Talking Pictures

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Jacques Tati

Posted by keith1942 on September 25, 2010

He was born Jacques Tatischeff on October 9th 1908 in France, but in a family that included Russian, Italian, French and Dutch ancestors. His father ran an art restoration and picture framing business. Tat entered the family firm after schooling and military service. He also took up sport and became a player with the Racing Club rugby team. His main contribution here was off the pitch, as he developed a series of sporting impressions with which he entertained fellow players. This led to amateur and then professional engagements. He entered the cabaret and music hall industry in the early thirties, and after several lean years developed into a popular attraction. This career continued through the war and the immediate post-war years.

Some of Tati’s standard routines were incorporated in semi-amateur short films in the 1930s. He entered professional filmmaking as an actor in 1946 and as a director in 1947 with a short film, L’Ecole des Facteurs. This film was a comedy built round the postal service. It provided the basis for Tati’s first feature-length Film Jour de fête (1949). This film, after a slow start, became both a commercial and critical success. It also won the award for Best Script at the Venice Film Festival.

Tati’s second feature did not appear until 1953. This was due to a combination of financial restrictions and Tati’s own perfectionism. Tati was involved in the setting up of the Production Company for his films, Cady-films. He was also involved in raising the capital for these productions. Over the years he increased his control over production but also increased his exposure to financial problems. In later life he was involved in several legal battles over both profits and debts and had to surrender the rights to his films.

He also went to great lengths in the preparation and filming of the features. The cost and size of his features escalated over the years. However, as elsewhere in Europe the French film box office was dominated by Hollywood releases. Even though the French government enacted legislation to provide some protection for indigenous production only lower budget films tended to recoup their costs in the domestic market. Tati’s films were successful internationally but as his budgets increased the US market became more important to their success.
Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr Hulot’s Holiday, 1953] introduced the screen persona with whom Tati has become most closely associated. Making use of Tati’s large figure, but also his grace and mobility, Hulot is a figure that works mainly thorough visual comedy. In his first feature Monsieur Hulot joins a group of predominantly middle class holidaymakers at a small Breton resort. Amiable but less than sensitive to social protocol, Hulot is the source of comic disruption to the routines of the seaside holiday.

The film was shot in black and white, and is presented mainly in mid-shot and long shot [similar to the style of early film comedy]. It also shares with them a preponderance of the visual over the aural elements. Les Vacances has a soundtrack, but it pays as much interest to noise and music as it does to dialogue. Quite often spoken lines are irrelevant or indistinct: the English subtitling does undermine this emphasis a little. Tati’s invention, Monsieur Hulot, was a commercial success, including in the large US market.

His next feature, Mon Oncle (My Uncle, 1958) was filmed in colour. It set Hulot opposite his relatives the Arpel family. It also counterpoised the old Parisian quarter where Hulot lives against the gadget laden, fashionable modern establishments of the Arpel home and factory.

Important aspects of this film are the packs of children and dogs that roam the streets. Hulot always enjoyed positive relationship with both. Both offer the kind of instinctive behaviour that typifies Hulot himself. Mon Oncle is the film that bears the closest relationship to Jour de fête, since the old quarter posses a stable community that parallels that in the first feature. However, the ending of Mon Oncle poses a question over the likely continuance of the latter. And the film does devote more time to the modernism of the Arpel than to the traditions of the old quarter.

Tati’s next film, Playtime, took ten years to appear, in 1968. This was partly due to financial pressures but mainly to the perfectionism of Tati himself. A brand new studio setting was created for the film [nicknames Tativille] and vast and expensive sets constructed. The film was shot in Eastmancolor and the 70mm format. The latter offered a very high quality of screen image, but required equally high quality settings, which cost more money than those needed for standard 35mm. The actual filming alone took two years and the final cut ran to 150 minutes. On release the film was clearly too long for the popular audience and was progressively cut to 120 minutes, 108 minutes and finally 97 minutes. Even then it was a failure and left Tati saddled with large debts.

He made two more features: Trafic (Traffic, 1971), which was filmed in Belgium and focussed on a road jam, again with Monsieur Hulot involved. His last film, Parade (1974) was made for Swedish television and is basically a record of a circus performance in which Tati performs his lifelong sporting routines. Neither film was commercially successful.

Tati died in 1982. However, there is one addition to his film oeuvre. In the 1950s he wrote a script for an unrealised film, L’illusioniste. The animator Sylvain Chomet has now filmed this, English title The Illusionist UK/France 2010). The story follows the declining career of a music hall magician, Tatischeff. Obviously the original script was strongly autobiographical. Chomet’s interpretation captures the period detail both of the music halls and of Edinburgh, [which replaced the Prague of the original script]. The film provides an affectionate portrait of Tati as a mime artists.

