b. October 9, 1907, (1) Le Pecq, Seine-et-Oise, Île-de-France, France.
d. November 5, 1982, Paris, France.
My first encounter with Jacques Tati’s films, like my first encounter with Chris Marker’s, happened relatively recently, and like with that other great French filmmaker, the shock and joyful surprise of the discovery was so strong as to make me wonder how it could have been that I’d remained ignorant of him for so long. I’ve had similar, wonderful discoveries in the past, the recounting of which I’m sure would be far too tedious to warrant a digression, but if I could have just one of those shocks per year – that is, if I could look forward to an amazing treat like Playtime (1967) (or, let’s say, something just a fraction as brilliant) as an unscheduled, annual event – then I could tell myself, as I lay on my deathbed at the ripe old age of 80 or 90, “I have known richness.”
This sounds like an exaggeration, even as I read it again. Roll your eyes if you must, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hope I’m talking about, not simply the surprise part, in and of itself, but that nameless thing that made my first viewing of Playtime, Parade (1974) and Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953), so special, that “movie magic” that we hear so much about, without quite knowing what it means, is what keeps me going to the movies. To go any further would be to state the obvious for those readers who already know how I feel, and what I’m talking about, and for those who don’t, I doubt that I have enough skill to provide an adequate explanation.
In most cases – in fact, all but one – the real joy of seeing Tati’s films is still unknown to me. This is because, out of the six features and three short films he made between 1932 and 1974, I’ve only seen one of them in what could even loosely be called its proper format: Parade, which was originally broadcast for Swedish television. It is presently available on video in three forms: the Criterion Collection laserdisc, a number of videotape editions, and a DVD from the French company DVDY, of adequate quality. For the remaining eight – Trafic, Playtime, Mon Oncle (1958), Les Vacances de M. Hulot (known alternately as M. Hulot’s Holiday), Jour de fête (1948), L’École des facteurs (1947), Gai Dimanche (1935), and Oscar, champion de tennis (1932) (which is believed to be lost) – I confess with great remorse that my acquaintance has only been through DVD, laserdisc, and videotape. The issue of format matters most in the case of Playtime, the only movie Tati shot in 70-millimeter, because although I advocate seeing all of his (or any artist’s) work in the proper format, Playtime on video is the same as 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) or Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) on video: the television monitor cannot possibly suffice. Details from Tati’s mise en scène are muted. The spectrum of colour becomes limited. The reduction of a 70mm. presentation to the scale of a television set is similar to reducing the performance of a symphony orchestra to a badly done audiocassette.
You may understandably doubt, given these facts, whether I’m the right person to provide any sort of introduction to Tati’s life and work. After having read some of the better examples of what I wish to attempt, such as two definitive essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Death of Hulot” and “Tati’s Democracy,” the David Bellos biography, Jacques Tati, as well as Michel Chion’s wonderful book, The Films of Jacques Tati, I’m inclined to doubt the idea myself. My only qualification, I suppose, is that I love his movies dearly, that I would probably love the man himself if I’d been alive during his time, and, given the relative scarcity of awareness of his work, even among self-proclaimed cinephiles, along with the misguided perception in some circles that he was a talented comedy director who simply got too big for his britches and was “destroyed” as a result of his “hubris,” I’m willing to risk making a fool of myself for the sake of getting just one more person acquainted with Tati, someone who would not have otherwise given his work more than a passing glance.
Another reason is the fact that, barring some miracle, one’s chances of seeing Tati on the big screen are quite slim, and they decrease as you move farther away from New York, London, Cannes, (2) and a few other places. With the stock of the once-glorious 16mm rental market now banished to academic institutions, private collectors and dustbins, while the prints of most old movies, 35mm. or 16mm., that haven’t been well cared for or recently restored, are gathering a wealth of scars and scratches, and losing a frame at a time due to careless splicing, the state of film from a moviegoer’s perspective is pretty sorry. (3) And although I make no claims for video being even a remotely adequate proxy for the film experience, well, let’s cut the bullshit: you take it where you can get it. And while I haven’t “properly” experienced any of his films, aside from perhaps Parade, I feel I can say that I’ve seen them under sufficient circumstances to know how wonderful they are, and what richness is in store for my future encounters.
* * *
Trying to find links between an artist’s work and the events of his or her life can be a tricky proposition, mostly because it makes it easy to cut corners in researching a biography and carrying out an aesthetic investigation – if you can kill both birds, as they say, with one stone of deterministic analysis, not only can you save loads of time and energy, but you can make yourself look pretty smart, too. Unfortunately for anyone studying the life of Jacques Tati, for whom the absurdity of life, the leisure of the upper and middle classes, and the wonderful eccentricity of every kind of person, remained his chief source of inspiration throughout his career as a filmmaker, such links cannot be avoided. You’d be hard-pressed to find out who his Oncle was, or exactly where Monsieur Hulot came from, but his life – especially his youth – is peppered with sly references to future achievements.
