Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: The Complete Jacques Tati -- Tati Shorts; Jour de Fete (1949); Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953); Mon Oncle (1958); Playtime (1967); Trafic (1971); Parade (1974)
"It makes me sound old-fashioned," Jacques Tati once confessed in an interview, "but I think I'm an anarchist." However when you consider that this quotation originates not only in the 1970s but also during the very same decade that punk rock's Sex Pistols called for "Anarchy in the U.K.," Tati's statement seems a bit anachronistic given the fact that – by its very definition – anarchy is anything but outdated or old-fashioned.
Yet coming from the man whose movies feel futuristic and nostalgic all at the same time – the man whose epic Playtime was famously described by French New Wave auteur François Truffaut as the product of “another planet where they make films differently," this summation of being just out of step with time is oddly fitting.
For admittedly, of course, there is something self-consciously old-fashioned about the near silent-film style characterization of his mostly Buster Keaton (as well as Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd) inspired onscreen alter-ego Monsieur Hulot.
But while Tati's ill-proportioned proper Sunday dress suits and striped stockings only accentuated the evolutionary sliding scale of his meandering character's ostrich-gait (which seems like it'd been dreamed up during his early vaudeville music hall days), the films he handcrafted were the opposite of "old," despite the ageless man behind and in front of the camera.
A walking doppelganger or Russian doll, it's almost as though he were two people for the price of one – as if making movies kept Jacques Tati young in some sort of Dorian Gray like arrangement where he stayed old in front of and young behind the lens – forever caught between the two states.
While whether or not cinema served as Tati's own philosophical fountain of youth is anyone’s guess but what can be argued is that Tati’s films served the same purpose for the viewer by managing to bring out the kid in all of us while also challenging us simultaneously to mature think in abstracts.
Moreover, the impressive techniques that Tati used to revolutionize the field of sound design are still being employed to this day, whether those doing so are conscious of their origins or not.
A comedic sociologist or cinematic behaviorist, Tati’s filmed studies took place in the outside world of what the director described as "the clinic"-like atmosphere of our increasingly anonymous, impersonal modern society. And much like a medical research project, Tati's opuses could take years to create.
Opting to ignore the strict narrative rules of stageplay inspired structure observed by many of his contemporaries around the globe, Tati's largely plotless yet highly complex movies broke away from the pack of what was crossing over from France at the time.
Instead of focusing on one character or one story, Tati rebelled by chronicling several (of varying lengths) all at once. Defying classification, while Jean-Luc Godard referred to his oeuvre as being the French answer to Italy's post WWII neorealism (in spite of Tati's part Russian and Dutch heritage), the impact that his work had on future filmmakers and particularly observational documentarians cannot be understated.
As a Type A perfectionist whose films were overflowing with unusual characters who were quickly thrust into extraordinary situations, Jacques Tati obsessively orchestrated each seemingly random collision endured by his ensemble cast down to the smallest detail.
And indeed, those who populated his works were always on the verge of some kind of catastrophe – wandering in one frame and out another in the enormous diorama-style set pieces that Tati staged like everyday urban mazes, where glass reflected surfaces, unusual props and zigzag-architectural layouts were the norm.
Like a magician well-trained in the art of misdirection, minutes of screen time slowly tick by before we subtly start to notice the way that Tati’s densely populated backdrops began to transform before our eyes.
Taking advantage of surprising set-ups in his ever heightened takes on modern life, part of the pleasure of watching Tati is in being kept off balance like a child winding up their Jack in the box in the hopes it’ll soon spring to life.
Yet as much as he reveled in uniquely choreographed sequences of chaotic anarchy, Tati never strayed too far from logic and sense.
Much like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd before him, by always starting with and holding onto a consistently objective point-of-view with his own version of an onscreen surrogate in the ever-mysterious Hulot, Tati managed to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground even when the world around us threatened to collapse.
Whether it's a lonely stretch of roadway on the way to an auto show, a bizarrely landscaped house anchored by a fish fountain, an overcrowded nightclub, or a seaside resort, Tati created highwire acts worthy of only the most fearless trapeze artists.
Just like the finale of a fireworks display on the 4th of July which sends multiple bursts of light high into the sky from all sides, in the director's most ambitious achievements, the action unfolds simultaneously onscreen from every angle and side. As such, it’s been said that you never see the same film twice when you revisit a work by Jacques Tati.
In his hands, everyone and everything – essentially every noun – has the potential to steal focus. From a pack of mischievous Parisian dogs to one of many machines meant to simplify life that in all actuality does the opposite or a red rubber hose that’s both a prop and a metaphor, all are treated equally in Mon Oncle by Tati.
A consummate showman, Tati’s first feature Jour de Fete has its origins in one of several silent comedy inspired '30s shorts that have been included in the Complete Criterion Collection release of his entire oeuvre.
Yet although Tati reprised the role he'd developed and embodied as a bumbling village postman in his full length debut, the Big Day alluded to in its translated title mainly revolves around the arrival of the traveling fair.
The mishaps and madcap sight gags of Tati's subtly staged unique brand of comedy that would fill his own unique universe situated at the intersection of past, present, and future is well-established in the film, which makes it a particularly fitting bookend to the (also included) Swedish made-for-television special Parade that closed out his career.
Taking on the role of a veritable ringmaster, Tati's Parade emcee serves as the bridge between the savvy audience members and the diversely talented performers that take the stage.
And just like in his aforementioned Big Day, throughout the underrated Parade, he blurs the lines between fantasy and reality and artist and spectator, giving each and every amusing noun an equal amount of say.
