#149: A PARTICULAR KIND OF ATTENTION. Before he began to direct films, Jacques Tati had a proleptic role in Claude Autant-Lara’s romantic comedy “Sylvie et le Fantome,” in which he moved like a dancer, was beloved friend to a dog, created a certain amount of deliberate and inadvertent havoc, and was completely silent. Much of this could be a description of his famous alter-ego, Monsieur Hulot, who figured in four of his six feature films and is near the top of the line of comedy’s great assumed incarnations, from Chaplin’s Tramp to Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everage. In his superb study of Tati’s work (Jacques Tati, Harvill Press, 1999), David Bellos says of Hulot that he “is expressed first of all by a posture: straight-backed, but leaning forward from the ankles, in defiance of gravity; head held low, like a bird’s, bending from the neck, exaggerating the sense of impending disequilibrium; a jutting pipe underlines the forward tilt; elbows splayed backwards, making a gawky, eloquent and comically elongated silhouette.” Another writer, Michael Chion, described his expression: “indefinable, somewhere between worry, stupidity and polite neutrality.” But it was Penelope Gilliatt who nailed the result of his presence and existence: she said Hulot was “muddle’s natural kin.” Hulot, as someone said of life, is what happens when you’re making other plans.
Tati not only invented Hulot (as well as the wonderful Francois the postman, the efficiency-crazed protagonist of “Jour de Fete”) but profoundly altered (one wants to say confused) the methods of screen comedy. Tati’s films were more physical and gag humor than dialogue humor—no one ever quotes a Tati film, they describe it. He was particularly fascinated by what could be done with sound. In “Mon Oncle,” Hulot, venturing into his sister’s ultra-modern kitchen, discovers that the water jug is made of plastic, to the point that it bounces; he plays around with it for a minute, like a kid with a basketball, and then, delighted with his discovery, grabs a glass, inspects it with visible anticipation and drops it, obviously expecting it to bounce as well. The glass drops out of view and we hear an awful sound of shattering. Bellos describes a friend of Tati’s one day discovering him spending hours dropping different glasses, to find the one that would make the perfect shattering noise. Part of the second sequence in “Playtime” takes place in an ultramodern, glass-walled modern waiting room, during which the only sounds are the fwoops, whooshes and thoongs of padded furniture and airtight glass doors. Sight gags are not usually slapstick but visual disorientations: one man asks another to light his cigarette, but they have to walk to a doorway to get this done, as they are on opposite sides of an invisible glass wall. Later in “Playtime,” five men carrying a vast pane of glass do an elephant-step mambo to music from a radio several stories below. From background and influences as varied as picture-framing, rugby and music-hall performing, Tati gave the world “a particular kind of attention,” not entirely like what we’d seen before.
Bellos sketches in Tati’s life and career, which is not an entirely happy story: Tati’s perfectionism, ambition, and detail-mania began to outrun his finances and his friends’ patience. The details of the enormous, budget-crippling set he built for “Playtime” reminded me of the tales of Erich von Stroheim, who wanted characters’ clothing to be put into the chests-of-drawers on his sets—it’s the story, familiar to anyone who reads film history, of the horribly permeable line between genius and megalomania. And “Playtime,” of course, is in some senses the masterpiece you will never see: filmed in seventy millimeter, its visually complicated gags look almost claustrophobic on the small screen. But Bellos gives us all sorts of technical background, stray surprises and social history, and he captures a good deal of the charm of Tati at his best. Tati is an individual, for some an acquired taste. Probably the way to start off is with his arguable best, “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” and “Mon Oncle” (all of his films are available on DVD from Criterion). At a double bill of these two features, years ago, a friend of mine was reduced to such helpless, chair-pounding, raucous hilarity that at intermission a nearby viewer asked her “Do they pay you to come here?” They are ingenious, delightful, funny films; but as Pauline Kael wrote, “it is not until afterward—with the sweet nostalgic music lingering—that these misadventures take on a certain poignancy and depth.”