March 23, 2009

0 Jacques Tati: The Master of French Film Comedy, Part 1

For a man who directed only five full-length films released between 1949 and 1972, the French director Jacques Tati (1907-1982) has a huge reputation among cinephiles. Two of his movies, Play Time (1967) and Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953), were in 2008 named by the French publication Cahiers du Cinéma among the 100 greatest films of all time. Predictably, only a handful of movies on the list were comedies, including the two by Tati. He was recognized along with other comic masters like Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Woody Allen, a pretty impressive group of people to be included among. While most Americans who know anything at all about movies and popular culture are familiar with those names, I wonder how many know of Tati, much less recognize that among aficionados of film comedy his reputation is the equal of those other well-known geniuses.

Tati was born Jacques Tatischeff in France in 1907, the son of a Russian father and Dutch mother. As a young man he served in the French cavalry and was for a while a professional sports player. These are important facts to keep in mind because in his films the 6' 3" tall, gangly Tati often portrayed an ungainly klutz. Yet like that trifecta of silent comedians—Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd—he was an extremely agile man whose awkwardness was entirely—and brilliantly—simulated in remarkable feats of physical acting that rival those of his illustrious predecessors.

This was made clear in a short film he made in 1967, Cours du Soir (Night Class), filmed on leftover sets from Play Time (and included in the Criterion edition of Play Time). Here he portrays his famed alter ego, M. Hulot, as an instructor conducting a night class on comic acting for aspiring comedians. In the course of the 30-minute long film, Tati reveals some remarkable insights into his professional technique.

At the beginning of the class and at times throughout it, he succinctly summarizes the gist of the lesson. "Observe! Observe!" he keeps telling his students: Watch carefully the way people express themselves through their body language, and draw your inspiration from that. In character, he demonstrates to his students how to convey character types through facial expressions, physical gestures, and posture and bearing. What we have is essentially a simulation of his direction of the actors in his movies, with Tati acting the parts to show his performers what he wants them to do. He also demonstrates his still impressive horse-riding skills (remember that he was 60 years old at the time) while showing the students how to use various styles of horsemanship to convey character.

Most tellingly, he demonstrates to his students how to take a pratfall while walking up a short flight of stairs, about three steps. Tati makes it look so effortless that all the students are eager to give it a try. One student even attempts to analyze and diagram M. Hulot's movements mathematically. Yet every single student fails to do successfully what seemed so simple when Tati did it. Their attempts at reproducing his pratfall are truly inept and not in the least comic. Although real, their pratfalls don't seem at all realistic. Only Tati is able to act with his body, to simulate clumsiness, in such a convincing way as to produce humor. What he makes appear so easy to his students is actually a feat of accomplished acting skill and great physical control.

After being in the cavalry and playing sports, Tati eventually became a music hall performer. He performed one of his acts in the movie Parade, which he directed for Swedish television in 1974. Portraying a horse rider in a circus act, he plays the parts of both the rider and the trained horse. From the waist up he is the rider, from the waist down the horse, and he simultaneously imitates both with absolute precision. The French writer Colette described Tati as a centaur in this act, and it is a truly impressive demonstration of his physical and mimetic skills.

Tati first became a film maker when he filmed some of his acts and later co-directed a short film, Gai Dimanche (Jolly Sunday) in 1935. He wrote and acted in small roles in a few movies from the mid-1930's to the mid-1940's, including a short about boxing directed by René Clément, Soigne Ton Gauche (Watch Your Left), made in 1935 and two full-length features directed by Claude Autant-Lara, notably Devil in the Flesh (1947). That same year Tati directed his first solo short film, L'Ecole des Facteurs (School for Postmen). (He reproduced part of this film in Cours du Soir.)

In 1947 he also directed his first full-length film, Jour de Fête (released sixty years ago in 1949), a movie about a village postman, played by Tati himself, that included some ideas inspired by L'Ecole des Facteurs. The movie began as a short film about an overly enthusiastic postman who sees a newsreel feature about modern methods of mail delivery in the U. S. (a very funny film-within-a-film) and tries to adapt them to his own situation, with comically disastrous results. Tati then took the character he created and built around him an entire movie that runs 79 minutes in its restored version and integrates the original short that inspired it as a concluding set piece.

