Jacques Tati, born Jacques Tatischeff, was an accomplished mime artist from a very young age. The legend of French comedy cinema would re-enact complete “action replays” of entire sporting events for his family and friends – taking on the role of the teams, the referee and sometimes the entire crowd. Despite his love for sport, the music hall beckoned and he was a popular mime star in his French homeland by his early twenties.
By the early 1930’s Tati was starting to make little incursions into the world of film, his 1931 short (written by, directed by and starring Tati) Oscar, Champion de Tennis fell short in terms of technical quality but in the main character there could be seen the kernel of the character who would become Francois the Postman and most famously Monsieur Hulot.
EARLY DAYS AND SHORT FILMS
In 1934 Tati made a second short called On Demande A Brute (English title They Want A Beast) which saw him directed by the great Rene Clement and Charles Barrois and in the fine form of a man who accidentally finds himself taking part in a wrestling match. This was followed by two more shorts in 1935 and 1936 with Gia Dimanche aka Happy Sunday (directed by Jacques Berr) and Soigne ton Gauche (Guard Your Left, directed once again by Rene Clement). 1938 saw Retour a la Terre (Return to Earth) which once again took complete control of.
Whilst none of these shorts have stood the test of time, they are too rough in quality for that, they do all have plenty of themic echoes of his later work – the countryside, children, even meddling postmen!
Like all other European film-makers at this time work was curtailed by the second world war. Tati spent much of the next six years in the village of Sainte-sur-Indre. This would provide the setting for his first bona fide classic Jour de Fete.
THE SCHOOL FOR POSTMEN
Once the war was over Tati quickly got back into film making, he financed a short called L’Ecole de Factors (School for Postmen) in 1947 by appearing in two other French films (Sylvie and the Ghost and Devil in the Flesh) and then began concentrating on his first feature Jour de Fete. When it appeared in 1949, having been built up meticulously by Tati making heavy use of preview screenings and running different gag sequences and different scenes to find what worked best (something that is standard practice with major film makers today but rare at the time). Jour de Fete was a major critical success winning the Grand Prix du Cinema at Cannes in 1950.
By now Tati was focusing on the creation of his greatest character yet, the everyman that is Monsieur Hulot. A man who ambles through life unwittingly leaving chaos in his wake. Filmed over a couple of years (and released in 1953) amidst quite a bit of financial difficulty, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is set in the village of St Marc-Sur-Mer in Brittany. Despite the air of improvisation that hangs over Hulot, Tati was absolutely meticulous in his preparations with months spent on location before filming even began.
A MAN OUT OF THIS WORLD
Like his most obvious pastiche Mr Bean, Hulot lives in a world that just isn’t quite suited to his awkward style, however desperate he is to fit in (witness the tennis match in Holiday or the garden party in the follow up Mon Oncle). Above all else though it is in isolation that can only truly find inner peace of a kind.
Holiday, with it’s lack of dialogue was a massive worldwide hit, meanwhile Tati was already working on a follow up in the shape of Mon Oncle which spent nine months filming and then over a year being edited. It’s here that the gentle anarchism of Hulot (and Tati) is most evident. The march of progress may be everywhere but it is not a march Hulot is going on, easy to see why Hulot became a much loved figure for a whole generation of sixties drop-outs.
Tati spent over three years and at the time a massive one million pounds on his next movie Playtime, going so far as to construct his own immaculate city in the studio. However when it appeared in 1968 Tati’s anti-urban tale seemed like it was going over old ground. It looked amazing but lacked soul and humour.
Traffic, Hulot’s last big screen outing, was back on firmer ground. Tati’s character was driving from Paris (along with a veritable convoy of new cars) to a motor show in Amsterdam – with every conceivable problem, from traffic jams to crashes, getting in the way.
Apart from one seldom seen 1974 production called Parade that Tati made for French TV, that was it. Tati died in 1992 but his legacy and and genius remains. His work much copied (especially in the UK by Benny Hill and the aforementioned Mr Bean) but never bettered.