The earliest memory he mentioned in interviews and in his memoirs, was of a holiday by the sea (Bellos, 9) – and no other filmmaker has been able to “do” a holiday by the sea nearly as well as Tati did for Les Vacances de M. Hulot. His sister, Nathalie, would sometimes catch the little Jacques playing make-believe in front of the mirror, playing different characters based on which hat he put on (Bellos, 10-11) – you can see this same sort of thing in Parade, in which he impersonates traffic cops from around the world. His knack for improvised “gag” routines has its precedent in the time he spent playing rugby and coming up with comic performances to amuse his teammates (Bellos, 28-41). The unfailingly polite and formal Hulot, bumbling as he may be (the real Tati was never ungraceful), doesn’t reflect a social upbringing that’s too far afield from Tati’s own – in fact, Hulot, like Tati, as we learn from watching Playtime, was in the army for a stretch. There are other such examples, and it’s even more interesting to think of Tati’s films in the broader sense of where they fit into our lives, and in what ways they may draw from them, for they have a sense of the universal to them, of language-less worlds. Or, perhaps, it’s the other way around, as Michel Chion declared: “Life is full of homages to Tati. With films that are still difficult to see, with Tati dead, life must now pay tribute to his comic genius” (Chion, 17).
Biographical data on Tati mostly came from the man himself, from the stories he told, from his tape-recorded memoirs, and from the memories of those who’d met him and worked with him. He was born a descendent of Russian aristocracy, and there is a wonderfully extravagant tale (that may even be true, or at least partly true) of how his grandmother had infiltrated Moscow to rescue Tati’s father, then only a small boy, from the Tatischeffs who’d abducted him and previously brought about the death of Tati’s grandfather, Count Dmitri Tatischeff, who’d been serving as a Russian military attaché in Paris, where he’d met Tati’s grandmother, Rose-Anathalie Alinquant (Bellos, 3-4). That sort of international intrigue, sweeping romance, tragedy, and sheer convoluted storytelling, is by and large missing from the years Jacques Tati spent on the planet, and from his art: as magnificent and beautiful as his films are, they maintain a modest, gentlemanly tone. There is almost no drama at all in Tati’s films – even when Hulot’s brother-in-law in Mon Oncle, Monsieur Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), raises his voice in anger, the film’s vital signs don’t fluctuate for a moment.
As an actor, Tati is remembered as one of the great screen comedians – perhaps the greatest – of the sound era. What is remarked upon less is his tendency as a director and writer to give opportunities for the rest of his often quite large casts to be equally funny, if not more so, and that Hulot, or François the postman in Jour de fête, would often withdraw for long stretches in order to give his co-comedians some space. This is a noteworthy difference when compared to the work of other actor-auteurs, such as Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Warren Beatty, all of whom, if they appeared on the screen at all, tended to take the role that made them the centre of attention. (4) But not Tati: his ultimate goal, and he came the closest in achieving it with Playtime, (5) was to make Hulot something like an extra, or a ghost. The sharing of his comedy among his players was a very literal spreading of wealth, and it informed his visual aesthetic: in his greatest films, Les Vacances de M. Hulot, Playtime and Parade, Tati packed the mise en scène with overwhelming detail, and often had two or more “bits of business” overlapping each other, or happening simultaneously (Rosenbaum, “Tati’s Democracy,” 37-40). An excellent example is from the party sequence at the Arpel residence in Mon Oncle – until we are signalled by a flying shovelful of dirt, we don’t notice that, goodness gracious, that man who was going to dig the hole, he’s standing all the way in it! There are countless moments like this in Playtime, about one every five to ten seconds, where Tati will use the deep, detailed field of his long shots to toy with our attention spans, and the ways in which we privilege one part of the screen over another, left and right, near and far, margin and centre. I’ve neglected to mention how funny his films are – for they are all comedies – because it’s possible that you may not laugh at Tati’s jokes, but still be able to appreciate his brilliant manipulation of film form, and the beauty of, say, the scene in Mon Oncle in which Hulot makes a bird sing by using his window to shine the sunlight onto it.
