If you told Jacques Tati that his flight was delayed, he’d say terrific – and settle down to watch what he considered “the best movie of the year”: people passing by. Observation gave the director all the material he needed for the four films he made over three decades. Tati liked to call himself “the Don Quixote of cinema”, which captures his combination of idealism, imagination and generosity. Monsieur Hulot, his charming, self-effacing but out-of-synch comic creation, is the character with whom he is most often, and fondly, associated. But Tati’s work cannot be reduced to the man with the too-short trousers. His films – from the early burlesque of Jour de fête in 1949 to the highly stylised modernism of Play Time in 1967 – might not have an intellectual message, but they are delightful witnesses to the second half of the 20th century in France.
Jacques Tatischeff – he later trimmed his surname, for simplicity – made his first film when he was nearly 40. He’d spent his early days skipping school, playing rugby and making friends laugh with improvised sketches during post-match drinks. Between 1930 and 1945 he took an act round the music halls of Europe and America and learnt that comedy was all about meticulous preparation. Yet this tall, impressive man with roots in the Russian aristocracy was not really made for comic acting, which was full of small guys like Chaplin and Keaton, who had scores to settle, hardened by impoverished childhoods and violent, alcoholic fathers. Born in 1907, Tati had grown up in a big family home full of servants, on the road to Versailles. He spent holidays in Deauville, and his parents had their own framing shop just off the chic Place Vendôme in central Paris. There they mixed with all the great artists of the day and assumed their son would take over the business.
It was following a disastrous audition at the Finsbury Park Empire, after the war, that Tati decided to renounce the stage and pick up the camera. The switch was not unusual: music halls were dying out, film was attracting big crowds. Tati already had acting experience, too, with the pre-war shorts Oscar, champion de tennis and René Clément’s little gem about a country boy turned boxing maestro, Soigne ton gauche. The latter, along with his own L’Ecole des facteurs (1947), are getting a rare outing at the French film festival and it’s a pleasure to watch Tati brimming with energy and sketching out much of what he would later develop.
Tati’s first feature, Jour de fête (1949), was a rural ballad on a bicycle with Tati as the local postman François, marvellously enthusiastic but with a penchant to delay his deliveries for a quick drink and cheeky jive on the café dancefloor. But he is a proud man, and when a rumour circulates around the village about super-efficient mailmen in America, François tries his best to rise to the occasion. Burlesque and spirited, Jour de fête found a big public right away: the hard-up French audience were glad to forget their postwar problems, and it equally charmed the international public, keen to find a new quintessentially French director.
Jour de fête contrasted one pace and way of life with another – faster, more productive, streamlined – and this opposition comes back in each Tati film. But it is not a reactionary shove at the evils of modernity. Such an ideological reading – Tati has been seen as both conservative and revolutionary, a critic of progress and a critic of American capitalism – is contradicted by the form of the films. Tati experimented and mastered the latest technologies. In Jour de fête he drew on silent burlesque but also exploited all the possibilities of post-synch sound, incorporating carefully selected noises – church bells, bicycle wheels, cockerel calls, buzzing bees – to draw the audience’s attention. The film was the first in France to be shot in colour, though laboratories could not develop the negative until 1995.
In 1953 Tati resisted calls for more postman antics and made Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday instead, introducing the shy, complex, elegantly maladroit Hulot. The purposefully un-French man in trench coat and chic stripy socks peeping out beneath his trouser legs presented a very different comic character to the familiar Chaplin type, always the clever one, creator of jokes and inventor of solutions. Hulot’s mishaps during his holiday at the seaside resort were solved, if at all, purely by chance as Tati tried to democratise and internationalise his comedy. To recompose reality he concentrated even more on selective sound as a replacement for dialogue. He also exhausted his cast and crew with his meticulous attention to detail. His work was never finished. The screening of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday at the festival is the third version Tati made of the film, including an extra scene involving a canoe looking like a shark’s fin, which he shot 25 years later.
