If “tourism is sin,” as Werner Herzog stated in his 1999 address called “The Minnesota Declaration,” then Jacques Tati’s oeuvre is drenched in the blood and guilt of postwar leisure, with a contemptuous bourgeois milieu as equally worn-down by advances in gadgetry consumerism as the literal bombs that have been dropped, off screen, many years prior. Although Tati’s background as a mime and circus performer has often led to his films being characterized as meticulously composed yet whimsical gag reels meant for jollies over jouissance, there’s a palpable pain that gradually builds, particularly in the Hulot films, such that Playtime comes to embody a sort of eschatological doctrine for Western technological innovation. Rather than speaking through putative means, where ideology is placed at the fore, Tati prefers to show and listen for said destruction, with his often-nameless progenitors of mindless, consumer impulses sometimes unable to be heard, because of the series of boxes, walls, and domestic prisons of autocratic rule. Instead of serving as emblems for technological-as-social progress, these divides keep the classes separated, but only by thin walls capable of, in Tati’s best moments, being crumbled by clumsy negligence.
1949’s Jour de Fête is Tati’s most explicit evocation of postwar France, set in the small French commune Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, with Tati playing François, a bumbling postman obsessed with speed and efficiency, seeking to mimic American delivery methods in order to perfect his postal route. In his earlier shorts and here, his first feature, Tati includes Keatonesque bits of business, such as a cross-eyed construction worker who needs special instructions in order to properly hammer a nail into place. These jokes revolve around his early inclinations toward comprehending spatial orientation as it pertains to place, such that the commune itself must be understood as a postwar refuge, a place almost absent from time and space, where pre-war senses of tranquility and rustic simplicity remain unfettered. Indeed, Tati himself sought shelter in this very commune during WWII, a fact that speaks to his interests in having his films, even at their most playful, consistently overlap with harsh, existing realities. There are no politicians or military forces in Jour de Fête, but the creeping grasp of a post-Fordist work force invades the commune via a film: a propagandistic piece of American, economic valorization, which convinces François of his allegiances, an allusion surely meant to recall a similar mimetic impulse in Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.
Tati biographer David Bellos called 1953’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday “Tati’s most perfect film,” and in many ways, it’s difficult to disagree with this sentiment in terms of tone and form. However, bestowing that title to Mr. Hulot’s inaugural sojourn entails an understanding of Tati that embraces his earlier, more optimistic engagement with emergent, cacophonous urban sensibilities. When Hulot disturbs the Oceanside villa with a jazz record, Tati understands the disruption ambivalently, amused by the transgression upon vacation-resort decorum, but he’s more uncertain about its significance for future generations, as when a child mimics the disruption near the film’s end. Tati’s satirizes quotidian human behavior, but he’s also capable of painterly contemplation, as in quieter moments, when his camera focuses on the abandoned beach, effectively serving as a still frame of sunbaked excess. Capital flows from all directions, as the radio gives the latest reports from the Paris stock exchange. Tati reveals little about Hulot’s economic background, instead relegating his titular, jovial fuck-up to an observer without an opinion—a man that possesses conformist desire, but lacks the means to adequately complete that assimilation. To say Tati loathes Hulot would be too strong, but by no means is Hulot exempt from droning into the same traps as his more proficiently modernist interlocutors.
Mon Oncle, then, puts an onus on Hulot to be less of a dolt, since his more rustic, sociable environs within a working-class neighborhood are directly contrasted with the thoroughly cold, clipped, and callous modernity of his sister’s nearby home, with resident patriarch Charles Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) dismayed over his incompetent brother-in-law’s inabilities to maintain employment at any number of the city’s faceless corporations. Tati links the neighborhoods by a pack of roaming, stray dogs, which frame the film through their wanderings. Dogs treat the spaces equally and cannot recognize death, as embodied in a joke where a dog growls at a dead fish, whose head pokes from the confines of Hulot’s suitcase. The Arpels have a fish of their own or, rather, a fountain with a fish statue, which Madame Arpel lords over as a literal figurehead of both control and the deadening capacity of her wealth. Hulot understands none of these domestic flourishes (he loses his balance on the yard’s oddly asymmetrical walkway and even finds himself hidden from sight at one of the outdoor gatherings), which finds equally corporate root with his inability to man a machine at the local coal derivatives plant.
If death is at the margins of Mon Oncle, 1967’s Playtime has no qualms about findings the seedlings of simulacrum within every space on display. Note especially the virtuoso opening sequence inside an airport, with nary a word of expositional dialogue spoken. Within the frame, various doubles of Hulot come and go; in the background of cinematographer Jean Badal’s deep-focus compositions, cardboard cut-outs stand in for extras. Tati constructed the film’s sets from scratch, but he utilizes this production fact not as impressive feat, but as an integral concept within the lines, divides, and fascistic structures of forced-hand conformity. Hulot is now a stray dog himself, roaming freely and is, ultimately, at the whims and mercies of more vociferous, culturally autoreferential participants. That includes a number of old army buddies who Hulot happens upon, though he seems unable to place their faces or names. In the film’s most devastating sequence, an old pal drags Hulot into his home, separated from the street only by a large, transparent pane of glass. The nearly 10-minute sequence is shown from outside the window, with only street sounds audible, while Hulot is apparently inculcated with the requisite pleasantries. For Tati, the conversation itself could produce no new knowledge; its negation understands the interaction as inherently condemned to Sisyphean futility, a facet of polite society incapable of invoking or even acknowledging its grossly auto-erotic affectations.