As a producer, the arc of Tati’s career during and after Playtime resembled Welles’, during and after It’s All True (shot 1942, completed 1993) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Playtime, which Tati worked on for nearly the whole span of time since Mon Oncle, which netted him the Academy Award as well as the Cannes Film Festival’s Prix spécial du Jury, was extremely costly, with journalists estimating the budget as being anywhere between five and twelve million francs. The project was beset by disaster: in August of 1964, when Tativille – the miniature city that had to be built to accommodate the director’s vision – was almost finished, gusts of wind knocked down many of the structures, causing over one million in damages. The cost of the movie skyrocketed as shooting continued. Tati soon began to use his own money to keep the project afloat. He borrowed on his inheritance from his mother, and he accumulated countless debts with friends and relatives.
Many filmmakers have a project that Pauline Kael would describe as a “folly,” which she describes as being the case when “great movie directors go mad on the potentialities of movies. They leap over their previous work into a dimension beyond the well-crafted narrative; (6) they make a huge visionary epic in which they alter the perceptions of people around the world” (Kael, 743). D.W. Griffith had Intolerance (1916), Abel Gance had Napoléon (1927), Erich von Stroheim had Greed (1923), and Orson Welles, perhaps, had more than a few. With a few modifications to Kael’s definition, Tati had Playtime. And despite everything, despite all the love and genius Tati put into the project, despite heavy coverage by Cahiers du cinéma, and despite his celebrity status and international renown, Playtime was a costly failure. Its release in overseas markets was delayed by as much as years. Reviewers were kind, even awed, despite some resentment in the press for his having isolated the Tativille set from reporters and for being a rather terse and thorny interviewee. But not even positive notices could get enough tickets sold to make back the cost of the project. For there was also the matter of the enormous budget, which even today is not something many critics are able to avoid referring to when they do their write-ups on Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001).
Burned out but not yet washed out, Tati made two more features before his death in 1982, Trafic and Parade, and he worked with Jonathan Rosenbaum on another, called Confusion, tentatively a satire of American television. In order to secure financing for Trafic, Tati had to agree not only to play Hulot again, but also to make him the attraction of the movie, not a supporting player, as he was in Playtime. Compromise did not run over Tati’s back in a water-like fashion, and, when seen today, Trafic remains a charming, clever, but curiously flat and drawn-out piece of sketch-style comedy; it has all of the notes of a Hulot film but none of the music. His swan song, Parade, sorely underrated by the small number of critics who’ve actually seen it, was a clean break from Hulot, and as such, feels more free than anything else Tati ever made – it’s a difficult film for people who may be expecting another lighthearted, whimsical comedy, instead of an experimental film that uses a circus performance as its foundation, but in its own way, it’s the ultimate Tati, an undiluted expression of what he loved to do and to see, and what hats to put on. It’s a hugely entertaining experience, complete with pantomime, subtle tricks of mise en scène, joyful music, a feeling of warmth and community, and a love of children.
As a filmmaker, Tati has recurring themes (the leisure class, modernisation, children at play, mass entertainment), and his compositions seem as mathematically calculated yet spontaneous and vibrant as Welles’. His movies beg for purveyors of theory to figure them all out for us. Nothing against the theoreticians, but given a filmography that includes titles like Playtime and Parade, and films that make constant references to having fun, anything short of complete submission to the Tati audio-visual experience carries the risk of revealing oneself to be one of the square, too-serious types that Tati constantly teased: the angry young Socialist in Les Vacances, the ultra-precise American in Playtime, and nearly everybody except Hulot and his little nephew in Mon Oncle.
Oscar, champion de tennis (1932, short, length unknown)
Believed to be lost.
Gai Dimanche (1935, short, 35 minutes)
Available on VHS through The New York Film Annex
L’École des facteurs (School for Postmen) (1947, short, 14 minutes)
Available on the Jour de fête laserdisc through the Criterion Collection, also on the Mon Oncle DVD through the Criterion Collection, and on the Jour de fête DVD through Les Films De Ma Vie.
Jour de fête (The Big Day or Holiday) (1948, 35 mm., 76 minutes)
There are two versions of this film available on video – the Criterion Collection laserdisc has only the black and white version, as do all videotape releases of the movie. Following a practically invisible theatrical run under the Miramax aegis, the restored, colour version of the film was released on a double-sided DVD through Les Films De Ma Vie, with the black and white version on the obverse side. This DVD does not have English subtitles.
1949 nominee, Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival
Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) (1953, 35 mm., 87 minutes, other sources list different running times – in Chion’s filmography, it’s listed as 96 minutes)
Available on VHS. The best copy available is the Criterion Collection DVD, which offers the French- and English-language soundtracks. The Criterion laserdisc, from 1987, only has the English-language track. It is widely available, also, on videotape. From the Bellos book: “The original version.with piano-solo sound track has been lost. The 16mm and 35mm copies in distribution give the 1963 remake or else the 1978 version, which is the same save for the inserted “shark-tooth” sequence in the collapsing kayak episode. Video copies available in Britain and the USA are all of the 1978 version.” Tati inserted the “shark-tooth” sequence to which Bellos refers as a parody of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).
