Filmmaker Retrospective: The Classic Comedies of Jacques Tati

4. Playtime (1967)

Playtime (1967)

A group of tourists embark on a city tour, but the Paris of postcards is today replaced by an ultra-modern city of skyscrapers. But the happy group feels at home in this new Paris, which is no different from the cities they hail from, and go on clicking pictures of the mammoth structures. Mr Hulot on the other hand has some work to do. He has to meet Mr Gifford—a man in blue suit who works in one of those corporate offices, and wears shoes that are better suited for a tap dancer.

Tati takes up from where he left us in Mon Oncle. Now, the transformation is complete. Paris has turned into a cold metropolis—a sleek junkyard of glass and steel. With the city, its people have changed too—now they are formal, aloof, workaholic, technology dependent. But some are still a tad disoriented –like the old usher and our very own Mr Hulot.

Although, like many other filmmakers of the time, Tati essentially dealt with the negative impact of modernisation on society, what made his work stand apart was his approach. Never gloomy or depressing, his film captures the modern society in all its quirkiness. He presents the oddities of life, particularly the peculiar behaviour of human beings as they try to fit themselves into this crazy new world and tells his audience: “Hey look! This is hilarious!” And in the process, makes us self aware.

Tati drives his point through simple, casual incidents. Barbara, one of the tourists, never manages to keep pace with the rest of the group. It seems the skyscraper-pierced skyline of this new and advanced Paris doesn’t really impress her much. She observes and finds pleasure in simple things and laughs out loud on the oddities of his fellow humans (much like Tati himself).

In one instance she wants to click a picture of an old lady selling flowers on the street—something she calls ‘that’s really Paris’– but every time she tries to do capture a perfect frame, someone or the other walks into it, ruining the shot. An apparently trivial detail, but it reflects how transient nature of life is—there might be moments of perfection, but if you are not quick enough to capture it, it will pass you by.

Or when a lost and disoriented Hulot accidentally becomes a part of the crowd, he, as well as the audience, is gently reminded: ‘You are not part of the group’.

Playtime 4

Mr Hulot has some important business to discuss with Mr Gifford. As he tries to follow him he keeps getting lost in the labyrinth of glass doors and wall, elevators, and cubicles—in fact in the shot where he looks down from top of an escalator to the office of Mr Gifford, we see a maze of cubicles.

It is a scene, like the restaurant scene that comes later in the movie, is buzzing with activities and one needs a large-screen viewing to capture all the various goings-on, the minute details, that Tati manages to cram up in one single frame—an astonishing achievement in itself. The scene accurately predicts the cubicled existence of a 20th century corporate life—sanitised, identical, cold and mechanical.

When Hulot gets invited to a friend’s apartment, we get another example of a brilliantly choreographed mise-en-scene. It is an ultra-modern building made of glass, quite like a shopping window– there is no privacy and people are eager to show off their gizmo-fitted rooms to rank passers-by on the street. You can see whatever is going on inside each apartment right from the street—however you can’t hear them and suddenly the film becomes almost like a mime act.

Each family is engrossed in their own world which essentially means their own television set. Tati’s masterstroke is his use of the glass exterior—when the members of one apartment interact among themselves, it seems they are having a conversation with the family in the adjacent flat, and then Tati shows you the wall in-between, reminding you the breakdown of communication. In this modern age, a friendly banter with the neighbour is a passé.

Playtime 3

Tati’s most ambitious project, which remains the most expensive French film made till date and which completely bankrupted the director, is almost impossible to fit in any particular genre. His magnum opus is so unique in its spirit and structure that it cannot be truly compared with any other film in the history of cinema and that includes Tati’s own films as well.

As François Truffaut had aptly summed it up: “It is a film which comes from another planet where they make films differently. Playtime is perhaps Europe of 1968 filmed by the first Martian filmmaker.”

Tati went all out for his dream project, putting everything on line—his reputation, his career and his entire savings. He even borrowed heavily to fund the film, the production cost of which is estimated at a whopping ten million French francs. The centrepiece of it is the extravagant and elaborate set he built to shoot the film–spread across over 15000 square metres of area, the miniature city representing the Paris of the future took five months to build.

And before the filming was over, the set got damaged in a storm and an additional million francs was spent on the repair works. Although the result was astounding, spending that much amount of money on a set was unthinkable at that time in France. But trust Tati to brush aside all negative criticism with a simple statement: “Building Tativille has cost as much as hiring Liz Taylor would have. We all have our own priorities.”

Playtime 2

Indeed. Although the film failed to recover the production cost and Tati went broke after Playtime, it is a today regarded as a benchmark in the history of cinema. The kind of perfection Tati achieved with Playtime is today regarded as nothing less than phenomenal.

Apart from the awe-inspiring set, each scene is meticulously choreographed and executed and is throbbing with actions—so much so that it would take at least four viewings to comprehend all the goings-on and every time you discover a new element in the frame. Most of the film is in long or mid shot and this accentuates the sense of distance between people and the alienation of man in modern society. Even the colour scheme is meticulously planned.

The new Paris lives in cold blue, gray, and black. Tati also uses pops of colour as a device to draw the audience’s attention to a particular section of the frame. Also, the use of sound, like all his films, is spectacular—he picks each click of heels, chomp of shoes, and clack of boots and through them gives the wearer a distinctly different personality. One element that he introduces and masters in this film is the use of reflections.

