Michael House’s hour-long documentary survey of the life and work of French director Jacques Tati—its title styled in homage to PlayTime, the director’s 1967 masterwork—is a handsomely produced, informative appreciation of French cinema’s first true comedian, a man whose idiosyncrasies, it was once said, embody “everything that commercial cinema doesn’t have time or space for.” The light, playful nature of the film is evident from the start: the first interviewee on screen isn’t the expected academic, film historian, or pop-culture buff, but (surprisingly) something of all three, combined: Frank Black of Pixies.
The film doesn’t touch on any of Tati’s influences, preferring instead to simply trace his rise from musical-hall mimicry and dance—accompanied by a possibly erroneous photograph of the Folies Bergères—as a straightforward series of events in their own right. The reason for this soon becomes clear: Tati, at least as he’s presented here, was always a filmmaker who worked outside traditional bounds. No one ever called him an auteur, although certainly the way he presented his brand of comedy was consistent from film to film. He often worked as an independent artist, without benefit of any major studio or central funding, opting to fund his most audacious project, PlayTime (on which more later) personally.
Tati began his career in the 1920s, when he taught himself to mime the movements and facial expressions of his fellow rugby players. He performed skits after matches, found that he had a knack for physical comedy, and developed his own routines—which helped him fall in easily with avant-garde and surrealism circles in Paris at the time. His four major, best-known features—Jour de Fête, Les Vacances de M. Hulot, Mon Oncle, and PlayTime—are explored in chronological order, with new insights presented along the way. House presents snippets from a little-seen 1995 colourised version of Jour de Fête; examines the whirlwind success of Les Vacances de M. Hulot, which lead to the popular and critical acceptance of his later work so eagerly desired by the director; as one interviewee in House’s film says, Mon Oncle was Tati’s bid to be recognised on the world stage, on a world-cinema platform exemplified no more clearly than by its sound track being recorded in two languages (English and French)—one for the home market, one for the US. The film deservedly won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1959.
PlayTime, the director’s most ambitious project and the film now rightly recognised as his masterpiece, involved the building of a small city on disused land on the outskirts of Paris which would be dubbed “Tativille.” It was intended to be more or less permanent, like Cinecittà, but there was a motorway planned in its path, and Tati would be bankrupted spending almost half as much in tearing Tativille down as he had in erecting it. The film, shot on 70mm and in glorious Technicolor, was edited severely by the perfectionist Tati himself—not in a cutting room, but at a Parisian cinema; he trimmed more than 20 minutes from the film, content which is most probably lost to history. After his bankruptcy, he moved to the Netherlands and made Trafic, the final outing of his famed creation, Monsieur Hulot. A few unusual appearances on Swedish television, and the frustrating, uneven Parade (1974) were the tail ends of a career that sadly tapered off to almost nothing by the end of the ’70s.
House uses on old black-and-white photos the faux parallax-effect that has become commonplace in contemporary documentary—sometimes it works, but here it looks cheap and rough around the egdes, like it was compiled in a rush. A cadre of people who were close to Tati, as well as some of his living relatives, such as his daughter, are interviewed alongside artist-filmmaker Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners), and Sylvain Chomet (Les triplettes de Belleville), whose 2010 film L’illusioniste was based upon an undeveloped, dormant Tati script the director began in the ‘50s. (The main character is an animated caricature of Tati himself.) There’s also a fun, brief segment with a foley artist who explains the sound-recording process on Mon Oncle.
House’s film isn’t nearly as exhaustively well-researched or as strenuous an undertaking as was Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff’s two-hour film In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot—made in 1989 and included on some DVD editions of Trafic—and not quite as stacked with tidbits as it ought to have been given that David Bellos’ biography of Tati is what inspired House to make the film. Nonetheless, this is more than merely an extended DVD supplement: as an accessible chronicle of the inner and outer life of Monsieur Hulot, one couldn’t really ask for anything more enjoyable.
The Magnificent TaTi is out now on DVD through Madman.
The special features are a brief interview with the film’s director, and extraneous footage taken during interviews with the actors in Tati’s final work, 1974’s Parade.