A Bit of Tati

imagesOne of the great boons to a movie collector on a budget is the twice-yearly Criterion Sale at Barnes & Noble. We will not speak of the July version last year, because I was broke that month. Last November, however, the combination of the 50% off sale, a coupon, and a membership bought in better days resulted in me walking out of the store with the newly-released Jacques Tati box set for thirty-five bucks.

Tati was a mystery to me; I had no idea he even existed until I moved to the Big City and was exposed to the wondrous world of repertory movie houses. We had two back in those days, and it was the River Oaks Theater – still around, to this day – that had the wonderful sheets detailing the month’s double features, that I found stuck to most friends’ refrigerators. It was on one of these that I read of M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, and the bare paragraph describing Tati and his work. It sounded very intriguing, but I was working in a warehouse during the day and acting at night – time for a movie was rare. But that double feature kept coming back, year after year, so it must have been good.

So, when the Sale started mere days after the box set was released, I regarded it as a Sign.

And then I started rationing them out, because he made only six features in his life.

jourHis first feature,  Jour de Fête (1949), or “Day of the Celebration” (more popularly, The Big Day), was intended as a tribute to a tiny French village where Tati and several of his friends had found refuge during the Nazi occupation. The rustic village has a number of instantly identifiable types, serving as a sort of Commedia del Arte cast as the movie unfolds. A carnival comes to town, as the village celebrates… well, something. A centenary or Bastille Day, perhaps. The nature of the celebration isn’t important, it’s what it brings to town that matters.

Tati is Françoise, the local mailman, the usual butt of jokes amongst the villagers, and a prime target for the two carnies running the merry-go-round, as they find him a willing participant in his own debasement. A large tent is set up, showing movies throughout the day (the soundtrack of a Western provides an ingenious backdrop for a meet cute between a carnie and a local girl, much to the disgust of the carnie’s wife), and it is in that tent that Françoise sees a film of airplane and motorcycle stunts, purporting to be the American Postal Service at work!

jour_de_4_webThis leads to a tremendous burst of energy in the last part of the movie, when Françoise (egged on by the carnies, of course) attempts to perform his postal duties as quickly as possible, in often dangerous ways, such as tethering his bicycle to a moving truck so he can use its tailgate as a desk, all the while shouting “L’Americaine!” (translated as “American-Style!”) This is apparently taken almost wholesale from his earlier short film, School for Postmen, but as an ignorant Yank, I didn’t know and didn’t care. It’s a marvelous sequence that left an enormous, happy grin on my face.

hulotTati didn’t shift into International Recognition gear until his second movie, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), in which the title character (played by Tati himself, of course) wreaks havoc on a quiet seaside resort, usually with the very best of intentions. Like Jour de Fête, the story is episodic, but much more solid, as this time the viewer is certain as to the identity of the main character. Hulot, with his tall, angular frame (far too large for his rattletrap jalopy, whose noisy passage surpasses that of Jack Benny’s Maxwell), odd hat and ever-present pipe instantly inserts himself into the Classic Book of Clowns, probably inconveniencing someone while doing so and creating a catastrophe, all unawares.

I’m aware that Tati made his initial fame as a performing mime, and that most people use “clown” as a pejorative, but the true Clown works on a higher level than mere greasepaint and child-frightening costumes. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Marcel Marceau, Claude Kipnis, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason: all superior clowns, their best work rarely requiring anything so distracting as dialogue (in fact the version of Holiday I watched had been re-edited by Tati in 1978, eliminating virtually all dialogue); their comedy not only entertains but often comments and sometimes even teaches.

hulot et waiterHoliday, in fact, announced the arrival of an artist in no uncertain terms. Beautiful, idyllic scenes of peaceful seashore vistas are matched perfectly with hectic scenes of a train station swarming with harried vacationers trying to find their way to supposed peace and relaxation. It’s brilliant stuff, and Tati will continue to impress, not only with the staging of his setpieces, but the artist’s eye toward composition.

The Tati statue, at the resort where Holiday was filmed.

The Tati statue, at the resort where Holiday was filmed.

These two movies together form a delightful entrée into the man’s work, as it becomes plain how much he had advanced in only a few years. Jour de Fête is a perfectly good movie, but Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday has been rightly praised as a masterpiece. I read several reviews that puzzled me, that criticized the episodic nature of the story, and that they did not find Tati funny. These people went in expecting Chaplin or Keaton and say so, and that way – expecting an entertainer to fall conveniently into a pre-drilled hole – will always result in disappointment. Much of the humor in Holiday is so mild as to be nearly Canadian (the apparent oxymoron “gentle slapstick” is often used) but I laughed out loud many times. Ask any of my embittered friends who are stand-up comedians: it is tough to deliberately make me laugh out loud.

Anyway, these two movies begin and end similarly: a crowd comes to town, it bustles for a while, the crowd leaves town. Françoise’ frantic mail delivery is sidelined so he can help bring in the harvest. The vacationers say their goodbyes and head home, but Hulot is ignored, more readily accepted by the bored children playing in the dirt at beach’s edge. There are a couple of people who specifically seek  him out to say goodbye, having found him a delightful distraction in a pack of stolid, joyless people – but we are only too aware that Hulot was deprived of a last romantic picnic and goodbye from that attractive blonde girl who also found him entertaining, an opportunity sabotaged by his comedy rattletrap car. Such is the fate of the Clown, why we love and pity him so, and why we will always find room for him in our hearts.

Jacques Tati on Amazon