The Cinema of
Jacques Tati
M. Hulot's Holiday
and
Mon Oncle
dvd review by David Ng

 
Jacques Tati is one of the great comic icons of French cinema, a Gallic equivalent of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, whose works as director, writer, and actor are regarded fondly by audiences as well as harder-to-please critics. Like a true auteur, Tati essentially made only one kind of film, in his case, the physical comedy. There is little to no dialogue in his movies, and the action, frenzied but tightly choreographed, is invariably set to a breezy musical score. The main protagonist of all his movies is also his screen alter ego, the ubiquitous Monsieur Hulot who, with his pipe and trenchcoat, eventually came to personify the Tati canon. From 1953 to 1974, Tati played Hulot a total of five times, winning an Oscar and two Cannes prizes along the way. Two of the best known Hulot films, M. Hulotís Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958), have been released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. (A third, Playtime, will be released later this year.) They represent Tati at peak form. They are precisely calibrated films that successfully merge farce with darker social commentary.

One of Tatiís favorite themes is our enslavement to technology, or more precisely, how technology makes us do ridiculous things. The opening scene of M. Hulotís Holiday, in which a group of tourists awaits the arrival of a train, is a prime example. As they wait patiently on one platform, the loud speaker makes an entirely unintelligible announcement. Confused, the tourists move en masse to a platform on the other side of the station where a train is pulling in. But the train passes through without stopping. More garble from the loud speaker and the tourists see their train arriving at the original platform. Again they move in herd like formation back to the other side. The entire scene occupies less than a minute of screen time but Tatiís message is deft and unforgettable. The confusion caused by the loud speaker and the arriving trains is entirely man-made, and it is ultimately man who suffers. Tati returns to this theme in an expanded and much darker form in Mon Oncle, in which the central family lives in an ultra-modernized home. Everything is button operated and the layout is a cross between a space station and a museum. It is all for show, of course; the dolphin fountain in the front yard is activated only when guests arrive, causing the porcine matron, Madame Arpel, to rush maniacally to her master control switch each time the doorbell rings.

For Tati, repetition was an inexhaustible source of comedy. Watching Madame Arpel push the same buttons over and over again is like watching a circus animal perform the same trick. We are mesmerized by her mechanical, inhuman quality. Most of the characters in Mon Oncle, with their bizarre costumes and stiff body language, look and act robotic (with the exception of Monsieur Hulot, of course). The secretary at Monsieur Arpelís plastics factory walks with a metallic clip-clop which clearly announces her arrivals and departures. We donít think of her as a human; she is an institutional creation designed to serve her masters. To a certain degree, we watch all of Tatiís characters with a similar level of impassivity. There isnít a single close-up shot in either movie. Observing them from a distance, we may at times empathize with his characters, but seldom do we like them very much.

We do, however, benefit from the presence of Tati in the form of Monsieur Hulot. Never the center of any of his movies, Hulot is part of a larger ensemble cast, and more often than not, he is deliberately placed off to one side of the screen or is partially concealed. His elusiveness makes him all the more likable; itís as if he has stumbled quite by chance into his scenes. Tall and gangly, Hulot is so likable that we hardly notice that he is virtually mute. Adults regard him as a curiosity, a kid who never grew up, while children take to him almost immediately. Eventually, his personality grows on everyone, and by the end of M. Hulotís Holiday, even the grumpiest of his fellow vacationers already misses him.

Tati reportedly practiced his comic gags in front of children and animals. His fondness for them, and his obvious contempt for the adult world, imbues his work with grandfatherly benevolence, which is not to say that his movies were sentimental or self-indulgent. On the contrary, Tati was a perfectionist who designed each shot with excruciating levels of precision. He planned all the details in advance, even if, according to Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) who briefly introduces both films, most of them would go unnoticed by the audience. In Mon Oncle, Jones dissects a scene in which a storeowner gets soaked when a truck drives through a puddle. The storeowner is only three-quarters wet by the truck; the remaining quarter gets soaked by Monsieur Hulot, who bikes through the same puddle moments later. To achieve the effect, Tati hid a hose in the puddle that would spray at the correct angle each time someone passed over it. Itís a light-hearted moment that would hardly be worth mentioning if it werenít for Tatiís craftsmanship.

Tati took particular pride in the use of sound effects, which is somewhat surprising because he had his start in silent films, and before that, in live theater. He created specific sounds for each object in his movies, and he would repeat each sound over and over again as a way of giving personality to that object or to the place where it is found. In M. Hulotís Holiday, the door to the hotel restaurant emits a wooden thunk each time someone passes through; in Mon Oncle, the front gate to the ultra-modern house opens and closes with a sharp metallic snap. They couldnít be more different, and though we may not notice them at first, Tati conveys much of what he wants to say about a place through these sounds. For these DVD releases, the Criterion Collection has restored Tatiís original soundtracks so that we may experience them as Tati intended.

We can see early signs of Tatiís comic precision in two short films, Líecole des facteurs and Soigne ta gauche, which accompany Mon Oncle and M. Hulotís Holiday, respectively. The former is directed by Tati and features him as an accident prone postal worker who must deliver mail to a remote French village. He creates all sorts of havoc along the way (his inability to master bicycle turn signals causes a few accidents) and ends up dangling from a propeller plane. The other short film is directed by Rene Clement and stars the young Tati as a wannabe boxer whose incompetence inside the ring drives his opponents crazy. Minor but immensely funny, these shorts showcase Tatiís ability to turn the lowest comedy into a graceful work of art.

 


M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle are now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. Both DVDs feature new digital transfers with restored image and sound. In addition, both discs include video introductions by Terry Jones (of Monty Python). M. Hulot's Holiday includes Rene Clement's 1936 short film, Soigne ton gauche, starring Jacques Tati; and Mon Oncle includes the 1947 short film L'ecole des facteurs, directed by and starring Jacques Tati. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.