Friday, December 22, 2006

by James Travers, from

Jacques Tati, the name which is perhaps most associated with French cinema outside of France, occupies an important position in cinema history. There are few film directors who can be credited with the invention of a new form of cinema, and fewer still who have attained perfection in their creation. Tati is that rarest of phenomenon in filmmaking – an auteur with extraordinary powers of observation and an equally impressive ability to entertain. Yet, for all his genius, Tati’s filmmaking career was marred by financial insecurity, resulting mainly from the antipathy of his home market. It is indeed ironic that his films should receive greater appreciation abroad than in France. For Tati, the recognition he was owed in France arrived too late, and his legacy consists of no more than half a dozen full length films and a few short films. Although Tati’s output was not great in terms of quantity, the impact of these few films has been enormous, making as significant a contribution to French cinema as the works of other cinematic giants, such as Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson and François Truffaut.

Tati’s real name was Jacques Tatischeff. He was born on 9th October 1908, at Le Pecq, Yvelines in France, to Dutch and Russian parents. A descendent of the Russian aristocracy, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing and a good education in France. His first job was helping his father in his picture framing business, something which would doubtless have a profound impact on him when he began making films.

As an adolescent, Jacques Tati’s first love was sport. He belonged to various sporting clubs and excelled in a whole range of sports – including rugby, tennis and boxing. In the changing rooms, he would often mime his sporting activities to his team mates, who, so impressed, persuaded him to take his act to the stage. This he did and he appeared in shows in theatres and musical halls across Paris in the 1930s, to great success. The same comic routines featured in some of his early short films (which he either directed himself or with other directors, notably René Clément) – such as Oscar champion de tennis (1932) and Soigne ton gauche (1936).

After the war, Tati pursued his career as an actor, and appeared in minor roles in two of Claude Autant-Lara’s films, Sylvie et le Fantôme (1945) and Le Diable au corps (1946). In 1947, Tati wrote, directed and starred in a short film L' Ecole des facteurs, which appears to be a direct homage to the silent American films of the 1920s (with obvious references to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton). Encouraged by the success of this short film, Tati remade it soon afterwards as Jour de fête, his first full length film.

Jour de fête proved to be an enormous success, winning favourable reviews and earning Tati the Best Director award for at Venice in 1949. Ironically, this was very nearly the first French film to have been made and released in colour. Tati shot two versions of the film – one in black and white, the other in colour. For technical reasons, the colour print proved to be unusable at the time and was not developed until 1995. This was just one instance of Tati being way ahead of his time, a characteristic which would cause him more harm than good, preventing him from achieving the level of recognition he merited within his lifetime.

One obvious way in which Tati bucked the trend was by religiously refusing to engage professional actors. He preferred to train non-professional actors, in a similar fashion to Robert Bresson (whose approach to filmmaking bears some striking similarities with Tati’s). In Jour de fête, Tati developed a style of film which he would not depart from, but rather constantly refine, in the course of his filmmaking career. Tati’s films are characteristically plot-less physical comedies, sometimes resembling silent comedies of the 1920s. They are often concerned with comparisons of children and adults, light-hearted assaults on the bourgeoisie and, most strikingly, the relentless march of technology. Tati broaches some important subjects but he does so in a playful, astutely non-political way, something which allows his films to play at many different levels to different cinema audiences, causing offence to no one.

Another thing which distinguishes Tati’s film is the way he uses sound to amplify or contradict the images we see on the screen, adding another layer of detail which both adds to the charm of the film and to its structural complexity. Most tellingly, dialogue is used not to convey information to he audience, but rather as if were just like any other form of background noise. To this aural mosaic, Tati invariably adds long snatches of accompanying music, which is relentlessly cheerful and often cued to fit in with the film’s narrative (for example to coincide with a record player being switched on). It is this curious interplay of background sound, music and image which defines Tati’s films as truly unique, offering an experience quite unlike anything else in cinema.

In 1952, Tati released his second full length film, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. The film proved to be a huge success, particularly in the United States, and it earned Tati an international following. It was this film which saw the first appearance of Monsieur Hurlot, Tati’s alter ego who would feature in four of his six full-length films. The names Tati and Hulot are now virtually synonymous, and it is interesting to speculate how much of Tati’s persona is revealed in his portrayal of Hulot. Like Chaplin’s tramp, Monsieur Hulot is a brilliant cinematic creation. An inoffensive, ordinary-looking middle-aged man, he unwittingly sets off a series of disasters wherever he goes and then saunters away, totally oblivious to the mayhem he has caused. A silent loner who attracts neither malice nor glory, Hulot is an adorable yet elusive character who could scarcely be a more fitting self-portrait of Tati himself – but with at least one obvious difference. Whereas Hulot appears to be a bumbling accident-prone good-for-nothing, Tati, as a director, was the opposite – a creative genius who was an obsessive perfectionist. Nothing that appears in a Tati film is there by accident – each scene has been meticulously planned and rehearsed to fit precisely with Tati’s vision. As Tati illustrates in the short film Cour du soir (1967), comedy is as much about observation and technique as it is about talent.

Monsieur Hurlot was the star of Tati’s next film, Mon Oncle (1958). A light-hearted yet perceptive satire on the dehumanising influence of technology on society and family life, the film was considered by the critics of the day (including François Truffaut) to be a masterpiece. This film, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in France and an Academy Award in America, was to mark the highpoint in Tati’s career.

It was almost a decade before Tati’s next film, Playtime (1967) was released. His most ambitious project, Tati invested everything he had in the film, even going so far as to create a set the size of a small town (nicknamed Tativille). Critics saw this extravagance as a sign of megalomania and Tati’s severe treatment of journalists (forbidding them from coming anywhere near his set) only created bad publicity. The film was beset with by production problems (the set was badly damaged in a storm) and Tati’s perfectionism caused filming to overrun by several months. When the film was released it met with a very cool reception from the critics and failed to attract cinema goers in the expected numbers. Playtime was a devastating commercial failure which brought financial ruin to its creator. Tati, who had used up his own financial resources and turned to friends and relations for money, would be paying of the debts he had accumulated in making the film right up until his death.

As a result of these financial difficulties, Tati found he had lost his freedom as a director, but he still retained his creative urge. He made two further films, although both were made under constraints which severely limited Tati’s scope. The first was Trafic (1971), a satire on mankind’s ill-fated love-affair with the motor car, in which Monsieur Hurlot made his final bow. This was followed by Parade (1974), a low-budget circus-based film for Swedish television which, contrary to Tati’s expectations, was never released in cinemas.

In recognition of his contribution to cinema, Jacques Tati was awarded a César d’honneur in 1977. Tati’s final project, Confusion, was aborted at an early stage when the director died from a pulmonary embolism, on 5th November 1982 in Paris.

Since his death, Jacques Tati’s films have grown to be appreciated by increasing numbers of film enthusiasts across the world. The style of the films, based on the language of physical comedy, makes them accessible to all cultures, all ages. They are as entertaining to children as they are to adults, whilst those who regard cinema as an art can only be impressed by Tati’s creativity, discipline and imagination. Although recognition of Tati’s genius has been a long time coming, few would now dispute that Jacques Tati is one of the greatest names on the history of cinema.


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