With only six feature films to his name, four of which featured his iconic onscreen alter ego, the cinema of Jacques Tati remains an island of unique delight despite his influence on decades of filmmakers since and comparative efforts of peers from his own period (considering Marguerite Duras’ critique, now widely accepted, concerning the taken-for-granted stylistic likeness between Tati and Robert Bresson, a director whose subject matters were a bit less pleasant or comical). Without Tati and his bumbling character Monsieur Hulot, sputtering about memorably in a series of some of the most well-crafted moments of ingenious, highly organized chaos ever put to celluloid, we’d be without latter day influences, like Roy Andersson, Otar Iosseliani, several Peter Sellers characters, and even Rowan Atkinson’s similarly crafted Mr. Bean.
At the time, Tati’s obvious influences date back to the silent era, where Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin crafted the same types of egos and highly stylized physical gags. But whereas we remember those actual silent archetypes for most of their shenanigans, the works of Tati and the presence of Hulot are often centered completely on benign moments, almost banal if you aren’t paying close attention. His body of work is cinema of observation.
As James Quandt’s accompanying essay the in box-set insert contends, Tati’s exaggerations of everyday life, inviting us to extend these observations to our own lives, where we can, “through acute observation, [create] our own Tati movie in our head, every day.” And as we observe the affable, accident prone gentleman roam throughout a world that’s grown increasingly strange, we realize that in many ways we can relate to Monsieur Hulot and his inability to assimilate into a culture preoccupied with trends, technology, gadgets and gizmos. Were he alive in today’s social media obsessed planet, one wonders if nihilism would at last cloud his generously pleasant glimpses at daily human activities often unobserved.
Jour de Fete (1949)
Tati’s first feature film, Jour de Fete, expanded from a 1947 short film, “The School for Postmen,” stars Tati as a lanky, young postman in the rural town Saint-Severe-sur-Indre. Once a year, the fair comes around, and this year they happen to bring with them a major upset for the postman with footage detailing the highly advanced air borne advances the Americans have made in their postal service. Clumsy, klutzy, and keen on showing his fellow townsfolk that he can modify his techniques as well, sends him off on a drunken dash through town, of course leading to a multitude of snafus, the phrase “that takes the cake,” a constant refrain.
Interestingly, the film was meant to be in color, and was filmed simultaneously with two cameras, the other with Thomson-Color stock, which was France’s answer to Technicolor. However, the color print didn’t turn out well, though it was later painstakingly restored by Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff (included here on the extra features). Though restored, several sequences still appear rather blurry, especially those featuring Tati’s postman getting soused in a bar.
The 1964 Version
Fifteen years after the film’s original release, Tati hired celebrated animator Paul Grimault to hand paint colors on certain objects. He also incorporated newly shot footage of a new character, an artist who appears to be visiting the town the same day as the festival. Cutting other footage, this version is actually seven minutes shorter than the original.
The 1995 Version
After discovering the color negatives, Sophie Tatischeff and in 1995 it was technically possible to generate the full color version as intended. This version is also seven minutes shorter than the original release and Tatischeff removed the artist and colors from the 1964 version finding that these elements were no longer necessary now that the film was in color as originally intended.
“Jour de Fete: In Search of the Lost Color
A 1988 episode of the French television program “Cinema Cinemas” documents the discovery of the negatives that led to the color version of Jour de Fete. Interviews with Sophie Tatischeff, producer Fred Orain, and DoP Jacques Mercanton are included in this thirty minute episode.
An eighty minute 2013 video essay from Tati scholar Stephane Goudet tracks the evolution of Tati’s comedy from the sort films through the features.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
In 1953, Tati would release Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and unleash the creation of M. Hulot on the movie going world. As all of Tati’s films would eventually turn out, there really isn’t much by way of a plot, except that Hulot, a gawky, socially awkward gentleman, appearing with the mackintosh, striped socks and smoking pipe which would forever accompany him going forward, vacations at a beachside hotel and causes havoc for the other guests. This includes a famous and hilarious tennis sequence, and a fireworks finale. He doesn’t speak much, though a young Nordic woman seems to share a slight flirtation with him, as does an older female hotel guest that rather vocally takes a fancy. Hulot seems more comfortable with the children than he does in the cramped lounge quarters (oh, had he only made an appearance in Separate Tables!), a gangly, but ever pleasant fixture. The film also introduces us to the considerable sound design at work, a signature door closing noise accompanying the swinging entrance to the dining area would make an appearance in several other forms throughout his filmography.