While the action unspools slowly, it’s a beautiful work originally released in black-and-white, despite being shot simultaneously in color using side-by-side cameras in a French version of Technicolor that failed to come off (as though the off-screen modern device were instead an onscreen Tati gag).
Thankfully, now over sixty years later, we finally get the chance to see the film the way he'd envisioned in this faultless Criterion high definition, full-color release. Painstakingly restored by Tati's filmmaker daughter Sophie Tatischeff, each frame's hues match the color palette of the period that had been devised by the notable perfectionist.
And while it still holds up well, Jour de Fete is a frothy, light-hearted confection when viewed in quick succession with the rest of the works that comprised the master director's career.
Having once called comedy "the summit of logic," or a cinematic syllogism wherein 'if A and B, then C,' while the subsequent pictures that ushered in the character and era of Hulot play marvelously on their own individually, when they're viewed back-to-back, one after another, it's amazing to see the creative evolution that plays out on the screen.
For much like the patio squares that lead from the electronic gate to the slightly sinister automatic household at the heart of Mon Oncle, each film works as a stepping stone, taking us closer and closer to his brilliant Playtime that served as the sum total of the previous pictures' parts.
And while it's impossible to imagine both the amount of work and how much thought went into each frame, like all great showmen – the likes of which came to town in Jour de Fete and gave one last performance before disappearing into the final roar of applause in Parade — Tati made everything looks so natural.
In doing so, he treats us like the travelers out on the town in Playtime, the visitors at Hulot's resort, and the workers trying to make it to the auto show in Trafic.
As the grandson of the man who framed Van Gogh's paintings, it's been said that his own apprenticeship in the family business was such a disaster that he fled to Paris to join the bohemian life of artists. However thinking about that now, you can't help but see the way that the lessons learned from framing as well as the craftsmanship and taste of his family not only dominated his biological DNA but his filmmaking DNA as well.
Unwilling to frame just one picture at a time, Tati was far too fascinated by movement to be content with keeping the subject still. And although his work might have seemed anarchic to the untrained viewer, on closer inspection, it’s hard to ignore the influence of trompe l'oeil (aka "trick of the eye" photorealistic imagery) on his work, particularly in his placement of everything from people to props juxtaposed alongside his experiments in depth perception.
He's also notable for his impressionistic use of picture meshed together with an expressionistic passion for sound which began to create unusual counterpoints in the way that we processed often contradictory audio and visual information as early as Monsieur Hulot's Holiday.
While he would continue this in Mon Oncle, he’s at the height of his artistic powers in Playtime, which is the filmmaking equivalent of a heavily researched master’s thesis for which he’d studied in the laboratory of life.
Yet given his believe that as the world grows more and more anonymous, it makes each one of us feel as much of a nameless outsider as the majority of the nouns that filled his screens, it's interesting to see the way that he merges both senses in his first masterpiece Mon Oncle.
The Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film upon its release, Tati has argued that the film went a little bit "astray" from him in the decades following its debut.
A personal favorite of this reviewer – viewing it today for the first time in nearly a decade I can honestly agree with the filmmaker as admittedly, upon closer inspection, it begins spiraling out of control in the last half. Nonetheless, it still remains his most palatable and popular endeavor to date.
Nearly silent in terms of dialogue (undoubtedly due to his hatred of distracting subtitles which again goes back to his genetic predisposition for perfectly framed pictures), Mon Oncle opens with the impression that we'll be following Hulot and his nephew's journey, before it introduces others and takes us around in circles, going nowhere and everywhere all at the same time.
Famous for adding in sound in post-production in addition to tweaking the pitch and timbre, as he astutely explained in an interview, "when people are in strange surroundings, natural sounds always sound louder," and louder still when we watch while imagining the internal thought process of so many anonymous characters.
This is perhaps most notable in Playtime which holds for a Rear Window-like view of four apartment rooms at once in a sequence that undoubtedly inspired Michael Haneke's Cache.
While the number of filmmakers whose works were influenced by Tati is endless, it's intriguing to note for example that Wes Anderson's intricate symmetry and overly designed sets (including the perfectionism on display in his diorama heavy films) make him in particular feel like he was the unusual love child or of two different men named Jacques.
And for although Tati is a given, Wes Anderson's sensibilities also reflect the ouevre of Jacques Demy, whose work was also released as part of an epic 2014 Criterion set a few months before this arrived alongside it on the shelf in an interesting twist of fate all three would be sure to appreciate.
Wanting to push humans out even further in favor of the mechanized world, Tati never got to make the final work he planned to call Confusion wherein (as he’d wished before) he imagined killing off his Hulot character. However, I can’t help but feel this might be for the best as in a way and much like Chance the Gardener from Hal Ashby's Being There, Hulot was always here, there, everywhere, and nowhere all at the same time.
As indescribable and indefinable as the plots of his films, Tati is a man who had a "feeling for comedy because he," in the words of Godard, also "had a feeling for strangeness."
Yet he might just as well be summed up as equal parts magician and sociologist, logician and clinician, an alien from a planet where "they make films differently," an art student of the present trying to paint a still portrait of a subject that keeps moving, or an old fashioned anarchist, as well as the hundreds of other phrases that people have used to try to sum him up over the years.
Neither part of the New Wave or (like Demy) one hundred percent separate from it and as interested in foreign fare as he was fascinated by the Hollywood groundbreakers like Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, Tati and by extension the Hulot character was everyone and no one all at once.
And throughout his work with everything from logic to anarchy at his disposal, Jacques Tati aimed to do precisely what we all try to – which is make sense of an ever-changing world that always sounds better with the soundtrack of laughter.
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