Circles and squares: Jacques Tati has his way with contemporary design in Playtime, which screens in both YBCA's and PFA's Tati series this month.

It's 'Playtime' with Jacques Tati in New Series

Dennis Harvey January 13, 2010

You could make a case for Jacques Tati as the last great silent comedian–even if he didn’t begin making features until two decades into the sound era. Certainly he had more in common as a filmmaker with the styles of Chaplin and Buster Keaton than any major comic talents of subsequent decades, including primarily slapstick (rather than verbal) ones like Laurel & Hardy.

His contribution remains unique–the closest comparisons being, perhaps, Keaton for his deadpan orchestration of extraordinary physical chaos, and the current cult Swedish director Roy Andersson (You, the Living) for his existential absurdism built through meticulously designed setpieces sans conventional plot or character focus. If Keaton was once a thoroughly mainstream entertainer, and Andersson is something of a rarefied arthouse secret, Tati was a bit of both–a critical favorite who enjoyed his moment of international success, albeit all too briefly.

Bay Area moviegoers will get a jumbo dose of Tati in coming weeks, as both the Pacific Film Archive (Jan. 14-30) and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Jan. 21-Feb. 11) host extensive retrospectives. Also, the Smith Rafael and Red Vic Movie House screen Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. Everything is being shown in newly struck 35mm prints. The exception to that latter is local documentarian Michael House’s HD The Magnificent Tati, which plays the YBCA only on Jan. 24. This hour-long appreciation (based on David Bello’s biographical tome Jacques Tati: His Life and Art) charts an extraordinary talent’s career and invites commentary from a (sometimes surprising) mix of latterday scholars and fans.

Considering himself a “European cocktail” of mixed Dutch, Russian and Italian heritage, Tati was raised in comfortable middle-class French circumstances. The 6’3” athlete’s rugby playing somehow led to a successful music hall act in which he mimed sportive activities. He began to make comedy shorts in the 1930s (and was almost cast in Jean-Louis Barrault’s legendary role as Children of Paradise’s lovesick mime), but none were particularly successful until “School for Postmen” in 1947. That scored such a hit he was allowed to reprise his starring role as a bumbling rural mail deliverer in a first feature he also wrote and directed.

Released in 1949, Jour de Fete–the title refers to the fair climaxing a day of small-town doings both ordinary and ludicrous–delighted many. (Trivia note: It was shot in color, but the particular color process used became obsolete before the film was released. As a result, it was shown in B&W for decades until a 1995 restoration.)

There was considerable pressure on Tati to provide more of the same. But instead he invented a new character for himself in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), the titular well-meaning, middle-aged bourgeois who nonetheless somehow always seems to leave a trail of comic disaster in his wake. His seaside vacation enlarged upon Tati’s particular thematic and stylistic approaches.

Despite nominal “star” status, M. Hulot was really just another figure in a landscape–one that made fun of self-absorbed modern society, with its obsessive pursuit of convenience and novelty not entirely obliterating primitive emotional outbursts. As one commentator notes in The Magnificent Tati, “It’s a quite different way of making you laugh, not so much at the comedian but at the world.”

This was huge. Five years later he delivered the yea-huger Mon Oncle (1958), in which M. Hulot visits his sister and her family. They live in an ultramodern “push-button” suburban home that takes “all mod cons” to ridiculous extremes, and naturally turns out to be catastrophe-prone. Winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar and a Cannes Special Jury Prize, Mon Oncle was the bee’s knees by practically global consensus.

Yet in a testament to his perfectionism, it took a full decade for Tati to follow up that triumph. His ambition by now required enormous sets, a large cast (albeit still resistant to recognizable faces apart from his own), and color filming in 70mm–the wide high-resolution format typically reserved for Hollywood spectaculars like Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music and 2001, not foreign-language comedies.

Playtime (1967) was a genius contraption, possibly Tati’s greatest achievement. Its affectionate satire of an excessively modernized, not-so romantic or quaint new Paris took years to film and edit. He borrowed heavily once its budget ran way over. Then its near-inexplicable failure at the box-office bankrupted him, as well as numerous lenders.

Despite mostly positive reviews, it flopped at home and wasn’t even released in the U.S.–an extraordinary downturn for the maker of beloved Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle. Were audiences at the time so enthralled with the political and stylistic audacities of a game-changing cinematic moment? 1967 had everything from Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate and I Am Curious (Yellow) to envelope-pushing dispatches by Godard, Bellocchio, Bunuel, Suzuki, and many more. In that context, did Playtime appear old-fashioned? It seems rather timeless now, while many contemporaneous sensations have sorely dated.

Tati had a hard time after that. He attracted outside investors for 1971’s Traffic on the condition that he play M. Hulot yet again. Its portrait of mobile society–their precious cars manufactured, show-roomed, traffic-jammed, crashed, crushed for wrecking yards–rates near his best work. It was a modest success. Three years later Swedish admirers funded Parade, a TV feature in which he reprised his original mime routines while also showcasing various circus acts.

Ill for years, he died in 1982, his improbable last project being Confusion, a comedy to star arch U.S. rockers Sparks (Ron & Russell Mael) that was never made. The estate left behind was in such desperate shape that heirs nearly lost ownership of his films.

The Magnificent Tati sports other unexpected interviewees beyond the Maels, including a Powder Puff Girls creator and The Pixies’ Frank Black (whose solo tribute “Do the Jacques Tati* ain’t exactly among his best songs).

Accessible as they are, Tati’s films are hard to describe. They’re intricate slapstick ballets that tend to view the movements of individuals and groups alike as petty, impulsive, tantrum-prone–yet somehow that vision is more bemused than misanthropic. Appearing on the American Steve Allen Show at the height of his success, Tati admits in tentative English that “It’s difficult to tell the story [of Mon Oncle], because there is no story in my pictures.”

As his audiences grew more international, so did his characters. Pointedly, movies like Playtime and Traffic feature locals, tourists and passers-through speaking in their own various tongues without subtitles. This underlines both the Babel of modern life and the triviality of what these people are actually saying. His soundtracks were almost entirely done in post, with dubbed speech often mixed low while foley effects–a big element in the overall comic design–were as crisply exaggerated as in a cartoon.

Restored to their original brilliant color, these movies should delight anew prior converts and prove a revelation to those who’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Monsieurs Hulot or Tati before.