This is a new 2K digital restoration of Tati’s 1978 rerelease version (though the original 1953 version is included as well), and this includes an updated sound mix. This rerelease is actually twelve minutes shorter than the original theatrical.
Terry Jones Introduction
Actor and comedian Terry Jones introduces the film, recorded by Criterion in 2001 (he similarly introduced Mon Oncle and PlayTime, as well).
The 1953 Version
Completists rejoice, for Criterion includes the original 1953 theatrical release, which Tati later tweaked decades later.
Clear Skies, Light Breeze
A forty minute visual essay from 2013, Tati scholar Stephane Goudet discusses the debut of the Hulot character.
A 2014 thirty minute interview with composer and film critic Michel Chion conducted by Criterion in Paris, analyzes the sound design of the film.
A 1978 episode of the French television show “Cine regards” finds Tati watching a clips from his Hulot films and talking about his role as filmmaker and performer runs nearly thirty minutes.
Mon Oncle (1958)
Tati’s first color film, the 1958 title Mon Oncle would go on to snag the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, and displays Tati’s knack for predicting future living situations and technologies. Here, Hulot crosses into the orbit of his suburbanite sister, who lives in a garish bourgeoisie eyesore of a mansion that is all things ‘modern,’ replete with a horrendous fish fountain that gets turned on at the ring of every doorbell, but immediately switched off for deliverymen and family members. Unemployed, his sister has her husband hire Hulot on at a rather vague factory, where, of course, Hulot causes immediate discord. At the same time, he tends to bond with his nephew, much to the chagrin of his brother-in-law. A Sunday garden party is hosted by his sister to introduce the single M. Hulot to the dowdy next-door neighbor lady, who they mistake for a door-to-door sales person when she shows up for the party. Famous gags center around their elaborately gauche home, stuffed with the latest technological gadgets being offered, which sometimes serve as a literal trap, including one of Tati’s best gags involving a motion sensor garage door.
Tati’s first feature in color, this new 2K digital restoration is excellent. You’ll notice that Tati’s equally important sound design is also something you’ll keenly be aware of, as is the intention.
Terry Jones Introduction
Actor and comedian Terry Jones introduces the film, recorded by Criterion in 2001.
My Uncle (English Version)
Because Tati loathed subtitles, he reshot scenes in English between the Arpel family, which included new scenes with English street signs. Other scenes have been tweaked, and this version is ten minutes shorter.
Once Upon a Time… Mon Uncle
A 2008 documentary directed by Marie Genin and Serge July about the making of this film includes interviews with Tati, director Pierre Etaix, architect Jean Nouvel, designer Philippe Starck, as well as David Lynch. The feature is fifty one minutes.
Everything is Beautiful
A three part program from 2005 produced by Les Films de Mon Oncle focuses on the architecture, costumes, and furniture design of the film. The parts include “Lines, Signs, Designs,” “Fashion,” and “Please, Have a Seat.” The first two segments run about twenty minutes each, with the last clocking in at eight minutes.
A 2013 visual essay from Tati scholar Stephane Goudet discusses the stylistic similarities between this film and the other Hulot vehicles (Goudet additionally shows up on the supplements of Parade to discuss how that film differs stylistically from all the Hulot titles). The feature is fifty ones minutes.
Le Hasard de Jacques Tati
A 1977 episodes of the French television show “30 millions d’amis,” Tati introduces his dog, Hasard, and discusses the prominent canine stars of Mon Uncle for about eight minutes.
Tati’s most lavish production was initially a notorious bank breaking, time consuming endeavor that went unappreciated upon initial release, the gloriously recuperated PlayTime. There is not a written description of the film that would ever begin to do it justice, but it happens to be one of those rare, supremely unique and utterly mind boggling examples of cinematic possibilities. Truffaut famously called it “a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently,” while Jacques Rivette baptized it as “a revolutionary film.” Roger Ebert would compare it to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Russian Ark, “a species already extinct at the moment of its birth.”