Five years on, Tati brought Hulot back for My Uncle. It was made at a time when France was starting to buy into the American dream with gusto, importing motor cars, televisions and kitchen appliances. Speaking about the film later, Tati joked, “I didn’t spark 1968, but . . .”, alluding to the interpretations of the film as a critique of capitalism. Tati certainly punched holes in the system, but My Uncle was also a loving portrait of all the heady possibilities coming from the Atlantic. The film juxtaposes the world of Hulot’s apartment in a traditional French village and the new city nearby, where his sister lives in a stylised home complete with fish-shaped fountains, super-cool kitchen, bean-shaped and long green sofas – the latter now sitting in New York’s MoMA. A young Truffaut commented that My Uncle looked like no other film at the time, marvelling at Tati’s expression of modernity conjured by a mastery of colour, camera angles, editing and sound.
Tati now had the glory: My Uncle won an Oscar, he was shaking hands with De Gaulle at the Elyseé, snapped alongside Dean Martin and Sophia Loren in Hollywood and taking Edith Piaf’s place for three months at Paris Olympia when she fell ill. But the public’s fondness for Hulot also depressed Tati: he was comfortingly familiar. It reminded him of the reaction of music-hall crowds when a favourite song was announced: applause before the performance.
So in 1967, with his fourth and last major film, Tati threw Hulot back into the crowd. Play Time has long been considered the black mark in his career, the one that brought it all crashing down and killed the laughter, left the director bankrupt, forced him to sell his home, lost him the rights to his films, and pushed him, by the late 70s, to make ads for slim-line yoghurts and Lloyd’s Bank. And it could all have been different if he had accepted the requests to make Hulot on Holiday Again, Hulot Gets Married or – believe it or not – Hulot Meets the Martians. But Tati had moved on, and Play Time was a dizzyingly ambitious project. All the location scouting came to nothing, so Tati decided to build his own city. “Tativille” took just under three years to construct. It featured centrally heated four-storey buildings, roads, traffic lights, buses and cars circulating past a 25m Eiffel Tower. The production teams settled in a mini-suburb, with its own underground waterworks. To do it all justice, Tati filmed in 70mm and used six different sound recording systems.
During the shoot he got the nickname “Tatillon” – pernickety – alluding to his attention to every detail and involvement in each area: Tati was the film’s director, architect, electrician, designer and actor. He was again accused of being reactionary, but Tati told his critics to look at the film. “If I’d been against modern architecture I would have chosen the ugliest new buildings,” he said, pointing out that his buildings were magnificent, “their lines are beautiful”. Indeed, Tativille was never meant to be a dystopia; it was Tati’s dream. What terrified him was how the dream might turn. He was not resisting the world as it changed, but had made a last, valiant attempt to humanise it in its process of transformation.
When Play Time was released in 1967 it bombed. Crowds were quiet, everyone was looking for Hulot, and distributors chopped it down to under two hours. There was so much to see and hear, but the film came out at a time when audiences were getting accustomed to seeing not very much on small television screens. Tati was unable to recoup all the money he had invested, and his idea of turning Tativille into a film school foundered on a land dispute. He was forced to pull his mini-city down. On the day he stood alone at the edge of the site, waiting for the whole thing to fall, and as the rubble hit the ground he threw a copy of the script into the cloud of dust and ran away.
Trafic, a fifth feature, and the television film Parade about music halls, followed in the 70s, but as Tati admitted, Play Time was really his last film. The world is not short of homages to his work. Some are depressing – Brad Pitt recently played Hulot in a Wes Anderson advert for Japanese telecoms – while others have some life, including Sylvain Chomet’s forthcoming animation adaptation of The Illusionist, one of Tati’s two unfilmed screenplays. One project that sadly never materialised was Federico Fellini’s plan to direct a version of Don Quixote, with his friend in the lead role. In the end, Tati finished his career making adverts, but what does it matter? He never made Hulot Meets the Martians, preferring to keep his freedom. Hurling the script as Tativille crashed down was an act of defiance, not despair.
Considerado uno de los mejores cómicos de la historia, Jacques Tati (1907-1982) fue, a su vez, uno de los cineastas más frescos y originales. Películas como “Día de fiesta”, “Las vacaciones del señor Hulot”, “Mi tío” o “Playtime” son muestras de un talento único. ¿Las constantes de su cine? Un personaje patoso y caótico que altera la placentera existencia de cualquier lugar, y una visión alegórica y divertida, también crítica, de la deshumanización del progreso.
