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Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

Playtime

Posted by keith1942 on September 24, 2010

France 1968. Filmed in Eastmancolor and 70 mm.

This was a feature that grew out of all proportion. The filming alone took two years. Tati had a special site constructed for the film [nicknamed Tativille]. The finances had to be re-arranged during the production. And when finally released the original running time of 155 minutes was cut to two hours, and even shorter in some versions.

In terms of plot the film opens where Mon Oncle left off, in an airport. It takes a little time for Hulot to appear, and part of the focus of the film is a tour of US women tourists, seeing Paris. Hulot path crosses with the women from time to time and then finally all are engaged in a long sequence in a new restaurant, the Royal Garden.

Before this Tati presents a series of modernist venues alike in their regimentation and soullessness. In most of these Hulot is less a disruptive presence than an onlooker non-plussed by the operation of the establishments. In fact, it is the design of the buildings themselves that appears to invite misadventure. Characters are lost in the space of the Airport: boxed in the cubicles at the office building: and bemused by the commercial stalls and their products in the shopping mall.

This is gentle satire, but satire nevertheless: most starkly in sequence where Hulot visits an old friend who lives in one of a number of identical modern flats. The inhabitants are presented as if in goldfish bowls, and appear to follow uniform behaviour patterns. The sense of unthinking conformism that is conjured up is actually a scathing comment on the modern setting and the people who live there.

There is a parallel feel in the sequence in which the Royal Garden Restaurant descends into chaos. Hulot creates a small island community in the centre of this debacle. Yet the majority of the customers continue on the dance floor and at their tables. Indeed they are joined by new customers entering the restaurant, all seemingly blithely indifferent to this little world falling apart.

The film lacks the contrast between this sterile world and any alternative found in the earlier films. The film is set in a Paris that seems uniformly modern and dominated by technology. The closest the characters [and the viewers] come to a more traditional city in is the reflection of key monuments in windows or glass doors: in this way we glimpse the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Cœur and Arc de Triomphe. This would seem to indicate a far more pessimistic view of the times than that found in the 1950s Hulot comedies.

Stylistically the film develops Tati established preferences to an even greater degree. The emphasis is on the long shot and the mid-shot, rarely do we get up close to characters. The film is also dominated by the long take, and this observational feel is accentuated by the combined use of deep focus and deep staging. In fact, if watching the 70mm print one finds it quite difficult to keep track of the varied characters and movements that are taking place on the screen.

Tati approach clearly fits with Andre Bazin’s stated preference for allowing the viewer to scan the image and select points of interest. It also makes the film feel distinctly modernist in the distance it creates between onscreen and the audience. The latter aspect is made stronger by the lack of a clear plot direction. We find ourselves studying a series of defined places over a defined time space. But it feels more like we have dropped into observe rather than to enjoy a dramatic development and resolution. To this is added Tati’s distinctive use of sound, with dialogue frequently relatively unimportant and the surrounding sound-scape contributing more to the scene we watch. During the sequence in the flats we are denied the dialogue that is taking place inside and listen instead to the street and traffic sound outside the apartments.

Playtime would seem to be the fullest development of a pessimistic side to Tati’s satire. The fashionable modern, the over-reliance on technological gimmicks, and the restrictions on individualist behaviour: these appear to have won out over the traditional, the eccentric and the communal. Of course, both sides of this opposition are presented in partial representations, but satire is never even-handed.

A 70mm restoration was made in 2002, running for 150 minutes. I was screened at the Cinema Ritrovato in 2004.

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The Illusionist / L’illusioniste

Posted by keith1942 on September 20, 2010

This is a new animated film by Sylvain Chomet, whose first feature was the memorable Bellevue Rendezvous (Les Triplettes de Belleville, 2002). It is also based on a script by the now deceased French director Jacques Tati. One can see recognisable elements from both these authors in the film, though it seems to me that Tati predominates. This is unsurprising because Chomet is clearly a Tati fan. There were references to Tati in both his early short film La Vielle Dame et les pigeons (1998) and in his first feature.  In this film the protagonist, the magician Tatischeff, bears Tati’s own name, and at one point enters a cinema to be confronted by a screening of Tati’s 1967 film Playtime.

Part of Chomet’s contribution is his command of animation techniques. The film is constructed from both hand-drawn 2D techniques for characters and digital 3D techniques for props and backgrounds. These are combined to produce a beautifully crafted film in which is created a slightly fantastic but also nostalgic world. The locations include Paris, London, Northwest Scotland and Edinburgh, following the odyssey of Tatischeff.