Here the comedy is far more sophisticate and subtle and although a Hulot film, here he is relegated to being a minor character. And these are probably some of the reasons why the film didn’t go down too well with the audience of that time who were expecting a madcap comedy from Tati after the success of Mon Oncle.

On its initial release the film failed to garner any positive response at the box office and the distributors experimented with various different edits of the film. It was not until 2002 that the director’s cut, restored by director Jérôme Deschamps and Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff, was released and awed the audience world over.


5. Trafic/ Traffic (1971)

Trafic 1

In his last outing, clad in his favourite tan trenchcoat and brown hat, the lovable, well-meaning Mr. Hulot is a bumbling automobile designer working at Paris auto plant. He, along with the publicist Maria, takes his newly-designed camping car (replete with weird gadgets) to an auto show in Amsterdam.

The irony is to take such an ultra-modern car to its destination the company has to hire a dilapidated truck prone to breakdowns. En route they are greeted by various misadventures (including an intricately choreographed multiple car pileup) and the journey is punctuated by endless unscheduled halts and detours.

A satire on man’s excessive dependency on automobiles, this film, much like Mon Oncle, juxtaposes the simplicity of the rural life with the complexity of the jet-paced modern world. The dialogues is a queer mix of French, Dutch and English, and adds to the general cacophony created by fast-moving vehicles, screeching of brakes, slamming of car doors, and other such mechanical noises.

Trafic 2

Although a typical Tati film and boasts some brilliant experimental camera works and intricately crafted mise-en-scenes, it lacks the panache of his previous works and even if the brief was to make an essentially Hulot film, the man somewhat loses his thunder to Maria.

But what is interesting is the transformation of Hulot as a person—from being a casual observer of the foibles of day-to-day life, and a man struggling with the complexities of modern and technology dependent world, he becomes a man who invents a gizmo-laden car, one of those very lifestyle products he was unable to even relate to a few films back, he is now no different from the creator of Mr Arpel’s mechanized glass house. It seems finally Hulot, like Tati, has resigned to his fate. But has he?

The film failed to set the cash registers ringing at the box office and Tati couldn’t pay the money he owed the back for Playtime. As a result all his four previous films were impounded and it was not until 1977 that a distributor paid off all his debts and re-released the films.

But before that in 1974 came Tati’s swan song, Parade. With Hulot gone, Tati returns to the music halls where he began his career as a mime in the early 1930s.

Parade 1974

Made in a miniscule budget for a Swedish television company and with a three-day shooting schedule, it is a series of boisterous circus routines tempered with magic and music hall acts (including some of Tati’s best), which Tati hosts. It can be regarded as an anthology of such acts which are slowly becoming obsolete.

Although regarded as the least noticeable film in his oeuvre, the hilarious sight gags, which flow seamlessly from one to the other, showcase the comic genius of Tati. It blurs the line between the audience and the performers—card board cut outs planted amid the audience make them seem like they are also part of the act, a few members of the audience land up on the stage—it is interactive theatre at its best and what makes it all more charming is that nothing seems remotely rehearsed.

However, Tati was not done with Hulot. He wanted to make one final film with him where his beloved character will accidentally get killed on live television. Titled Confusion, it was to be set in the world of media and advertising and was to star US rock band Sparks.

The project eventually fell through due to lack of finance. However, the title track was recorded and later released by the band as part of one of their albums. Tati died in 1982, a broke and broken man, but he was yet to make his final appearance on the silver screen, alibi as an animated character.

In 2010, Sylvian Chomet made The Illusionist. Based on Tati’s script, apparently written as a message to the daughter he abandoned, the autobiographical film revolves around Tati (or an animated version of him to be precise) a struggling illusionist. It is not a Tati film in its spirit, but a poignant tale of a father-daughter relationship.

The Illusionist

Tati’s genius never got its due in his lifetime. Although he was awarded a César d’honneur in 1977, after Playtime– which has today become almost a case study in set designing and has got critics from around the world marvelling at– Tati never managed to recover from the debts he had incurred during the making and reeled under financial constraints for the rest of his life.

His last completed film didn’t even make it to the big screen and he had to abandon his last project due to lack of money. But as long as he made films, he made them his way, never succumbing to any outside pressures.

In May 1958, Tati in an interview with André Bazin and François Truffaut for Cahiers du Cinema had said: “Today, all you have are constraints, everywhere. But I was able to make my film where I wanted, in Saint-Maur and I was able to build the house I wanted for Hulot. I think this is important in the end. There aren’t that many countries today where a guy in the movie business can say: ‘Not only did I make a film, but I also made the film that I wanted to make’….I believe that one’s artistic independence is a must, and it is up to the individual to defend it in all cases… As for me, it is not courage that makes me resist; commercial considerations simply leave me cold.”

It is this quest for artistic freedom and passion to push the boundaries that has made him one of the most distinctive voices of world cinema. As film critic Vincent Canby said: “Tati was a method, a way of looking at the world to discover comic rhythms never seen before or since in movies.”

Author Bio: Ananya is a senior copy editor with Mumbai Mirror, a Times Group publication. An obsessive-compulsive traveller and an occasional travel writer, she is also a film addict who watches every movie with an analytical eye. She is as enthusiastic to catch the first day show of a Bollywood blockbuster, as she is to attend four back-to-back screenings at a Buñuel or a Bela Tarr Retrospective. Although she is currently having a passionate fling with Lars von Trier films, Cary Grant comedies remain the true love of her life.