Despite having worked exclusively during the sound era, Jacques Tati was arguably the last of the great silent comedians. His signature character, Monsieur Hulot, occasionally mutters an audible phrase or two, and there’s always plenty of background chatter—Tati’s films are notable for their rich, complex soundtracks, which he painstakingly constructed in post-production. All the same, his style of gentle slapstick has much more in common with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd than with any other director or star of his own generation. He was far less prolific than those counterparts, however, which allows Criterion to offer a box set called The Complete Jacques Tati that can be held in the palm of one hand. Containing all six of his features and most of the shorts in which he appeared, it’s an invaluable one-stop tour of a singular career that spanned five decades (1934–1974) while remaining vaguely out of time.
After starring in a handful of comedy shorts directed by others (including René Clément, who’d go on to make such classics as Forbidden Games and Purple Noon) during the 1930s, Tati saw action in World War II, then established a successful cabaret act in Paris. When Clément was unavailable to direct a short script Tati had written about a school for postmen, Tati took the helm himself. Two years later, that short, “L’école Des Facteurs” (included in this box set), formed the basis for Tati’s glorious feature debut, Jour De Fête (1949). While Tati plays the most significant role—that of a small village’s bicycle postman, who sees a documentary on American postal methods and becomes obsessed with increasing his speed—the film, set on and just after the day of the town fair, functions more as an affectionate community portrait, frequently taking detours to observe people battling bothersome insects on the road or the go-nowhere flirtation between a married man and his comely young neighbor. It also establishes Tati as superb with gags and having a knack for creative repetition. The Hulot films are better known, but this is a gem.
Speaking of Hulot, he makes his debut in Tati’s second feature, 1953’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, which was so hugely popular in France (and elsewhere) that Tati would continue playing the role for the rest of his career—save for a TV-movie in which he more or less plays himself. Immediately identifiable by his signature hat, overcoat, and ever-present pipe, Hulot is an amiable buffoon prone to accidental mishaps, and generally having no particular agenda. (Unlike Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Lloyd’s “Glasses” character, Hulot never pursues women; even stony-faced Keaton was more romantic.) Here, he shows up at a seaside resort for his summer holiday and engages in various tomfoolery, though Tati is still more interested in fashioning a group portrait than in hogging the spotlight as an actor. Lazy, rambling, and almost completely plotless, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday forgoes the frenetic highs of Jour De Fête in favor of lightly amusing running bits—many of them aural, like a swinging door that makes a plucked-bass noise every time it’s used. (That sound now accompanies the Tati estate’s animated logo.)
With 1958’s Mon Oncle, Tati begins pushing his penchant for stylization in a more aggressive direction. Most of the action is set at the ultra-modern, anti-functional home of Hulot’s sister and brother-in-law, whose young son views Hulot as a surrogate father figure. This is Tati’s first color film—he’d attempted to shoot Jour De Fête in color, and a restored alternate version of that film is included as a bonus feature—and the first in which outré art direction threatens to overshadow the characters. Most of the jokes are predicated on an exasperation with technology, which caused some French critics at the time to accuse Tati of being a Luddite. Mon Oncle’s bigger problem is that it’s far less generous than Tati’s other films, drawing a judgmental dividing line between the hero’s ramshackle life and that of his odious relations (excepting his nephew, who hates the regimentation and mechanization as much as Hulot does). Still, there are plenty of terrific jokes, and Hollywood didn’t sweat the swipe at leisure-era progress: The film won that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, thereby cementing Tati’s reputation.
Nearly a decade would pass before Tati’s next film arrived, though the delay was perfectly understandable once people saw it. Shot in 70 mm on specially constructed forced-perspective sets, PlayTime (1967) ranks among the most formally ambitious movies ever made, and its first hour or so, which takes place in a series of newfangled office buildings, is unquestionably Tati’s masterpiece. The gags are still there (as is Monsieur Hulot, who’s on hand trying in vain to find the room where an important meeting is being held), but now they’re almost entirely architectural in nature; Tati navigates the progression of action in the buildings so that each new angle builds on the previous one, usually in a way that requires a brief but invigorating moment of visual recalibration. Nobody is singled out for derision, as in Mon Oncle—here, it’s modern life itself that’s absurd, and everyone is just trying to get by (figuratively and literally). PlayTime’s second half, however, which takes place that night in a fancy restaurant, is less inspired, abandoning wry exactitude for a more generalized sense of chaos that isn’t Tati’s forte. What it tries to accomplish would be handled much more adroitly by Blake Edwards the following year in The Party, starring Peter Sellers.
Chaos reigns again in Tati’s final “proper” film, 1971’s Trafic, though he’s not hampered by restricting the action to a single location. Monsieur Hulot, appearing for the last time, is the designer of a gadget-happy “camping car” that’s meant to be his fictional motor company’s star attraction at a big auto show in Amsterdam. Alas, en route to the convention from France, everything that can go wrong does go wrong (call it La Loi De Murphy), from an empty fuel tank to a lengthy customs inspection. Most of the movie thus takes place on the road (or just off the road), though Tati opts to set the auto show concurrent with the Apollo 11 mission, seen on various television sets throughout as a counterpoint to the absurdity taking place in the foreground. (It also inspires a hilarious sequence in which two guys mimic the look of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moving in low gravity.) Trafic is—forgive the inadvertent wordplay—unusually slow to get going, and it expends more time than necessary on a glamorous public-relations woman (played by model Maria Kimberly) and her cute little dog. Eventually, though, it finds its groove, taking pleasure in enforced downtime while the rest of the world (like astronauts on the moon) rockets ahead.
Because he made so few films, Tati never really whiffed—all six of his features are well worth seeing. Few would deny, however, that Parade, his 1974 swan song, is by far the least essential. Commissioned by Swedish television, it features Tati as the master of ceremonies at a circus performance, showcasing acts that were clearly designed for the stage and a live audience. (The audience gets a lot of screen time, too.) Some of the routines are impressive—a trio of jugglers is the standout—while others, like a prolonged rodeo-style event in which spectators attempt to ride a wild pony, are a laborious waste of time. And all of it seems very much like filmed—or, worse, videotaped—theater; this is easily Tati’s worst-looking picture. It’s most valuable as a rare glimpse into the vaudeville career that Tati mostly gave up in order to work in the movies. The man was 66 or 67 when Parade was shot, and still as agile as ever, performing routines that achieve the near-impossible: They make mime look good. His impression of a soccer goalie—whose job consists of a few seconds of intense alertness, followed by a minute of tedium while the ball is across the field, over and over in a hot/cold cycle—works as a visual metaphor for his comic sensibility. He was the last member of a species now extinct, and this box set preserves his complete fossil remains.
The box set as a whole is an A. It’s essential. Subjective grades for each film (which will likely cause outrage in the comments for mostly being too low), are as follows:
Jour De Fête: A
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday: B+
Mon Oncle: B
Play Time: B+
The Complete Jacques Tati is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.