker who deserves to be thought of as the Bergman of Comedy.
I heard of this guy a long time ago. I even saw some of his early shorts. I thought "Ha, ha they are ok but he's no Chaplin." Not to insult the actual Chaplin, who was a great filmmaker in his own right. Chaplin himself is so much more than just "ha ha the little clown fell down." Some of those early shorts of Tati were much like the little clown of Chaplin, both were excellent in their own rights. They should not to be compared to each other, and neither should limit the greatness of either filmmaker. Beyond the dismissive nature of American film critics, let's have no more comparisons with Chaplin. Why do I mean by the "Bergman of Comedy?" Ingamar Bergman is my favorite filmmaker and in my view the greatest and most brilliant filmmaker of all time. Many Critics bleieve that his film The Seventh Seal (1957) was the greatest film ever made. I have to admit I agree, even though it's hard to choose just one. One can find several of his films reviewed on my film review page.
Tati is better compared to Bergman because his films are not so "ha ha" funny like the little clown falling down, but more a brilliant, humorous, positive, sometimes painful (so much so one must laugh) glimpse into the rich pageantry of life. They are the kind of "zen" humor at which the French excel; the unfunny made humors, the subtle mixture of the absurd and the painfully acute. His early shorts made in the silent era and early talkies were the typical funny slap stick sort of fare. My first real exposure to his full length films was to Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953), (aka Mr. Hulot's Holiday). It does have some slap sticky shtick (business) going for it. It's packed with the sort rye subtle eye opening "ah, yes, that little aspect of life" epiphany that just breaks over you like an ocean breeze and fills you with longing for summer in childhood. It's one after another.
Mr. Hulot, who Tati always plays, is his signature character, going on holiday in the summer in the north of France. I think it's in Normandy which not the vacation capital of Eruope. This would be like wanting to go to the Meditation and staying at Faulty Towers instead. The tone is set by the most wonderful background music which is progressive jazz. It's a very mellow sort of Jazz that was new, sophisticated and somewhat progressive in the 50s. It's black and white, giving it a dream like quality of a childhood memory.The pervading sense of the film is one of happy optimism punctuated by the ruined surprise, the spit take, the cake in the face sort of thing. There's a small child who is given money to get ice cream for himself and his bother, he guys two cones. This two fisted ice cream eater realizes the cones are dripping all over his hands, he can't open the door to the hall where his brother is because he can't set the cones down. He's n quandary, he milks it for the humor then the kid eats both. Not a car chase, not an explosion, it's not the stooges but it's humorous and it makes you smile. Moreover there's another coming in about a minute. Hulot opens the door to the eating hall and the wind of the sea blows over a bunch of stuff people were cleaning up and so for ages. There's a bit with wet foot prints that never seem to go anywhere. There's a record player connected to the lights and it's real loud and this guy keep's playing it all night. There's a super funny scene where Hulto is knowing stuff off the wall while trying to look debonair to impress a woman. There's a grand finale fire works display where Tati gets into some priceless shtick with trying to put out the fire they cause and basically bombards the hotel and sets it on fire. Of course it was his clumsiness that started the fireworks shooting off inside a shed in the middle of the night. All the way through the film gives one a feeling being on holiday. I watched it eight times in a week the first time I saw it.
I think I like even better the film Mon Oncle (1958) (My Uncle). This film is in color and that's important because it has a modernity theme that would be belied by black and white. It begins with the construction of a sky scrapper on the outskirts of Paris. The names on placards in front of a building under construction usually tell the name of the firm and the architect and so on. We see the names we realize these are the credits of the film. But the title and the credit for producer and director (Tati of course) is scrawled in chalk on an old wall around the corner. So have two spheres here, the new gleaming factory district, with modern buildings, and the old quarter around the corner that still looks like something out of nineteenth century Paris. In fact there is a pack of stray dogs we follow in the opening of the film. This section of town is where Mr. Hulot lives and it's the most French looking place, it almost fits the stereotypical Hollywood image of 1901 in Paris. There are even horse drawn carts. There's one of those little markets where you can buy all sorts of fresh fish and veg and everything from street vendors. Kids playing in the street and so on. Hulot lives in the most French looking house I've ever seen. One would expect a sign that says "Jean Val Jean slept here." This is Hulot's turf. It is his domain. The shiny factory district around the corner is out of his world, He even rides a horse drawn cart. the dog pack is important because we are meant to understand that Hulto is one of the dogs, he's a straw, he's out of place, he's not rooted anymore. The old part is his turf but even there he's out place because he's out of the time in which he belongs.
