Truly Madly Tati

One of the greatest cinematic love affairs of the past half-century has been between British film fans and an angular, accident-prone beanpole of a Frenchman named Monsieur Hulot. The iconic comedy character created by the mime-turned-star and writer-director Jacques Tati has been tickling the funny bones of filmgoers since the release of the movie which introduced him – M. Hulot’s Holiday – in 1953. And it’s a love affair which is being celebrated at this year’s French Film Festival, with a retrospective of all of Jacques Tati’s screen work.

Tati may only have made a handful of films, but they have made a lasting impression on generations of viewers – and it’s not just the popular vote which they’ve earned. His admirers have included Orson Welles, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg and Belleville Rendez-Vous creator Sylvain Chomet who is currently transforming a previously unfilmed Tati script into an animated film.

Tati’s brilliance as a comedy actor has influenced at least two generations of comedians: John Cleese, Paul Merton and Rowan Atkinson, who described seeing M Hulot’s Holiday as “a defining moment in my life” (and paid homage to it in his 2007 film Mr Bean’s Holiday), are just some of the British comics who owe a clear debt to Tati and his very physical comedy style.

But what is it about Tati that makes him so well-loved – even by viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily go to see a foreign film? The main reason has to be his “everyman” appeal. Tati created easily identifiable types who everyone can recognise from their own experience – the postman who takes himself and his work too seriously in his 1949 film Jour de Fete (could he have been the inspiration for Cliff Clavin, the super-officious mailman in the sitcom Cheers?) and the eager-to-please social misfit M Hulot, who creates chaos out of order and is baffled by the technological trappings of modern life.

M Hulot’s fellow holidaymakers are also brilliantly drawn and would fit in to Fawlty Towers as comfortably as they do the Hotel de la Plage. There’s the veteran soldier who drones on about his wartime experiences, the meek, middle-aged sweety-wifey of a husband who is always several steps behind his banality-spouting spouse (“Oh, there’s another boat … and another … oh!”) during their saunters around the beach, and the workaholic businessman whose holiday is punctuated by frequent trips to the telephone (rather like the Tony Roberts character in Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam).

The humour in Tati’s films is very physical – and therefore universal. Tati said that the way a comic actor used his legs was paramount, and he used his to maximum comedy effect, mixing loping strides with hesitant little shuffles as he tries to ingratiate himself into new people’s company. Physically, M Hulot is every bit as recognisable – even in silhouette – as Charlie Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp.

The characteristic Hulot pose is of him tilting forward, with his head at a quizzical angle, his hat tipped over his eyes, his ubiquitous pipe at a right angle to his long nose, his arms bent behind him with his hands resting on his hips. Like Chaplin’s alter ego, he always wears the same kit – trousers that aren’t quite long enough, his Tyrolean-esque hat and stripy socks. He nearly always has his umbrella handy. He walks with a lolling gait, on well-sprung tiptoes and is undoubtedly a French cousin d’un certain Basil Fawlty.

Tati’s background as a mime meant that he was most at home devising visual gags, rather than writing and delivering one-liners or trading witter banter with another actor. Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python team member who became a director, has said: “One of Tati’s great qualities is that his films contain almost no dialogue. I find this particularly brilliant – these divinely French films that create no problem when it comes to subtitling. In terms of dialogue, Monty Python learnt everything from Tati. We owe everything to him.”

Tati’s films feature soundtracks of exaggerated, cartoon-like noises which heighten the effect of the visual comedy – the putt, putt, putt of M Hulot’s old jalopy as it chugs along the road, the be-doing of the restaurant door as the motley crew of hotel guests assembles for lunch, the crashing noise made by our hero’s racquet as he serves in the funniest tennis match in movie history.

The gags which Tati created for his films worked on a number of levels. Many of today’s Tati fans have grown up with M Hulot’s Holiday and have found that their appreciation of it has only increased with time, as they find more and more humour in it.

There’s the obvious, laugh-out-loud slapstick sequences, which appeal enormously to children, but most of the humour lies in the beautifully observed, often whimsical, details which are not flagged up, but are quietly unfolding in a corner of the screen. It pays to see Tati’s films in the cinema as so much happens in the background – and he actively avoided filming close-ups. Orson Welles once said: “There are performers who are only good in full figure. Move in on Tati and he literally disappears.”

Of course, the films also appeal to anyone with a fondness for France and the French way of life. They celebrate the quaint, the eccentric and a lifestyle which Tati saw being replaced by a faster, more consumer and technology-driven one. Jour de Fete and M Hulot’s Holiday are lovely to look at, since they are set in unspoilt rural France, and they move at such a leisurely pace that you can soak up the detail of both the comedy and the setting.

Terry Jones, another Monty Python graduate, has said of Tati: “He was a visual genius. His films, without being silent, all have the qualities, the beauty and the richness of silent film.”

Even by the time he made his third film, Mon Oncle (1958), Tati was beginning to show signs of self-indulgence in his work. His subsequent films – PlayTime (1967),  Trafic (1971) and Parade (1973) – are reviled and revered in equal measure. But Jour de Fete and M Hulot’s Holiday are perfect comedies that showcase Tati’s comedy at its most pure – and most appealing.

* The Totally Tati retrospective is on at the Glasgow Film Theatre and the Edinburgh Filmhouse now. The BFI’s new box set of five Tati films is out now.

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