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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

THREE BY
JACQUES TATI

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Updated with info from Peter Pistanek, 6.30.01 (see footnote 3.); and Doug Raynes, 5/21/02 (see footnote 4.)

Now considered something of a national treasure in France, comedian-director Jacques Tati found it a natural thing to convert his music-hall routines first into short subjects, and then into a series of the most uncompromising and unique comedies ever made.  Tati's Monsieur Hulot, a gangly, lumbering gentleman who is not so much slow-witted as perpetually perplexed by the crazy world around him, would not at first seem a particularly flexible character on which to build great comedies.  He doesn't talk much, if at all, and the films remain on the border between silent cinema and sound: like Chaplin's Modern Times, the soundtrack is often used for precise comic effects, and the stylization reminds us constantly that we are in a fantastic world.  As he developed, Tati adapted his slapstick gags to advance a still-relevant philosophy about modern living.  One advantage to his particular brand of stylization is that his films never look dated, even if some of them didn't capture large general audiences at the time of their release.

 In the space of a few weeks, Criterion has brought out excellent DVDs of three of Tati's most famous and controversial films. They take us through the center of his career arc, from his quirky, sentimental 'quaint' world, to the glass and steel modern world that he gently, always gently, satirized as too sterile for warm-blooded humans to inhabit.


M. Hulot's Holiday
Criterion
1953 / b&w / 1:37 / 87m., originally 114 / Dolby digital mono / Les Vacances de M. Hulot
Starring Jacques Tati, Nathalie Pascaud, Louis Perrault, Michéle Rolla
Cinematography Jacques Mercanton, Jean Mousselle
Production Designer Henri Schmitt
Film Editor Suzanne Baron, Charles Bretoneiche, Jacques Grassi
Original Music Alain Romans
Writing credits Pierre Aubert, Jacques Lagrange, Henri Marquet and Jacques Tati
Produced by Fred Orain and Jacques Tati
Directed by Jacques Tati

I suppose this is the 'standard' Tati comedy, but it's also his most well-remembered and most-shown.  Shot in black-and-white, it has all of the things one needs to 'enter' the eccentric world of Monsieur Hulot.  Newbies to the comedian might be perplexed by his deliberate pace and very literal approach to his simple, old fashioned gags.  But his jokes build and grow organically, much like those of Buster Keaton, and the careful pace gives us time to appreciate the context of his gags, which is never taken for granted and often elaborates on the joke as well.  Some of his gags can be likened to detailed single panel cartoons, like those that used to appear in Punch in the '40s and '50s.  Searching the frame for clues, you might find M. Hulot appearing in the background of a shot, while other business transpires up front.  Staying wide, Tati's comedy always has a context of depth, with the frame enclosing the world rather than moving about to keep up with it.  He's often touted as the thinking man's comedian.

M. Hulot is definitely the center of Holiday but Tati sets his stage with a dozen other individuals who pass the summer at a seaside resort.  The slapstick may be basic, but never too broad and never at the expense of his characters. The tone is cautiously sentimental.  Hulot has a heart like anyone else but is not the center of the universe like the egocentric Chaplin or Jerry Lewis; a civilized chap, he sometimes can be as aloof or clueless as the next person.

You have to analyze M. Hulot's Holiday to see the architecture and schematic planning that characterized his creations.  But his first feature, Jour de Fête was actually much more like the later Tati than realized at the time.  It was discovered (rediscovered?) around 1990 that Jour was shot in an experimental color process that worked quite well until it came time to make prints, when Tati's partner/color wizard admitted that he hadn't come up with a print stock!  At great expense, Tati had to regroup and have a standard lab figure out how to make the b&w prints that were eventually released.  The article Savant read in Daily Variety in 1992 explained that the story of a postman on a national holiday was totally color-coded, with buildings and doors especially painted to Tati's thematic formula, and that in color it would have had a completely new dimension.  Efforts were being made to create color prints after 40-odd years, but Savant lost track of the story. (not Quite: Peter Pistanek filled Savant in on this issue:)