Mime is one of the central qualities to be enjoyed in Tati’s films. The mime tradition was especially strong in France, going back to the C19th. One of the classic films of French Cinema, Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) has a mime artists as a central character in the story. And, of course, mime was part of the artistry of the great silent comics, who Tati admired and who clearly influenced his film work.

Two important influences are Max Linder and Buster Keaton. Linder was probably the first great comic star of the new film entertainment world. He started out at the Pathé Studios in 1905. As his career developed Linder wrote, directed and starred in his own films. He was immensely influential: including on the even more successful Charlie Chaplin. Keaton is better known and is one of the greats of Hollywood silent film. He was meticulous in the preparation and delivery of gags: he had great grace on screen, even when performing stunts and mishaps: and his films make great use of realistic settings, notably The General (1926). David Thomson commented that “Hulot is, in outline, very close to Buster Keaton – a romantic bewildered by the vagaries of the world.”

That quality is apparent in Tati’s work. His misadventures in all sort of situations mirror many of those experienced by Keaton. His gags are worked out, often at great length and in meticulous manner. Moreover, despite the often fantastic direction of the plot, the settings in which events occur capture a recognisably real place. Jour de fête’s Follainville is a lovely portrait of a 1940s French village: and Mon Oncle’s old quarter is a warm portrait of a Paris that was then already disappearing. And whilst Playtime offers world of artifice the film also offers detailed and beautifully realised settings.

This contrast between the traditional and the modern is at the heart of Tati’s world. However, it seems more complex than nostalgia for the traditional versus an antipathy for the modern. Even Tati’s modernist settings are beautifully realised. What appears to attract his satire most is the taste for the technological, as in the gadgets of Mon Oncle. And for the regimentation of the fashionably modern, as in Playtime.

Moreover, whilst the style of his films harks back to the silent era, it also appears to share some tropes with the modernist cinema of, for example, Jean-Luc Godard. Tati’s film use distance in presenting the comic worlds that they survey. In Playtime the film not only uses the long shot [distance] and the long take [duration], but the 70mm format enables the use of what is called deep focus and deep staging. This means that objects and events that appear to be at the back of the frame can be seen clearly and may attract the viewers attention as much as the foreground. This is rather different from the mainstream’s tendency to have important action in the centre and foreground of the screen. In fact, Playtime really needs to be seen in 70mm in order to appreciate all the actions that Tati includes in the film.

Tati’s films all share tendencies with modernist film in regard to the soundtrack and the narrative. The former does not privilege the dialogue of the key characters over another sounds, often the dialogue we hear [or read in the subtitles] is less important than the noises that accompany this. And whilst Tati’s films follow a linear form, they are not presented as stories in the conventional sense. There is a sense of time and place, but within that characters and actions are presented thematically rather than in terms of continuity.

However the function of this approach seems rather different from that in films by someone like Godard: different from a form of political modernism. My sense is that the style adopted by Tati stems in part from two pre-occupations, both connected with his early career in Music Hall. First and foremost, he is a mime artist. The film Parade includes a performance of the sort of sporting impressions [of footballers, of tennis players, …] that Tati developed at the start of his career. While they are humorous and gently mocking they are not strictly satirical. What struck me was how much effort and skill Tati put into recreating the activity. He was reconstructing [more or less] behaviour he observed on the actual playing fields. Right through his films one can see this gentle but humorous recreation of physical behaviour. And apparently Tati was also very strict in directing his co-performers: he frequently used non-professionals and he was recorded as demonstrating in detailed fashion the way that he wanted them to move and perform.

This approach relies on close observation and one see an observational approach developing as his films progress. It is there in Jour de fête, but reaches and it becomes the overarching focus of Playtime.

The film style that Tati favours places the audience in a similar position to that of an audience watching his mime acts in a music hall: across the distance created by the proscenium. This is another parallel with early film comics, especially Chaplin, who maintained this viewpoint through most of his film career.

Thematically Tati’s films are tinged with certain nostalgia. Even in Playtime it is the absence of the old-fashioned, free and easy community that sharpens the satire. This seemed to me the main pre-occupation of L’illusioniste. If anything, the contrast between the traditional and modern fashion seems even more pointed. And the resolution of the film is elegiac, with the decline of the Music Hall and the loss of a sense of magic that was part of that culture. Intriguingly Tati wrote the script but never made the film. Perhaps this was in part a superstitious gesture: do not tempt the fates.

Jacques Tati was an extremely distinctive filmmaker. One can chart influences both on and by him. However, strict comparisons with other filmmakers, including other film comics, are difficult. Apart from the pleasure of his films and his comedy, this makes him an almost unique figure in his era of cinema.

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