The characters played by director Jacques Tati, in Jour de fête (1949), Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Mon oncle (1958), PlayTime (1967), Trafic (1971), and Parade (1974), are rarely the singular focus of their respective film. Sure, his endearing M. Hulot appears in four of these features, and his François, from Jour de fête, is the most prominent resident of that film’s snug provincial hamlet. But Tati’s on-screen persona, whatever his name (he has none in Parade), is often more of an escort, an inimitable figure whose primary function is to introduce surrounding characters by way of his direct and indirect interaction, and to establish the capacity of each film’s essential setting, which is usually enlivened by his mere existence if not his actual relevance. It’s not that his characters are necessarily afterthoughts—Hulot is among the more distinguished physical entities in all of cinema—but rather it’s that they appear almost subordinate to a larger schematic, acting in the service of the action or the joke instead of supporting any distinct individual development (save for François, Tati’s figureheads seldom evolve in the course of a film). Above any one person, any peripheral comic catalyst who steps up as an unwitting punchline or inquisitive onlooker, and certainly above any semblance of standard narrative consequence, what impresses most in a Tati film is the intricate communal patchwork conceived by this peerless visionary. It is a refined coordination of bodies in motion, in melodic harmony with tangential paraphernalia and a dynamic environment.
Jour de fête (The Big Day), an allied follow-up to Tati’s 1947 short, L’école des facteurs (School for Postmen), takes place in Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, a quaint, quiet settlement set to burst when a bedraggled fair comes trotting into town, captivating its curious and credulous citizenry. Though he would steadily amplify the thematic scope and visual scale of his work, Tati’s portrait of this peaceable French countryside is casual and light, and those who reside here proceed at a reciprocal pace, just as the film itself engenders a comparable tenor. While a jaunty score by Jean Yatove beckons the “hullabaloo” to come, for now, this is the sort of place where wayward geese can slow down an already unhurried tractor and nobody bats an eye. Why bother, what’s the rush? But then, some 15 minutes into Jour de fête, a fluent and leisurely picture, there is Tati’s mustachioed mail carrier, weaving his way through a crowd of cattle, his bike moving erratically, his bell ringing excitedly. As with Hulot to come, François is a good-natured chap, oblivious and optimistic in equal measure, perplexed and fascinated by what he sees, but always positive, always progressive. As a compliant conduit for how audiences should approach and appreciate the succeeding drama (or, more precisely, the comedy), he sets the tone of buoyancy and amiability.
Though Jour de fête’s typically tranquil community is abuzz for the reasons of impending amusement, the bustle and energy of PlayTime is simply the way the world is in its teeming urban milieu. As with Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon oncle, Hulot’s principal value here, navigating the sterile, high-tech Parisian cityscape, is as a channeling spectator, successively prompting the eyes and ears of the viewer as he ambles from place to place and from person to person. At times, though, especially in PlayTime, where it can extend the length of an entire scene, Tati’s camera will detach from Hulot and meander through a life of its own. There are, as a result, other recurring characters: an attractive American tourist, a boisterous male diner (also American), and an overstressed corporate lackey. But most who inhabit the film, from its Orly Airport opening and its offices and exhibition halls, to its candid living rooms and chaotic public venues, are functional, personified props more than they are individualized personalities. Encompassing white-collar administrators and undaunted, dawdling locals, PlayTime, beyond any other Tati film, is prone to superficial, objective affinity. And unlike Trafic, where the opening titles highlight Tati’s protagonist as a recognizable filmic commodity, in PlayTime’s modern labyrinth of urban material and momentum, even Hulot’s prominent gait provides no present certainty; the film is infused with false Hulots, teasing the anticipating audience and deceiving the former acquaintances of this affable man with the ubiquitous pipe and umbrella.
Tati’s humor is largely based on defined comportment and the bearing of outward appearance, embracing the deceptively easy flow of choreographed characters who stroll along, inadvertently avoid accidents, or become embroiled in perpetual misunderstandings. His spatial comedy thrives on timing, alignment, and the continual manipulation of expectation. In Jour de fête, we expect two cyclists to get sprayed with an errant hose, then they don’t; we don’t expect François to fall down a previously concealed hole in the ground, then he does. Entrances and exits are poised on a perilous high-wire of seeming randomness, but this is never really the case, for Tati’s sense of composition is always on-point, always articulating an ideal view from which to absorb the joke. His emphasis is on the way a certain piece of clothing shifts, or doesn’t; it is on the quirky habits and mannerisms of people in unison or seclusion; and it is on the balance of movement and stillness (literally lifeless in the case of PlayTime, which incorporates cardboard extras), with people confined to insipid administrative halls and muted waiting rooms, where they pace and kill time or appear dreadfully busy—the two activities look remarkably similar.