Mon Oncle
Criterion
1958 / Color / 1:37 / 116m.
Starring Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Zola, Adrienne Servantie, Betty Schneider, Alain Bécourt
Cinematography Jean Bourgoin
Production Designer Henri Schmitt
Film Editor Suzanne Baron
Original Music Franck Barcellini, Alain Romans
Writing credits Jean L'Hote, Jacques Lagrange and Jacques Tati
Produced by Fred Orain and Jacques Tati
Directed by Jacques Tati

Hulot's Holiday took place entirely in the France of the early '50s, amid a fairly organic world of old building, dilapidated cars and make-do amenities that, with a little effort and understanding, made-do just fine.  Stylish the beach resort wasn't, but it fit well the colorful group of tourists who lived in it, and made them seem more human.

Mon Oncle, made in 1958 and in bright color, exists both in this old world and in a new world of plastic and glass and steel consumer products.  Hulot is a misfit who lives in a pigeon-coop like house atop an ancient structure that has charm and personality, even if the simple task of finding one's front door requires climbing an Escherlike maze of stairs and doorways.  His neighbors carouse at the pub and haggle at the street market.  Clearly none of them are on a track to affluence.  The street cleaner always seems to have a pile of half-swept garbage in front of his broom.

But at the new house of Hulot's brother-in-law, it's a different story.  It's a suburbian monstrosity of cubist extract, whose every hideous angle is determined to be fashionable at the expense of live-ability.  The wife, a cleanliness nut, has a pushbutton for every purpose; mostly they just get people into trouble, as when a stray dog trips the electric eye and locks the family into the garage.  Tati definitely satirizes these status-obsesseed consumers, who turn on a fountain only when 'important' guests come calling.  The few pieces of furniture in the house are so uncomfortable that Hulot overturns a futuristic couch in search of a comfortable surface to lie down on.

These relative consider Hulot an embarassment and interpret his easygoing attitude as laziness or stupidity.  But Hulot does not emerge as some superior person by default, but instead proves himself to be rather incompatible with anything modern, when trying to hold down a job at his brother's plastics factory (Plastics!).  Nor are the denizens of the 'old' world any more enlightened - but Hulot is a welcome participant there, making fast friends in an atmosphere not dedicated to success or competition.  There are constant reminders that Hulot's old world is rapidly being demolished to make room for the new plastic one.  When we last see the confused soul, he's at an airport taking off to try a sales job somewhere else.  And in his absence, it looks as if his coldfish brother-in-law might be an okay guy after all.


Playtime
Criterion
1967 / Color / 1:78 (1:85?) anamorphic 16:9 / 120 m. (original French 155m version believed lost along with original 6-track sound) / Dolby Digital Mono
Starring Jacques Tati, Barbara Denneck,
Cinematography Jean Badal, Andréas Winding
Production Designer Eugéne Roman
Film Editor Gérard Pollicand
Original Music James Campbell, Francis Lemarque
Writing credits Jacques Lagrange, Jacques Tati and Art Buchwald
Produced by René Silvera
Directed by Jacques Tati

The liner notes for Playtime were quite an eye-opener.  Savant knew nothing about this movie except its reputation as an expensive flop, and after about ten minutes, was diving for the liner notes to make sense of it.  Playtime is as subversive and important as anything in the French New Wave.  It's a completely uncompromised, lavishly filmed vision as personal as anything by David Lean or Stanley Kubrick.  Since it's so clearly aimed at its own inspiration and not the boxoffice, Tati grows in the mind as one of the most pure cinema artists that ever was.  It's indescribable, baffling, and definitely not a mass-audience movie, yet it was shot in 70mm!  Tati fought for half a decade to get it made, and lost his shirt filming it.  We're told he only recovered financially twenty years later, after losing rights to all of his previous work, the whole kit 'n kaboodle.

