Jacques Tati

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5.0 The Big Day (1949)
7.0 Hulot's Holidays (1953)
7.2 My Uncle (1958)
7.6 Playtime (1967)
6.5 Traffic (1971)
5.0 Parade (1974)

(DeepL translation of my original Italian text)

Jacques Tati (of Russian ancestry) was inspired by the great mimes who blossomed in the wake of Francois Delsarte's teaching. Between 1931 and 1945 Tati took the stage of the music-hall, ispired also by Charlie Chaplin, and achieved a sizeable popularity with satirical gags that augmented his mute skits. Some of these skits were transferred to short films directed by others, such as Rene' Clement's On Demand un Brute (1934). Only in 1947 Tati set out to personally direct a short, L'Ecole des Facteurs/ School for Postmen. That experience was useful as apprenticeship for his first full-length movie, the mediocre comedy Jour de Fête/ The Big Day (1949), in which he also converted to sound and dialogues.

In the age before cars became pervasive, in the idyllic countryside a tractor slowly drags a wagon with the rides for the local fair in honor of the patron saint. A child follows it excited, and ducks and goat greet it into town. The program for the holiday also includes a USA film, announced with much pomp. an elderly woman comments on the characters and events of the town. Francois is the postman of this undistinguished small town like many others. He rides his bicycle up the unpaved streets of the town. He helps the men who are raising the flagpost in the main square, especially since a goat has eaten the telegram that he was supposed to deliver urgently. The merry go round start moving, the marching band plays music, the girls dress up and come out of their homes. Francois embarrasses himself in several of the booths of the fair, and eventually stumbles into a booth where the tv set is showing a documentary on the automated USA mail system. Eventually the day is over, and the night brings some quiet (although the man of the rides, Roger, is flirting with one of the single girls, despite his wife being in the wagon). However, the mailman is now obsessed with the USA mail system. In the morning the town folks make fun of his obsession. He only has an old bicycle to modernize his system. He rides around town like a maniac, while people root for him. He even anchors himself to a truck so that he can stamp the mail while riding the bicycle. He cannot stop to help a man who has fallen into the well. He drops letters in the most unlikely places, so that he doesn't have to stop. The butcher cuts a package in half because Francois dumps it on his cutting board while he's cutting meat. Then he has to run after his bicycle that is rolling down the hill as if drawn by a ghost. When he finally catches up, he ties it to the wall like a horse. But then of course he forgets to untie it when he starts biking again... And so on and on frantically, up and down the hills, causing car accidents and doing acrobatic moves to avoid obstacles, and even passing professional cyclists of the Tour de France, all the time being hailed by the whole population, until he crashes in a pond and has to be rescued by the old lady in her slow horse-drawn cart. He ends up helping a farmer while a little child distributes the mail. Roger's wagon leaves town, watched with melancholy by the girl who is in love with Roger, while the town's men take down the flagpost. And everything returns to its normal, idyllic state. (The second part, after he decides to become "American", has by far the best gags, and, not accidentally, is also the one with little or no dialogue, just bodily farce). A keen observer of everyday life, Tati constructs the film's gags as (meticulous) parodies of commonplace behaviors and places; but he has no need to create comic situations, his job consists in unearthing the comic element hidden in ordinary life.

Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot/ Hulot's Holidays (1953), in which he returned to the quasi-silence of his music-hall shows, exploits his comic skill for a more serious end: the character of Hulot, the everyman parodied by his austere and eccentric attire (fluttering raincoat, hat, umbrella, and pipe) and by his stubborn muteness (he speaks only his own name), who is in fact an anarchist in an increasingly regimented society.

Crowds of people leaving for the summer holidays assemble at the train station. The loudspeakers blast something totally senseless. When the train arrives, they have to squeeze into the overcrowded cars. In the meantime an old stuttering automobile is advancing in the dusty country roads. WHen it enters a small town, it has to stop because the passengers are trying to board an overcrowded bus, including a nice young woman. A dog sleeping in the middle of the street refuses to move when the funny vehicle approaches. Other cars pass it at twice its speed. The nice young woman traveling alone gets off the bus when they reach the beach. Hulot arrives at a hotel in the same town. Hulot is the stereotypical middle-class person, except that he is not traveling with a companion. At the beach a child wreaks havoc by using a lens to burn a rope that holds a boat. Later the girlfriend of the girl arrives at the hotel, and Hulot helps her carry her very heavy luggage. Guests of the hotel dine and chat in peace until loud music explodes from the room where Hulot has found a turntable. Someone turns the electricity off. It turns out Hulot is not the nice man he appears to be: at the beach he has fun causing all sort of trouble against random beachgoers. Ordinary life proceeds quietly and slowly, but hides many small incidents. Hulot is driving when he sees a man miss his bus. Hulot tells him to get in and starts chasing the bus. His stuttering car has almost made it when the car's top collapses and he ends up in a cemetery where a funeral is taking place. He plays tennis (all dressed up in his usual attire) and is invincible. The guests of the hotel play cards and argue. He goes horse riding with the young girl. Then they dance dressed in fancy costumes. Most of the guests of the hotel organize a picnic out of town. Hulot gives a ride to two ladies but his car keeps dying. Eventually he has to push it down a hill, but doesn't see a car in front of him: when his car hits it, both cars start rolling down the hill with Hulot running between the two. His car ends up in the garden of a mansion and he has to run away from the guard dogs. One night Hulot enters a small hut and accidentally sets fire to the fireworks that are stored in it, lighting the whole sky. The guests of the hotel wake up and join in the party. The following day the guests depart, bidding farewell to each other.
If many of the gags are outdated, these films are actually frescoes of ordinary life in those eras.