Around the corner in the gleaming factory district is the house of his sister. He goes there every Sunday, I know what that's about. When I lived in New Mexico I went to my sister's and hung around on Sunday, not wanted there by my brother-in-law but just tolerated. I didn't have the money to go anywhere else, got a free meal talked to my sister. This is like Hulot in this film, he loves his nephew and his nephew loves him. He gives the child toys and picks him up after school and always finds interesting things to show him. The gang his nephew is in play this game where they hide on a hill over looking a street with lots of foot traffic and they wait until someone is coming they whistle the person runs into a sign in front of them becasue he's looking to see who whistled, they lay bets on who will hit the sign.
The sister lives in an ultra modern house. The house looks like a bank or a jack in the box form that era where they used square box like buildings. It has a high wall and electronic gate, filled with gadgets. the furniture doesn't look like furniture, nothing looks comfortable. they have a little fountain with a fish that spurts a stream of water out of its mouth and straight up. They turn it on when company comes. Everything buzzes in that house becasue everything is push button. When the mother is cooking there are so many buzzers going off you can't hear yourself think. The atmosphere is sterile. The child clearly hates it, this is one major thing driving him away form his father whom he can't stand to his uncle who the father hates. Of course the uncle, Hulot, mills about, if he takes a nape the father get's angry. Of course he falls asleep in the living room and is there on Monday morning . They decide to force Hulot to get a job. The father is the manager of the plant so he makes a job for him, and of cousre they all act it's a huge favor so me must take it. Of course he's about as suited to it as a pig would be to flying a bomber. The first day he let's the pack of straw dogs into he factory offices and they run amuck. Symbolism.The factory offices look like a bank. They are made in the style of fascist architecture: huge spaces that are way more than needed for the task they contain, big marble walls, cold and antiseptic and clunky out of proportion statues.
Hulot runs amuck. The factory makes rubber hoses and due to his general ineptitude for the job he makes a huge long string of hoses that look frankfurters. His friends try to hide the hose so he wont get fired, and they have lots of adventures trying to get it out of the plant unseen. Of cousre I'm skipping over a lot of hilarious stuff. Hulot damages the water line to the fountain in the sister's yard and it's spraying party guests. The father finally get's fed up with Hulot and trasfurs him to the provinces outside of Paris, far away, as a salesman. He's as suited to selling hoses as he is to making hoses. The brother can't make him go but because he's rootless and inept he does anyway. The son introduces the father to the bump-into-the-sing game and the father and son begin to move closer to each other. Lurking underneath his innocent state upon which Tati plays out his high jinks is a serious conflict between Paris as it is shaping up after the war and those who feel displaced by the new business orientation and who long for the old Paris, the Paris of great jazz, Josephine Baker, Picasso, and the lost generation. This is really not Tati's attempt to get to laugh at Mr. Hulot it's Tati's cometary on the faceless corporation the urge to do business in the American model, the loss of the elements that made Paris what it was before the war. This is interesting from the stand point of film because this was the time of the New Cinema when directors like François Truffaut were developing a new cinema. Yet Tati is not a throw back to pre war film making techniques. He's standing up for the individual and artistic integrity with a hint of nostalgia for a time when all of Paris reflected these ideals in everything, he's not doing it in an outmoded way.