If you're looking for a unique vision, this is the right picture.  The non-story drifts through a business-as-usual succession of events in a completely urban, glass & steel part of Paris, the New Paris that Godard used to represent a Brave New World in Alphaville.  In one very telling shot, the Eiffel tower is reflected for a moment in a glass door, the only hint that this is indeed Paris at all.  1  For minutes at a time, we observe building lobbies, street corners, foyers and other public places where dozens of people mill in and out, looking all the while for a protagonist and a plot to develop.  The shots are always very wide and open to the possibilities of action and development from any direction.  Hulot is the ostensible main subject, but he's as randomly observed as anyone else in the show.  The people in the first two movies make dates and meet in conventional places (pubs, hotel lobbies), but here everyone seems to clash and collide in soulless, generic settings of sometimes indefinite purpose.  We stare at a giant waiting room for at least five minutes when the film begins, thinking it's a hospital: It turns out to be an airport.

Glass is everywhere, letting us see the architecture but acting as a barrier, or by reflection, a mirage.  Hulot finds himself looking down on a maze of proto-cubicles, displaying true Dilbert Horror for the first time on a screen.  When he navigates the confusing floor plan of some unknown trading company, its as if he's trying to find his way through a carpeted, comfortable circle of Hell.  The action moves from this office building to the street, to a man's apartment, and finally to a just-opened restaurant for an extended setpiece.  Hulot not only doesn't stand out, he's 'mirrored' by a score of men with similar garb who seem purposely to have been placed in the movie to confuse us - it's as if the city is literally robbing Hulot of his identity.  According to the notes, everything we see was constructed for the film, buildings, streets, the works.   This includes a fantastic apartment complex with giant picture windows for each flat.   They display the rooms inside as if panels in a cartoon strip, a relationship that Tati proceeds to mine for droll humor.

Droll humor is the most we get: very often there's nothing funny about what's going on and Savant is sure that many a 1967 audience felt they were the victims of a colossal private joke.   Movies that are private jokes, almost always become known by their other name, failures, and whether or not Playtime succeeds will depend on your inclination toward humor that is more conceptual than overt, and droller than droll.  There are mistaken-identity gags, frustration gags, the works, but it all exists within this 'you have to find it for yourself' world that will either delight the viewer or bore him silly.  The restaurant finale must last 40 minutes, and is by far the most elaborately directed thing Savant has ever seen, when it comes to numbers of people to be kept straight.   Everything is communicated in very wide masters that advance two or three running gags and narrative threads at the same time.

There are very few closeups, and I don't remember ever getting a good look at Tati's aging face ... he's just one personality sharing the screen with a dozen definite characters who fully develop (in silent movie terms) without ever speaking a word that matters.  Savant recognized an ebullent German, played by Reinhard Kolldehoff, who played the role of a German Commandant in Soldier of Orange ten years later.  Besides him, I recognized nobody.  The notes say that a noted female character (not a lead, there aren't any) was the babysitter of a friend of Tati, and she's charming.

I can't say that I watched Playtime without becoming frustrated or distracted at times.  It's a very demanding movie, but ultimately rather rewarding.  The Hulot character does seem to advance to the point of having a slight crush on the woman at the end, or is it just an expression of his sweet nature?  In Mon Oncle his relationship with a 'girl' ends abruptly when she graduates overnight to enticing womanhood, making his previous affectionate demonstrations seem inappropriate.  In Playtime Hulot gives his quasi-girlfriend a gift, but of course the city conspires to keep him from delivering it in person.  One of the Hulot clone characters does that instead.

In Playtime Tati shows us our world in transition, without making it into a dysfunctional nightmare, as in Godard's Science Fiction comic book of a movie.  People adapt, every place that has happiness is magical, and the film ends with another crowded airport.  This one transforms into a giant mechanized whimsical carousel.  Cars, people and decor move up and down like carousel horses, and the woman's keepsake flower is mirrored in the teardrop streetlights outside the window of her bus.  Playtime exists out of time as far as cinema is concerned, a genre as yet uninvented.


Criterion's DVDs of the three Tati Films are in excellent shape, with M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle showing minimal wear and Playtime almost none.  Playtime was supposed to be 70mm originally, and the aspect ratio here is 1:78, which makes one wonder what format it was exactly - was it wider or what?  For the record, it never for a moment looks cropped.  2  Playtime does have its duller passages, color-wise, but still looks pristine.  Each disc is accompanied by a Tati-Hulot short subject, more conventional comedies that are still immediately recognizeable as Tati-made.  And each has a pair of essays and a short interview with comedian-filmmaker Terry Jones.  His observations, illustrated with clips, are very interesting and informative, but Savant recommends seeing them AFTER the movies - a bunch of gags in Mon Oncle were spoiled by watching it first.