From this point on, from film to film Tati examines several different "environments" and scientifically revolts against them, dissects them, scours them thoroughly, despite making use of the limited resources of silent (non-sound) cinema.

Mon Oncle/ My Uncle (1958) catapults Hulot, the inhabitant of a quiet working-class neighborhood and friend of the humble neighborhood people, into an ultramodern house. Hulot accepts everything passively, as if everything is part of the logic of things: never a movement of rebellion, never expressing his preference. Besides, at the end of the day, his personality, however compliant, proves invincible: his "protectors" must surrender before the evidence of his inability to live in a modern context.

A garbage collector on a horse-drawn cart collects trash, followed by a dog. Four dogs roam the streets but only one enters a mansion, while the other three stop at the gate. A woman still dressed in a robe helps a middle-aged man in a suit and tie get ready to leave the house. Then the child comes out, Gerard, and gets into the car. No words are exchanged. This car enters the busy streets of the city. The man drops the child in front of his school and then continues to the gated parking lot of a factory. In the meantime the garbage collector drops his load and then heads for a market on his slow cart. He then walks to the top story of a building. Hulot lives in a quiet suburb of humble middle-class families. He is amused that his bird would start chirping every time a reflection from a glass door sends a bit of light towards its cage. Hulot picks up Gerard at the school and walks back home. At his home a guest has arrived, an elegant and beautiful woman, just before Hulot walks in with the child. Hulot quietly disappears, avoiding the guest. The man in suit and tie, Charles, returns home and is welcomed by his wife in their perfectly organized home, equipped with the latest technological devices. Hulot quickly retraces his steps to his neighborhood, which is noisy and messy, where people are people and not robots. At the factory Charles asks his boss (in a futuristic room) for a job, not for himself but for his unemployed brother-in-law. Having been accorded the favor, he calls Hulot, who clumsily manages to screw up the interview. Hulot's sister receives the visit of her neighbor and takes the opportunity to give her a tour of their futuristic house, furnished with objects manufactured at her husband's futuristic factory. The neighbor is no less vain, artificial and pretentious than them. When he comes back home, her husband Charles is furious for what Hulot has done. Hulot arrives on his bicycle, wearing his raincoat, an attitude that contrasts sharply with the impeccable attire and demeanor of the family. Their son is terribly bored and welcomes the visit of his funny uncle. Hulot takes him out of the house, and lets him play with his mischievious little friends (and he takes the blame for their practical jokes). His sister thinks he needs a woman, and the neighbor would be the perfect wife. Unaware of the plot, Hulot is taking a stroll in his neighborhood, happily chatting with his neighbors. His sister throws a garden party with a few robotic friends and the neighbor. Hulot arrives with his old bicycle. She tries very hard but the neighbor is an absolute icy bore that Hulot's jokes cannot melt. A leak in the pipes causes a little problem. One of the guests decides to roll his sleeves up and fix the problem, and ends up digging a huge hole, while the others move the tables and chair, and Hulot ends up in a pond. A friend of the neighbor shows up with a dog that runs amok, and eventually Hulot manages to get the leash stuck in one of the neighbor's earrings: then he just hands the leash to the dog owner, as if handing him the woman herself. The party is spoiled. Everybody leaves.
The usual routine resumes in the morning, with Charles driving the child to school and then driving himself to work. The workers and the secretaries start working frantically when they see his dog (a sign that the boss is coming). Hulot has finally been employed, although is falling asleep at his workplace. A machine starts malfunctioning, producing tubes that look like sausages, and Hulot doesn't know how to stop it. In the evening the workers, including Hulot who has Gerard with him, want to dispose of the bad tubes so the boss doesn't realize the gravity of the mistake, and throw it in the river. A young man thinks someone fell in the river and dives to rescue him. When he finds out it's just tube, he thinks of a practical joke and runs after Hulot and the others. Hulot takes his coat off to fight and... punches a passer-by. By the end of the evening, however, they are all friends. Hulot and Gerard are delivered to futuristic home in a horse-drawn cart. Gerard had the time of his life. In the meantime Charles and Hulot's sister are having their boring anniversary dinner at a fancy restaurant. When they return home, they find Hulot sleeping on the couch (a rather uncomfortable arching couch).
Hulot is indifferent to wealth, social status, modernity and employment.
Charles decides to send him to work in another region. Charles and Gerard pick him up at his humble place, and drive him to the station (where a myriad people show up with the exact same suitcase, a metaphor for the individual lost in the mass). Charles whistles to wave goodbye one more time to his brother-in-law, but instead distracts a passenger who then hits a lamppost. Father and child hide and laugh: they have finally become friends.