Tati’s Hulot takes a considerable backseat to the modern mayhem of Paris, once again a lost soul navigating his way through an increasingly antiseptic, isolating human landscape, except that this time Hulot’s become an observer of the chaos, his presence conflating with the audience and even other characters in this realm. Basically a series of sequences trapped within and between monolithically constructed buildings where tourists arrives by busload and travel everywhere at all times in large herds, it’s a modern mutation of world constantly under construction, an urban empire where bigger is still considered better, and ant-like humans scuttle about, preoccupied and increasingly busy bodied.
Entirely filmed in long shot, there are no close-ups, each frame carefully constructed and packed with activities that require multiple viewings to successfully catch. Hulot’s entrance to the film is quiet, signaled by a dropped umbrella in the opening sequence at an airport terminal, strewn about in a heavy mix of visual and aural cues. Your disposition as a human being, whether a glass half empty or half full type, will determine your reaction to what Tati’s doing, with many seeming to view the film as hypercritical of mankind’s headlong rush into alienation.
But throughout all of Tati’s filmography, judgment and/or certain criticism is never fully evidenced. We may have bathed ourselves in concrete jungles, but Tati’s astute reconstruction of observation also points to the pleasant possibilities forever intact, even with the assumed negative connotations of folly, perceived failure, and disorganization. Lost in a building where he had shown up for an interview that never transpires, Hulot wanders through a market of salesmen selling gadgets, and another sequence shows a host of private cubicles that resembles Welles’ visual interpretation of Kafka’s The Trial.
There’s something innately terrifying about the human ability to organize and compress so neatly within such parameters, which is exactly the mysterious tone PlayTime (its own title comprised of words with multiple interpretations) strikes. The final hour of the film is set within the opening night of a swank restaurant, where nearly everything that could possibly go wrong does so. Hulot is a latecomer, an accidental tourist, if you will, and we focus on the perspective of the restaurant manager and staff. It’s one of the most enthralling sequences ever captured on film. PlayTime is magic.
A new 4K digital restoration of the title also features 3.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, the disc is the crown jewel of the set both in content and packaging.
Terry Jones Introduction
The third of a set of introductions from actor and comedian Terry Jones, recorded by Criterion in 2001 is included here.
Selected Scene Commentaries
Selected commentaries from film historian Philip Kemp, theater director Jerome Deschamps, and Tati expert Stephane Goudet are available.
A 1967 episode of the British television program “Tempo International” has director Mike Hodges interviewing Tati on the set of PlayTime.
A six minute documentary from 2002 written by Tati scholar Goudet features rare archival footage and explorer’s the origins of the project.
A nineteen minutes visual essay from Goudet explores stylistic choices specific to PlayTime.
A 2006 interview with script supervisor Baudrot, who has worked for more than five decades, included on three of Tati’s titles, includes twelves minutes of footage concerning her work with Tati.
Jacques Tati at the San Francisco Film Festival
PlayTime made its US debut at the 1972 San Francisco Film Festival. Tati attended and footage from his discussion of the film, moderated by program director Albert Johnson are included.
The last incarnation of M. Hulot on the big screen was this Dutch co-production, Trafic. The previously unemployed Hulot now plays a key figure in a Paris auto company, the director of design. He’s recently constructed a new camping vehicle, a car that extends itself into a bed, can barbecue and has a sink with a razor. The car must be transported to Amsterdam for a car show. This time, Hulot gets a co-star who figures rather prominently, Maria (Maria Kimberly), the auto company’s head of public relations, though customer service hardly seems her forte. She zips around in a bright yellow car in front of the truck transporting the camping vehicle, though at every conceivable moment, they’re stalled, whether by customs or a very elaborate pile-up.
After the disappointed reaction to PlayTime, this was Tati’s return to a more conventional portrayal of the bumbling Hulot, once again the direct victim of many a technological snafu. The plot is rudimentary, getting a car from point A to B and with a series of Bunuellian delays along the way. Entertaining and as carefully constructed as always, it does leave us feeling as if Hulot’s legacy was not quite complete (a final film had been planned, titled Confusion, which couldn’t get underway before Tati’s death in 1982).
While the film’s tone has more in common with Hulot on his vacation, Trafic looks very much like a product of the 1970s (whereas PlayTime often feels disassociated from a specific period or place), mostly due the rather focused motif of cars and how people behave in them. As the other discs, this is a new 2K restoration. Compared to the other discs in the set, this title has the least amount of supplements, which includes the trailer and a sole interview.
Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work
A 1976 episodes of the British television show “Omnibus” has film critic Gavin Miller interviewing Tati at the Hotel de la Plage, where Holiday was filmed. Tati discusses the Hulot character.
Tati’s final film is Parade, which was made for Swedish television in 1974 and Tati replaces the Hulot character with a similar type, here the emcee of a circus. The notion of audience and performance is conflated, with Tati displaying large black and white cardboard cut-outs of audience members amongst real-life Swedish extras and even non-professionals (meaning real families just there to watch the antics of this circus). Tati’s background as a mime is fully evident here, with some excellent bits showing his varied imitations (a French traffic director vs. a South American one, for instance).
But Parade, filmed on 35mm and 16mm, looks like a made for television film, and seems in poor repair compared to the lavishness of his last three productions. It’s hippy-dippy live audience members feel tres 70s, and while Tati’s customary talents are indeed intact, it’s a disappointing finale for one of cinema’s genius directors.
Despite the restoration, Parade is the least visually masterful disc of the set, often seeming like what it was, a television production that wasn’t able to match the talents of its director.
In the Ring
A 28 minute documentary from Tati historian Stephane Goudet in 2013 examines the stylistic choices of the film, which doesn’t “represent the same habitual style” of the director’s other films. Goudet goes into depth about the making of the film.
In the Footsteps of M. Hulot
Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, directs a two part documentary concerning the evolution of her father’s alter ego, M. Hulot. Part One is fifty one minutes and examines the creation of Hulot through his first incarnation, M. Hulot’s Holiday. Part Two is fifty two minutes and examines the fame her father achieved (including a documented meeting with De Gaulle) after the celebrated reception of Mon Uncle, which snagged an Oscar.
A fifteen minute segment from a 1982 French television show, “Magazine” documents set designer Jacques Lagrange’s collaborations with Tati.
The seventh film of the set includes seven short films, included five directed by Tati, and two by his daughter, Sophie Tatsicheff.
On Demande Une Brute (1934) – Homage to Jacques Tati
A 23 minute slapstick film directed by Charles Barrois and written by Tati and Rene Clement features Tati as a shy, unemployed actor entering a wrestling match.
Gai Dimanche (1935) –
A 21 minute short co-written and co-starring Tati and Enrico Sporcani, a famous clown known as Rhum, tells a story about a pair of tramps who hatch a plan to make money, directed by Jacques Berr.
Soigne Ton Gauche (1936) –
Directed by Rene Clement, this thirteen minute short stars Tati as a farmer who dreams of being a boxer, but is ill equipped when his wish comes true.
L’ecole Des Facteurs (1946) –
The first film Tati directed details a clumsy rural postman that provided the basis for Jour de Fete.
Cours Du Soir (1967) –
Made while in production on PlayTime, where it was shot on sets built for that film, the 27 minute short was directed by Tati’s assistant Nicolas Ribowski and stars Tati as an acting instructor.
Degustation Maison (1977) –
A Cesar award winning short by Tatischeff was shot in the town from Jour de Fete.
Forza Bastia (1978) –
A soccer documentary started by Tati, this was completed by Tatischeff after his death.
An excellent disc devoted entirely to shorts that involved Tati, Criterion also includes supplements from the exhausting annals of Tati scholar Stephane Goudet.
Professor Goudet’s Lessons
A thirty minute excerpt from a 2013 lecture from one of Goudet’s classroom lectures on concepts that are essential to understanding Tati’s cinema.
A 2002 twenty minute short film from Goudet explores Tati’s life through clips, photos, and archive material.
An exquisite and elegantly compiled box-set of Jacques Tati’s magnificent filmography, Criterion’s refurbished collection (which includes the resurrection of three titles they had lost the rights to for several years), this is a must own collection for Tati’s fans or cineastes that have heretofore neglected his output. Tati was a strange cinematic magician, and has entertained and confounded audiences for decades, with scholars examining his precise techniques, searching endlessly for “syntactical disequilibrium,” and other heady concepts as concerns the technological achievements of his visual formulas. An auteur unparalleled, this is a lovingly compiled homage to his body of work.