It's true, watching Tati by oneself is not the right way to enjoy a comedy.  I remember cheers howls and applause back at UCLA for Holiday, and this time through I smiled several times, and burst out loud with laughter maybe twice.  Mon Oncle and Playtime are fascinating quite apart from their laughs, or lack thereof ... but about halfway through Playtime I felt like I had finally arrived in a special comedy world I never knew could be.  This is rarified stuff, definitely art, and you'll have to take the plunge to find out if it's for you.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
M. Hulot's Holiday rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very good
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Terry Jones introduction, René Clément's Tati Short subject Soigne ton gauche, from 1936
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 16, 2001

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mon Oncle rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very good
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Terry Jones introduction, Tati Short subject L'ecole des facteurs, from 1947
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 16, 2001

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Playtime rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very good
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Terry Jones introduction, Tati Short subject Cours du Soir, from 1967
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 16, 2001


Footnotes:

1. I get this same feeling in our San Fernando Valley here in Los Angeles.  It's big, flat, and goes on forever with almost no visible landmarks on a hazy day; and the scenery passes by as predictably as the cycled backgrounds in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon: McDonald's, strip mall, Burger King, Gas station, McDonald's, strip mall, Burger King, Gas station, McDonald's, strip mall, .....
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2. (Email received 5/19/01) Hello Glenn,  In your review of Playtime, you say that "Playtime was supposed to be 70mm originally, and the aspect ratio here is 1:78, which makes one wonder what format it was exactly - was it wider or what?  For the record, it never for a moment looks cropped."  Well, I think I have an answer for you.  Only two months ago I watched Playtime in 70mm at the Wide Screen Weekend in Bradford, England.  The film had black bars at the sides, something I've never seen before on a 70mm film.  The projectionist was probably as confused about this as the audience, because the show opened with the full screen in view.  After a while, he must have realized that this didn't look good, so he narrowed the screen mask slightly.
The British film authority Tony Sloman introduced the film at the festival in Bradford.  In his speech, he said that Jaques Tati hadn't been very comfortable with filming in 70mm.  That might be a clue to the film's strange aspect ratio.  Kind regards / Anders M Olsson, Lund, Sweden.

(Thanks, Anders.  It's common for a 35mm negative to be blown up to 70mm for exhibition.   The Dirty Dozen was enlarged this way, and 70mm prints had black bars on the left and right to retain a 1:85 or 2:1 ratio.  But shooting full 70mm and only using some of the width is a new one on me.  It does sound like the sort of uncompromising thing Mr. Tati might do, though!)

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3. 6/27/01: With financial help (mainly from the French Post) the restoring work on Jour De Fete was successfully done some 5 years ago. It was then presented at some festivals throughout the Europe and on the European movie channel Arte. I had the B/W version on videotape (to be precise, it was not entirely B/W but with some colorized details - yellow baloons, blue-red-white french flag etc.) and I taped also the "new" version. The difference is huge. Not only is the movie fully colored and digitally restored (probably the way Criterion did the Third Man DVD), but the sound is remastered (with a partly newly recorded score). Also some cuts were done, according to Tati's notes. The biggest change was removing all the sequences with the painter wandering through the region, who was sort of narrator in the old version. I think this character was added to the original movie at the producer's request and the restoring producer removed him because he was not intended by Tati in the original script. I am looking forward to the day when Criterion Collection releases it on DVD. There is an excellent webpage on Jour de Fete. Regards, Peter Pistanek.
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4. 5/21/02: I was just reading your review of Jacques Tati's Playtime and learnt today, in case you didn't know, that the film has been restored in 70mm for showing at the Cannes film festival at a cost of 5.5 French Francs (thought they used Euros now!) with numerous benefators paying for it. However, the length of the film is given as 126 minutes which isn't much more than the present DVD, so this is hardly a complete restoration.
London Guardian PLAYTIME link
Doug Raynes

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