The depth and volume of Tati’s 70mm PlayTime canvas forms an open, “democratic” cinema, with multiple focal points and simultaneous planes of action, like a veritable Where’s Waldo of gags and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gestures. In a comprehensive wide shot, the viewer is able to see what the characters can’t, to find the hilarity in what they miss, and in the very fact they missed it. One notices in this artfully privileged position the eccentricity of trivial, everyday activities and the creativity of elaborate public pantomime. Because all of this can occur, several times over, in any single mesmerizing frame, PlayTime, according to David Cairns, “contains not one story but a million, all happening at once.” Its interior geometry—complex, peculiar, and engrossing—houses cubicles that are open and obstructive at the same time, and windows and reflections that expose and confuse. There is no telling how a certain bit will pay off, or how long it will take: see PlayTime’s fifty-minute Royal Garden climax, an improvisational nightclub forum of cascading mishaps, posturing and pleasantries, and an eventual descent into joyous chaos (“It’s the same thing every night,” declares one bored patron, which is hard to imagine). Even in something as ostensibly low-key as Jour de fête, the extent of the humor isn’t entirely obvious. A passing glance can provide endless comedic potential, involving both animate and inanimate stimuli. Characters are where they shouldn’t be or aren’t where they should be, and a seemingly arbitrary vantage point proves pleasantly imperative to an incident taken wittily out of context. Tati encourages passivity and participation, patience and engagement, and those who reject the precarious, spontaneous anarchy are destined to fall out of synch with his comic orchestration.
Just as cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding steep the structural vastness of PlayTime in cold grays, scaled-back blacks, and depleted blues, the sonic constitution of Tati’s cinema is of a similarly subtle variety: superfluous chatter, shuffling feet, swishing fabrics, squishy chairs, the reverberating clunk of a closing door, the tempo of voluble, segregated footsteps in a painfully silent corridor. His cunning sound design is sporadic and illusory, played to amusing effect in Jour de fête, where the sputtering starts and stops of western film fill in for the dialogue between two courting characters. And like Tati’s visual punctuations, everything one hears also has its place, in diverting isolation or in a perceptive composite. The fact Tati shot his films without sound, notes Jonathan Rosenbaum, and composed his soundtracks separately, “made it easier for him to use images and sounds interactively, employing sound in part as a way of guiding how we look at his images, by stimulating and directing our imaginations.” PlayTime, for example, resonates with the sound of pervasive gadgetry imposed for one’s supposed convenience; “electrical thingamajigs” hum and buzz and tick and continue the troubling technical refrain Tati explored in Mon oncle, where newfangled appliances proclaim a range of exaggerated functions but, more often than not, are undermined their own convolution.
A newsreel shown in Jour de fête (a substantial plot point integrated half-way into the film) touts the virtues of American progress, where “modern postmen” don’t just deliver the mail, they take part in a grand adventure—a sexy one at that. This, of course, is antithetical to Tati’s empirical concentration, so as François strives for derivative expediency with less-than-successful results (he is rather excitable and kinetic, quite more so than Hulot), he is ridiculed for his efforts. He learns his lesson, though, and in the process becomes perhaps the only Tati character to evince conventional aggravation, as opposed to the later Hulots who accept all that is thrown at them.“News is rarely good,” assures the crooked old lady who provides Jour de fête with a play-by-play commentary of the town’s affairs. “So, let it take its sweet time.” Speed is stressful, after all; it is a danger and a disruption. But it is also inevitable. A car zips through Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, honking its horn in a manner of instant arrogance, and 18 years later, a pace-centric carousel caps off PlayTime (and foreshadows Trafic) as emblematic automobiles struggle to make hasty headway, the same sort of headway that seizes Hulot in the density of PlayTime’s vigorous mise en scène and its populous fervor.
Attempts are made to control this haphazard humanity, via printed or voiced rules and regulations, yet these pronouncements only exacerbate the situation, calling attention to the absurdity of bureaucratic, civic, and social inefficiency. This is ingrained in Tati’s depiction of cultural uniformity and contemporary idiosyncrasy. On one hand, there is an invasiveness of fixed routine and banal patterns of conduct, existing (so to speak) within spheres of commercial alienation (pictures showcase assorted travel destinations, but they are all emblazoned with the same nondescript skyrise). On the other, private homes are open to a street side public, like a voyeuristic showroom displaying the domestic commodities within, including the people. And yet, Tati was no antiquated slouch. Keen on ambitious innovation, he shot Jour de fête with two cameras, one for the experimental Thomsoncolor process and one for black and white, the format in which the film was initially released (it currently exists in three, variously colored versions), and PlayTime’s extraordinarily expensive production involved the high-concept construction of his “Tativille” set, engaging hundreds of cast and crew for more than two years.
Hinging on measured repetition and refreshing variance, Tati’s cinema rewards each return viewing with the renewed promise of discovery, of noticing something new in what is seen, how, and why. Things happen without any readily apparent corollary, just as the nothing that seems to occur proves significant in the end. It’s all about perspective and the estimation of what is truly noteworthy. A movie like PlayTime, as Rosenbaum states (and this applies to any Tati film), “directs us to look around at the world we live in (the one we keep building), then at each other, and to see how funny that relationship is and how many brilliant possibilities we still have in a shopping-mall world that perpetually suggests otherwise; to look and see that there are many possibilities and that the play between them, activated by the dance of our gaze, can become a kind of comic ballet, one that we both observe and perform.” Despite his talents in other areas of artistic entertainment (see the variety show skits in Parade), Tati was born to make movies, and the breadth of his ingenious expressiveness could have scarcely been rendered in any other medium. He is a rarified filmmaker, one who can prompt and influence, through the novel aesthetic of his work, a correspondingly enhanced perception of reality. Observing the world in ways never considered before, one leaves a Tati film and still sees the remnants of its maker. The comedy that appears perfectly natural on the screen lingers on the elusive edges and in the depths of our own existence. Sometimes, it’s right in front of our eyes—we just know where and how to look for it. Think, then, of how much funnier life would be, if only we had Jacques Tati as our guide.