Tati's masterpiece, Playtime (1967), is set among the skyscrapers of a futuristic Paris. The mosaic of gags represents the meaning of life of the humble bee in the geometric beehive of the modern city. In this film, Hulot assumes the role of a Don Quijote of the technological future, where windmills have been transformed into the technological arsenal of consumerist society, somewhat the role Chaplin assigned to the protagonist of Modern Times; but, unlike that little man, Hulot is a seraphic bourgeois, not at all hostile to society, in fact perfectly integrated into it.
Hulot is an eternal child with a candid and inoffensive soul, is a helpless and consenting victim of absurdity; he tries to understand the meaning of the things around him without succeeding, but he does not rebel; he apologizes and complies; his personality is repressed daily by technology, which invades the whole space of the public and private through such devious weapons as the automobile and household appliances. Hulot is a totally passive being.

A group of foreign tourists, including Barbara, arrives at the airport. Hulot emerges from the chaos of the tourists as a footnote, when he picks up an umbrella that he has dropped. In a futuristic megalopolis made of glass and steel, Hulot enters a building and hands a piece of paper to the guardian, who then presses buttons on a switchboard that makes funny noises. This is the beginning of a mute Kafka-esque odyssey through a labirynth of cubicles, offices and hallways in search of the person he has to meet urgently. In parallel the foreign tourists are visiting the highlights of the glass and steel towers, instead of the old monuments (The famous monuments of Paris are sometimes shown in reflections against the glass of doors and walls). He is totally lost when he accidentally enters a trade fair of bizarre high-tech household objects, where the foreign tourists are also being escorted. (Most of the dialogues and presentations are actually "background noise" incidentally captured by the camera). He and Barbara keep running into each other without realizing it. He and Barbara even take the same bus. When Hulot gets off, he meets an old friend who invites him to his flat. Hulot accepts and walks up to the first floor of the building. The glass wall does not have curtains, and the camera remains outside, showing the action through the glass, with no sounds. In fact, the camera shows more than one apartment, up to four in one shot. The lives of their inhabitants are public. The woman next door is watching television and, when the camera moves exactly facing the wall between the two apartment, it looks like she's staring at Hulot's friend getting undressed in the other apartment. Outside, among the people who are staring at the "transparent" apartments, Hulot meets the very man that he wanted to meet in the office building. Yet another friend takes him to a
Elsewhere he staff is frantically fixing the last details of a newly-inaugurated restaurants. In a bakery Hulot meets another old friend, who now works as security guard at that night-club. He insists that Hulot follows him, and Hulot walks straight into the (transparent) front door and destroys it. The foreign tourists walk into the same night-club. However the experience is terrible because nothing works properly and the waiters are inept. As the crowd is dancing to tribal music, Hulot mingles with the foreign tourists. Hulot wreaks havoc, destroying part of the ceiling, but also creates a more humane atmosphere. Barbara volunteers to play the piano to replace the orchestra that left after the ceiling collapsed. Countless gags accumulate during this long scene (the drunk who keeps falling from his stool). Hulot leaves the restaraunt with the foreigners at dawn. (Each scene is crowded, with multiple characters forming a loose group with no particular center of attention, and often more characters viewed through the glass walls in the background). Hulot and Barbara walk on the sidewalks while the stores are opening, and Hulot buys her some souvenirs. It's time for her to board the tour bus that has to take the tourists back to the airport. Traffic moves very slowly in a circle around a roundabout (and the camera shows it from above, a perspective that makes it look like a carousel). Finally the bus takes the highway to the airport. It is night again when it reaches the airport.
The second part of the film abandons the futuristic motif of the first part and becomes a more abstract game of psychological analyses.

Trafic/ Traffic (1971) warns against the obsolescence of the individual. The journey through France is transformed into a picaresque adventure through a chaotic and bustling universe. Tati sings of the extirpation of craftsmanship (which he better than any other French director represents, with his rare and meticulous films) and satirizes the false progress and well-being of modern society (but not so much the inventions themselves as the people who become their slaves).

The inventor of a supercar wants to exhibit it at a major annual exposition, but despite the vehicle's sci-fi performance, he cannot show up on time because numerous snags and accidents slow down its progress.

Beyond the somewhat retrograde and simplistic moralism, these films are admirable from the point of view of the amount of gags created and their editing; a job that took Tati years of quiet effort.

Parade (1974) is an affectionate tribute to the world of cinema: it is a chronicle of a performance during which the mime summarizes the most famous sketches of his career.

Tati moves from satire of the new bourgeoisie to apocalyptic visions of the future, ending with the indictment of alienation of the individual in the mass society.

Tati's character is an anachronistic failed man, still attached to a universe of feelings and to the dignity of being human.

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