¿Por qué siempre es oportuno recuperar a Jacques Tati? ¿Por qué su discurso no parece superado? ¿Por qué, incluso, su corta obra –seis películas, pero millones de ideas– todavía parece que va por delante de los tiempos? Visionario perenne, el francés de origen ruso Jacques Tatischeff (Le Pecq, 1907-París, 1982) vuelve cíclicamente a ser actualidad cinematográfica porque, en realidad, nunca ha dejado de serlo. Ahora que varios países, también el nuestro, conmemoran el 50 aniversario de la creación del celebérrimo personaje de Monsieur Hulot, vale la pena volver a Tati.
No creo ser demasiado original si digo que el cine de Tati es un universo. Pero tan importante son los escenarios y objetos que imaginaba como la manera de ponerlos en pantalla. La creación de un espacio fílmico depende tanto de lo que hay dentro del plano como del plano en sí mismo. Y el ojo de Tati no era precisamente inocente: era y es un acicate para los que persiguen, descerebradamente, la liebre de lo moderno. Aunque, paradoja, la mirada de Tati, precisamente por ser tan fustigadora, es radicalmente moderna (recordemos: no es lo mismo modernidad que modernez). Tan vigente y universal es su obra estética como la de algunos de sus inspiradores: Le Corbusier, Buster Keaton, el Segundo de Chomón de “El hotel eléctrico”, Piet Mondrain, Charles Chaplin…
Aunque pueda parecer que el encanto de las películas de Jacques Tati reside en su belleza silente (no dejan de ser una actualización muy sui géneris del slapstick), no hay nada más importante en el cine de este autor francés que la banda de sonido. Son los diálogos, y no al revés, los que se incrustan entre chirridos, gorgoteos, timbres, pasos, mugidos, bocinazos…
La importancia narrativa y humorística de todo este arsenal de ruidos no solo se disfruta en la pantalla: en los muy recomendables discos “Extraits des bandes originales des films de Jacques Tati” (Philips, 1967) y el más reciente “Le cinéma s’écoute” (Naïve, 2002), se aprecia tanto el talento de Jacques Tati para crear secuencias prácticamente visuales a partir del sonido ambiente como las maravillosas partituras de los diferentes compositores que trabajaron con él: Alain Romans, Frank Barcellini, Jean Yatove y Francis Lemarque. También el año pasado vio la luz “Jacques Tati. Les remixes” (Naïve), una ocasión desaprovechada (por exceso de melaza lounge) de traducir al house, al dub y, en general, a la electrónica la sintaxis sonora de Tati.
Sigue siendo mucho más grato acercarse a las versiones originales del inmortal tema principal de “Mi tío” o a la pieza de abertura, casi free-jazz, casi clicks’n’cuts, de“Playtime” (1967).
Tati no estuvo solo en su renovación del lenguaje cómico de la imagen. Frank Tashlin y Jerry Lewis, desde Hollywood y prácticamente en paralelo con Tati, también se alimentaban a manos llenas del slapstick para construir sus películas con estética de plástico, colores primarios y personajes confundidos en un mundo que les va grande. Pierre Étaix, colaborador de Tati, inició su carrera como director (deliciosa “El pretendiente”, 1962) sin esconder nunca de qué maestro había aprendido sus pantomimas. ¡Si hasta en el cine de Jean-Luc Godard (en “Tout va bien” parece citar “Playtime”) y Federico Fellini (algunos personajes de “Roma” también podrían deambular perfectamente por “Playtime”) se puede seguir el rastro de Tati!
Sin embargo, el humor de línea clara del hombre escondido tras M. Hulot ha sido reverdecido en los últimos años por un buen (y variopinto) número de continuadores: Otar Ioselliani, Elia Suleiman, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (con o sin Caro) y hasta el Paul Thomas Anderson de “Punch-Drunk Love (Embriagado de amor)” o el Takeshi Kitano de “El verano de Kikujiro” son, en parte, responsables de que la obra de Jacques Tati todavía parezca escrita no en pasado perfecto, sino en presente continuo.