The postman's name is François, and he is quite a character. François is in many ways a forerunner of M. Hulot, the comic persona Tati would assume in his next four feature-length films. François is in all ways extreme. An unusually tall man, he is in constant motion, and his movements are awkward, jerky, and very funny. Even the way he rides his bicycle is comical. He is enthusiastic about everything, and his enthusiasms are all oversized. The movie opens with a traveling carnival arriving in a small provincial French town and setting up for the Bastille Day celebrations. The first thing they do is try to set up a large flagpole in the town square.

As soon as François rides into the scene, he throws himself zealously into helping set up the flagpole and has soon commandeered the process, directing everyone else in a scene full of physical comedy built around the ungainliness of the huge flagpole. After the flagpole is finally set up, François walks over to the café-bar for a coffee, and the flagpole collapses, just missing him as he walks through the door, in a moment clearly reminiscent of the house facade falling on Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

The thing François is most enthusiastic about—almost to the point of fanaticism—is his job as the village postman. So officious is François that he behaves as though he truly believes his job is the most important thing in the village. When he sees that newsreel about the American postal service, he immediately throws himself with nearly manic fervor into adapting its aims of efficient and speedy mail delivery to his own job. "Rapidité!" becomes his mantra, and he repeats it until it becomes absurdly funny.

Because of his inflated sense of enthusiasm and his belief in his own significance to the fabric of village life, the other villagers treat him as a "character," joking about him behind his back and making him the object of gentle ridicule in much the same way Harold Lloyd was treated in many of his movies (and here I'm thinking particularly of The Freshman). At one point they conspire to get him drunk under the pretense of playing pool with him for beer. This gives Tati the opportunity to demonstrate his skill at physical comedy by doing a drunk routine, much as Chaplin and W. C. Fields did in many of their movies, always a sure-fire way of getting laughs.

François is essentially the classic comedy outsider, the oddball who doesn't fit in with conventional society. In this way François foreshadows Tati's later creation M. Hulot, whose essential character trait is this same sense of apartness, a sense that became more pronounced with each successive film. It's not exactly alienation, for he never seems completely aware of it, nor does it seem to distress him unduly. Yet there is an implicit element of melancholy in this state of comic outsiderhood. This same sense of melancholy is also present to a degree in the characters played by Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. If I mention them, it is to show that Tati knew his American silent film comedians thoroughly and synthesized aspects of their work with his own original inspiration.

In its final form Jour de Fête is beautifully constructed. It begins with a wizened old lady leading her goat around the village and talking to it, acting like a chorus, introducing us to each of the villagers. This is followed by the arrival of the carnival. The movie concludes the next day with the carnival being dismantled and leaving town. At the same time, François is trying out his new techniques of mail delivery, an effort that ends with his riding his bicycle at full speed into a canal in an arduous physical stunt reminiscent of Buster Keaton. The movie closes with François getting a ride with the little old lady and her goat, now driving a cart into the village.

One remarkable thing about Jour de Fête, particularly when compared with Tati's later movies, is how much sound there is in it. In later films, Tati used sound quite sparingly and used both it and silence in very deliberate ways to create specific effects. But Jour de Fête is filled with sound—jaunty, jazzy music on the soundtrack, ambient sounds and music, sound effects, and lots of dialogue, both essential dialogue in the foreground and nonessential dialogue in the background. In a night scene that takes place in the country, the soundtrack is even filled with the natural night sounds of the countryside.

One final observation about Jour de Fête: With its location filming and largely non-professional cast, it gives the viewer a vivid picture of a traditional small village (Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre) in post-World War II southern France almost untouched by modernity. In the entire movie, an automobile appears only once, briefly speeding through the village. Jour de Fête captures a time, a place, and a way of life that have vanished forever. Considering the film in this light makes both it and the movies that followed it—with their recurring theme of rampant modernity draining the humanity and soul from contemporary life—all the more poignant.

This is the first of a multi-part retrospective of the career and films of Jacques Tati. Other installments will appear in future editions of The Movie Projector.


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