Tati put nearly a decade of work and all of his wealth into producing Playtime, a decision that yielded little economic return, given the film’s exorbitant cost and negligible box-office performance. He made Trafic and Parade in 1971 and 1974, respectively, but these films pale in comparison to the devastating critiques of his prior films, though they do signal a turn to documentary aesthetics for the aging filmmaker. He captures numerous businessmen picking their noses at stoplights in Trafic, apparently actual candid footage Tati shot on location. A similar, though even more boundary-pushing, formal aim is found in Parade, which Tati shot, in part, on video, making it one of the first French films exhibited theatrically to do so. Parade finds pleasure in Tati’s roots as a stage presence and the gradually receding art of live performance, but in light of earlier statements, the film plays defeated, even decidedly naïve; it’s but a respite from the sledgehammer cinematic realizations of Playtime. The antithesis of a populist, but not without regard for carnival delight, Tati singlehandedly created a cinematic language capable of lambasting the doxa of new cars and restaurant reservations, with nary a single, explicit invocation of ideological claptraps.
The Criterion Collection has seemingly broken their backs with the transfers in this box set, which achieve heights that rival the most arduous and complete of their previous preservation work. Each of the six features beams with a vibrancy to suggest meticulous scrubbing of artifacts from every frame, though grain remains present throughout, as expected. This is particularly true of the films not yet released on Blu-ray in North America (all except Playtime) and Mon Oncle benefits most in its upgrade, which reveal the neons and assorted colors of its mise-en-scène in shades the previous DVD release did not. Perhaps more importantly, each film’s sound has been finely tuned to match Jacques Tati’s complex designs, such that with an appropriate HDTV and sound capabilities, these films reveal their intricately irreverent senses of humor in ways previously unseen. Tati’s entire schema depends upon sound design, where silences can give way to sounds either subtle or cacophonous, and Criterion’s understanding of that is on sonic display with every nook and cranny of these transfers.
If The Essential Jacques Demy looked like Criterion swinging for the fences, The Complete Jacques Tati proves it to be merely a ground-rule double. That’s because there are nearly 15 hours of documentaries, interviews, and video essays, all of which seek to illuminate differing aspects of Tati’s complex formal and social genius. That’s not to even mention the multiple versions provided for several films, which gets a most exhaustive treatment on the Jour de Fête disc, featuring three versions of the film, including a 1995 full-color re-release, completed from Tati’s original color negatives. The documentaries are likely the least satisfactory of the extras, if only because they generally rattle through the expected assortment of on-set insight and general historiography. Such is particularly the case with "Jour de Fête: In Search of the Lost Color," which explains the 1995 version’s restoration. While informative, it’s a matter of factoids that reveal little insight into Tati’s aims by shooting the film simultaneously in black and white and color. Likewise, "Once Upon a Time...Mon Ocle" is more notable for its access to the film’s production than being of note to ideas regarding Tati’s method of shooting scenes. Then there are pieces of fluff like "Le Hasard de Jacques Tati," a 1977 French television episode featuring an interview with Tati about his dog, Hasard, and the canine stars of Mon Oncle. Although truly for the most ardent of devotees, such an inclusion proves Criterion has thoroughly raided the archives for anything that could be of note.
There are essential extras, however, namely all of the contributions from Tati scholar Stéphane Goudet, who provides a visual essay for every feature film, except Trafic. However, these essays can run feature length, as the exhaustive 82-minute runtime for the Jour de Fête essay should indicate. Goudet has a keen eye for Tati’s idiosyncrasies and almost comprehensively avoids gushing or base admiration of any sort. Attuned to image, sound, and politics, Goudet is a model for scholarly rigor and his information, combined with clips and excerpts, proves nearly as compelling as Tati’s films themselves. But the set’s crown jewel feature is a 30-minute interview with Michel Chion on Tati’s sound design, if only because Chion actually has a revisionist thesis about Tati’s sound, proffering the filmmaker as utilizing silences and a measured soundscape to speak to the films’ themes of isolation and architectural order. Chion is playful as well, mimicking the loudspeaker from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday while offering clips of indispensible information and insight that anyone with serious interest in Tati should seek out immediately.
Any doubts about Jacques Tati’s status as a titan of modernist filmmaking will be obliterated by the Criterion Collection’s immaculate Blu-ray treatment of the great director’s six feature films, including a borderline maddening amount of extras that may keep you vacationing with Mr. Hulot through the duration of the impending holiday season.