Set in 1959, his odyssey is a search for a responsive audience when the music hall world in which he works is in serious decline. This is point is made strongly in a recurring scene where Tatischeff is upstaged by a rock and roll band, and in another by a jukebox. The latter occurs on a Scottish island, which has just seen the arrival of electricity. This is a typical Tati-esque symbol of modern technology.

What seems to offer a redemptive chance is the encounter on the island between the ageing magician and a young serving girl, Alice. She both believes in and is entranced by his ensemble of tricks. This is a father-daughter relationship, and substantial part of the plot is set in Edinburgh where they attempt a new life together. The Tati script appears to have some reference to Tati’s relationship with his own daughter Sophie. Thus the film includes both the decline found in old age and the budding forth found in youth.

The character of Jacques Tati is emphatically present in the film. The tall, gangling Tatischeff immediately conjures up Tati’s own screen appearances. But the mood here is distinctly downbeat. The bumbling Monsieur Hulot tends to win out over the modernity that he confronts by sheer blind, dogged perseverance. In The Illusionist his alter ego repeatedly fails to hold back the tide of modern technological entertainment. Moreover, whilst Hulot seems impervious to the actual nature of modernity, Tatischeff is keenly aware of how it is replacing his world.

The film lacks the spiky and zany slapstick of Bellevue Rendezvous. The attractions of that film included weird but endearing characters like the hero’s grandmother and the overweight family dog. These are sadly missing in The Illusionist. The only example among the lead characters is Tatischeff’s irascible rabbit, presumably peeved by being constantly shoved into and then plucked out of a top hat. There is the young pop group, Billy Boy and the Britoons. But, as their name suggests, this is not a sympathetic characterisation.

It seems that in the original script the city in which the father-daughter idyll occurs was Prague. Chomet has substituted Edinburgh because his studio is now based there. However, the differences between these cities seem to express the differences between Chomet’s two features. I do sense Edinburgh as a city marketing its traditions with an element of nostalgia: nostalgia brilliantly satirised in Danny Boyle’s early films. This may be on aspect of Prague but there is another, the surrealism represented by Jan Svankmajer: also an animator. He is part of a long tradition in Prague, going back to the work by Arcimboldo for the royal court. Belleville Rendezvous had that absurdist look, though it was less subversive and more nostalgic. The Illusionist has a much stronger emphasis on nostalgia. Moreover, the final parting of Tatischeff and Alice suggest that the magic of the old, traditional world cannot survive in the new, modern world. This bittersweet development and resolution of the plot offers only a hint of irony.  It does though, offer a rather different take on Tati’’ own world and his satiric commentary on much modern development.

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Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot

Posted by keith1942 on September 17, 2010

France 1953

Black and white, 91 minutes. After release some of the original negative and sound track were mistakenly destroyed at the Éclair Laboratory. Tati remade the soundtrack and also re-edited some of the film in 1961, and again in 1978.

Academy Award Nomination for Best Screenplay.

This ‘Holiday’ film introduces Tati’s famous alter ego, Monsieur Hulot. He is an instantly recognisable comic creation, with a distinctive posture, walk, clothing and accessories. Like François he combines grace and awkwardness. He is well meaning but insensitive to the nuances of accepted social interaction. His attempts at social intercourse lead to anything from mild discomfort to wholesale chaos.

The holiday of the title lasts a week and occurs in a Breton seaside resort. Unlike Jour de fête there is not a coherent narrative. There are a series of events that occur in a linear fashion. But what connects them are the common characters and the place. At the film’s end the week has concluded but we sense the characters go on somewhere else, and with little development or change.

The film opens with shots of the sea: and a parallel shot closes the film with a freeze frame transforming the shot into a seaside postcard, complete with postage stamp. The opening is followed by the holidaymakers travelling by rail and road to the resort. Like Jour de fête there is a contemporary resonance here, as this was the period after the post-war economic recovery when the holiday break was re-established.

The protagonist Monsieur Hulot arrives separately by road, establishing immediately his outsider status. He travels by car and the vehicle, a 1924 Amilcar, establishes his eccentricity. His arrival at the Hôtel de Plague, [the main venue for the holidaymakers] confirms this and also commences the continuing actions that disrupt the ordinary tenor of the holiday resort.

The majority of the tourists appear to be petit bourgeois. They include a retired army officer, a Parisian intellectual and an entrepreneur; the latter is constantly chasing deals on the telephone.  There is also a young unattached girl, Martine, the focus of armour by several Frenchmen including Hulot. And there is a visiting English spinster who takes a shine to Hulot.

There are numerous seaside and beach gags, many reminiscent of silent comedy, especially Buster Keaton. Hulot’s car provides several comic episodes, including a justly famous cemetery misadventure. And there are set piece events that play on Tati’s earlier music hall acts, miming sporting characters. The latter include a tennis match, a table tennis match and an attempt at horse riding. There is some gentle humour around the attractions of Martine, but Hulot remains really an asexual hero.