1953 recipient of the Prix Louis Delluc
1955 Academy Award nominee for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.
At the real-life beach where the movie was made, there stands a bronze statue of Monsieur Hulot, overlooking the beach with his hands on his hips. (see photo above)
Mon Oncle (1958, 35 mm.,116 minutes)
Available on DVD and laserdisc from the Criterion Collection. Widely available on videotape. There is, according to Bellos, a rare English-language version called My Uncle, which is unavailable on video.
Winner, Prix spécial du Jury, 1958 Cannes Film Festival
Winner, Best Foreign Language Film, 1958 New York Film Critics Circle, 1959 Academy Awards
Winner, Best Film, French Syndicate of Cinema Critics
Playtime (1967, 70 mm., 120 minutes. There exists a 151-minute version, in 70mm., which is rumoured, according to Bellos, to be kept at the Moscow film archive)
Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. Widely available on videotape. Commonly shown in 16mm. or 35mm. Opportunities to see the 70mm. print should be seized, with haste.
1969 winner of the Bodil Award for Best European Film
Trafic (Traffic) (1971, 35 mm., 96 minutes)
Available on videotape. There is also a DVD in the works from GCTHV (Gaumont/Columbia/Tristar Home Video).
1972 British Academy Award nominee for the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music.
Parade (1974, shot during various stages on video, 16mm., and 35mm. [explanatory information is available in the Bellos biography, pp. 315-323] 88 minutes)
All video versions are taken from the 35mm. interpositive, although the project was originally aired on Swedish television. Parade is available on laserdisc through the Criterion Collection. It is also available on videotape and a just-adequate quality DVD produced by Panoramic Films.
Forza Bastia 78 ou l’île en fête (1978-2000, 26 mins) An unknown Tati film referenced by Jean A Gili in Positif 480 (Feb 2001, p. 60). Shot in 1978 and edited by Sophie Tatischeff (his daughter) over 20 years later.
The film is about a football match between a team from Holland and (possibly) an Italian team, which is disturbed when the rain makes the field too muddy for play. A 2-minute trailer is available here
Bellos, David, Jacques Tati. London: The Harvill Press, 1999.
Chion, Michel, The Films of Jacques Tati. Trans. Guernica Editions, Inc. Canada: Toronto, 1997.
Fieschi, Jean-André, essay on Tati (translated by Michael Graham) in Roud, Richard, ed. Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. Viking Press, USA, 1980, pp. 1000-1005.
Kael, Pauline, For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies. New York: Penguin Books, USA. 1994.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, Placing Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 163-170.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, Movies as Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, pp. 37-40.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967) by Sandra E. Lim
Jacques Tati: Last Bastion of Innocence by Pedro Blas Gonzalez
Compiled by Michelle Carey
Chaos, revolt, and misunderstanding or: Tati’s Playtime – There ain’t no way
Article by Jaime N. Christley.
The Genius of Jacques Tati
Well-detailed page on recent Tati Retrospective at LA County Museum of Art.
Jacques Tati: M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle
DVD review by David Ng.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
Review giving it an A+
Jacques Tati: Playtime with Monsieur Hulot
Low on content but nicely presented page advertising screenings of these films.
The New York Film Annex
Where to find early and rare Tati.
Click here to search for Jacques Tati DVDs, videos and books at
- There are sources that give the year of Tati’s birth as 1908 or 1909. David Bellos insists that these sources are incorrect.
- At the time of this writing, I know of two upcoming showings of Playtime: a remastered 70mm print at the 2002 Festival de Cannes, and a 16mm print that will be shown on June 9 at the Galapagos Art & Performance Space in Brooklyn, New York.
- At a recent showing of The Third Man in New York, I was horrified to notice whole seconds of footage – some containing vital story information – had vanished from around the reel changes.
- Exceptions abound, of course: in Welles’ documentary-essay F for Fake (1973), he arguably shared top billing with Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, and Clifford Irving, while Olivier took a supporting role in Three Sisters (Laurence Olivier and John Sichel, 1970).
- According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, during a planning meeting for the movie Confusion, which was never made, Tati toyed with the idea of Hulot being killed, by accident, in the opening reel (Rosenbaum, “The Death of Hulot,” 169-170).
- Tati, of course, would have no truck with anything remotely approximating the “well-crafted narrative.”