As in Jour de fête there are comic asides, involving the other characters and also the routines of the hotel and the resort. However, this seems more satirical and less affectionate that the treatment of the country village. Partly this seems due to the lack of a genuine community in the seaside venue. What we see is a rather disparate collection of characters bought together by the amenities of the place. I found the most sympathetic group to be walkers and hostellers who appear briefly in the film.

Though shot in black and white M. Hulot’s Holiday shares the style of Tati’s first feature. The camera is almost continuously placed in mid-shot or long shot. The soundtrack includes dialogue, but this is rarely important in terms of plot. The soundtrack of synchronous and asynchronous noises seems more important in the atmosphere and humour of the film. There is not a commentating character as there was in Jour de fête.

The issue of modernity seems less central in this film, partly because there is not a contrast between to ways of life. The satire seems more directed at the conformity and regimentation Tati sees in institutions like the seaside holiday.

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Jour de fête

Posted by keith1942 on September 16, 2010

 

France 1947. Directed and co-scripted by Jacques Tati.

Shot in both an experimental Thomsoncolor version and black and white: when it proved impossible to process the colour version the film was released in black and white. Tati produced a colourised version in 1961 with some additional footage and sound. Then in 1995 François Ede and Sophie Tatischeff produced a version that successfully restored the original colour footage, and added a new re-recorded soundtrack. This is the version commonly available. 81 minutes. Some French with English subtitles.

Jacques Tai had already made a short film, L’Ecole de facteurs, in 1946, which prefigures Jour de fête. L’Ecole … was a short film is about a cycling postman who attempts to modernise his service. This is exactly the narrative of the latter part of Jour de fête, and in fact most of the sight gags around postmen are common to both films. Much of the addition in the later feature film concerns events in the village setting of Sainte-Sévére [called Follainville in the film]. An earlier version of the script was titled Fête au village.

Well over half the film is an affectionate and gently satirical portrait of a French provisional village and the great occasion of a visiting fair. Unlike his later films, whilst the Tati character, François the postman, is central, much of the plot and the humour relies on other characters and the situations in the village. Moreover, there is a sort of recurring commentary through the character of hunch-backed peasant woman with a goat. She re-appears throughout the film, and her comments are like those of a Greek chorus.

Essentially the first half of the film shows the arrival of a travelling fair in the village, with François the postman involved in most of the action. In the last half-an-hour the focus is entirely on François as he attempts to speed up his postal deliveries by employing methods that he mistakenly attributes to the US postal service.

His misapprehensions arise from a [fake] documentary shown in the Cinema Tent at the fair, which purports to show some of the amazing techniques used in the US postal service. François guyed by the fair’s stallholders into attempting to emulate these techniques.

So the first half of the film is an affectionate portrait of a 1940s village, with gentle comic turns from both villagers and the postman. The latter part of the film is a series of visual gags mimed by the Tati character. A number of the gags are reminiscent of those of the great silent comics. A cross-eyed character in one scene reminds me of Ben Turpin.

This make the film rather different from his most famous features constructed around the figure of Monsieur Hulot, where Tati’s character dominates the plot and the screen. However, the film is close to the later features in its style and techniques. The film is predominantly shot in long shot and mid-shot [what the French call le plan americain]. The soundtrack devotes less attention to dialogue than in most mainstream films, preferring to concentrate on the noise of the action and the music that accompanies the action.

The character that Tati plays in the film is also recognisably similar to that of the later Hulot. Tall and large, sometimes incredibly awkward and sometimes notably graceful. François, like Tati, is both a source of amusement to characters but also a continuing disruption. Life and social intercourse rarely run smoothly when François is around.

In terms of values the film shares certain tendencies with the Hulot features. Modernity, or at least the fashionably modern, especially in the sense of technological innovation, is constantly undermined or subverted. As in the later films the quaint, the traditional and the old-fashioned seem to be preferred to the up-to-date and the fashionable. The peasant woman tells Francois at the end of the film, “And as for good news, it doesn’t go bad waiting a little while.” At this point Francois joins a group haymakers in a field whilst a young lad picks up his postman’s bag and sets off to complete his deliveries.

There is an added theme in Jour de fête: a satirical line on USA and its cultural invasion of Europe. The film clearly sends up US modernisation through the spoof documentary. But we also get in the film a brief appearance by US GIs who fail to interpret the French world they see before them. This presumably reflects in part a potent social movement of the late 1940s. A US aid package for France included extremely advantageous provisions for the Hollywood Film industry: and this was the subject of vocal and large protests in the late 1940s.

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