Nationality: French. Born: Jacques Tatischeff in Le Pecq, France, 9 October 1908. Education: Attended Lycée de St.-Germain-en-Laye; also attended a college of arts and engineering, 1924. Family: Married Micheline Winter, 1944; children: Sophie and Pierre. Career: Rugby player with Racing Club de Paris, 1925–30; worked as pantomimist/impressionist, from 1930; recorded one of his stage routines, "Oscar, champion de tennis," on film, 1932; toured European music halls and circuses, from 1935; served in French Army, 1939–45; directed himself in short film, L'Ecole des facteurs, 1946; directed and starred in first feature, Jour de fête, 1949; offered American television series of 15-minute programs, refused, 1950s; made Parade for Swedish television, 1973. Awards: Best Scenario, Venice Festival, for Jour de fête, 1949; Max Linder Prize (France) for L'Ecole des facteurs, 1949; Prix Louis Delluc, for Les Vacances de M. Hulot, 1953; Special Prize, Cannes Festival, for Mon Oncle, 1958; Grand Prix National des Arts et des Lettres, 1979; Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. Died: 5 November 1982.
Films as Director:
L'Ecole des facteurs (+ sc, role)
Jour de fête (+ co-sc, role as François the postman)
Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot's Holiday) (+ co-sc, role as M. Hulot)
Mon Oncle (+ co-sc, role as M. Hulot)
Playtime (+ sc, role as M. Hulot)
Trafic (Traffic) (+ co-sc, role as M. Hulot)
Parade (+ sc, role as M. Loyal)
Oscar, champion de tennis (sc, role)
On demande une brute (Barrois) (co-sc, role)
Gai Dimanche (Berry) (co-sc, role)
Soigne ton gauche (Clément) (role)
Retour à la terre (pr, sc, role)
Sylvie et le fantOme (Autant-Lara) (role as ghost)
Le Diable au corps (Autant-Lara) (role as soldier)
By TATI: articles—
"Tati Speaks," with Harold Woodside, in Take One (Montreal), no. 6, 1969.
Interview with E. Burcksen, in Cinématographe (Paris), May 1977.
Interview with M. Makeieff, in Cinématographe (Paris), January 1985.
On TATI: books—
Sadoul, Georges, The French Film, London, 1953.
Bazin, André, Qu'est ce-que le cinéma, London, 1958.
Carrière, Jean-Claude, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, New York, 1959.
Cauliez, Armand, Jacques Tati, Paris, 1968.
Mast, Gerald, The Comic Mind, New York, 1973; revised edition, Chicago, 1979.
Kerr, Walter, The Silent Clowns, New York, 1975.
Gilliatt, Penelope, Jacques Tati, London, 1976.
Maddock, Brent, The Films of Jacques Tati, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1977.
Fischer, Lucy, Jacques Tati: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1983.
Harding, James, Jacques Tati: Frame by Frame, London, 1984.
Chion, Michel, Jacques Tati, Paris, 1987.
Dondey, Marc, Tati, Paris, 1989.
On TATI: articles—
"Mr. Hulot," in the New Yorker, 17 July 1954.
Mayer, A. C., "The Art of Jacques Tati," in Quarterly of Film, Radio,and Television (Berkeley), Fall 1955.
Simon, John, "Hulot; or The Common Man as Observer and Critic," in the Yale French Review (New Haven, Connecticut), no. 23, 1959.
Houston, Penelope, "Conscience and Comedy," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer/Autumn 1959.
Marcabru, Pierre, "Jacques Tati contre l'ironie française," in Arts (Paris), 8 March 1961.
Armes Roy, "The Comic Art of Jacques Tati," in Screen (London), February 1970.
Dale, R. C., "Playtime and Traffic, Two New Tati's," in FilmQuarterly (Berkeley), no. 2, 1972–73.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Tati's Democracy," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1973.
Thompson, K., "Parameters of the Open Film: Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot," in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 1, no. 4, 1977.
Nepoti, Roberto, "Jacques Tati," special issue, in Castoro Cinema (Firenze), no. 58, 1978.
"Tati Issue" of Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1979.
Schefer, J. L., "Monsieur Tati," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1982.
Fischer, Lucy, "Jour de fête: Americans in Paris," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), Winter 1983.
"Jacques Tati Issue" of Cinéma (Paris), January 1983.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "The Death of Hulot," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1983.
Carriére. J. C. "Comedie à la Française," in American Film (New York), December 1985.
Thompson, Kristin, "Parade, a Review of an Unreleased Film," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), no. 22, 1986.
Fawell, J. "Sound and Silence, Image and Invisibility in Jacques Tati's Mon oncle," in Literature and Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 18, no. 4, October 1990.
Hommel, M., and F. Hauffmann, "Hulot in de menigte. Twee kapiteins op iin schip," in Skrien (Amsterdam), no. 178, June-July 1991.
Pierre, S., "Tati est grand," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 442, April 1991.
Jullier, L., "L'art des bruits chez Jacques Tati," in Focales (Nancy Cedex), no. 2, 1993.
Olofsson, A., "Marodor i lyckoriket," in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 35, no. 4, 1993.
Teisseire, G., and others, "Jacques Tati: Playtime," in Positif (Paris), May 1993.
Charbonneau, A., "Monsieur Tati ou l'exigence du rire," in 24Images (Montreal), no. 68-69, September-October 1993.
Douin, Jean-Luc, "Tonton Tati," in Télérama (Paris), no. 2291, 8 December 1993.
Kermabon, Jacques, "Tati architecte: La transparence, le reflet et l'ephémère,"in CinémAction (Conde-sur-Noireau), no. 75, April 1995.
Sartor, Freddy, in Film en Televisie (Brussel), no. 466, November 1996.
Salonen, Annika, "Hullunkurinen Herra Hulot," in Filmihullu (Helsinki), no. 4–5, 1997.
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Jacques Tati's father was disappointed that his son didn't enter the family business, the restoration and framing of old paintings. In Jacques Tati's films, however, the art of framing—of selecting borders and playing on the limits of the image—achieved new expressive heights. Instead of restoring old paintings, Tati restored the art of visual comedy, bringing out a new density and brilliance of detail, a new clarity of composition. He is one of the handful of film artists—the others would include Griffith, Eisenstein, Murnau, Bresson—who can be said to have transformed the medium at its most basic level, to have found a new way of seeing.
After a short career as a rugby player, Tati entered the French music hall circuit of the early 1930s; his act consisted of pantomime parodies of the sports stars of the era. Several of his routines were filmed as shorts in the 1930s (and he appeared as a supporting actor in two films by Claude Autant-Lara), but he did not return to direction until after the war, with the 1947 short L'Ecole des facteurs. Two years later, the short was expanded into a feature, Jour de fête. Here Tati plays a village postman who, struck by the "modern, efficient" methods he sees in a short film on the American postal system, decides to streamline his own operations. The satiric theme that runs through all of Tati's work—the coldness of modern technology—is already well developed, but more importantly, so is his visual style. Many of the gags in Jour de fête depend on the use of framelines and foreground objects to obscure the comic event—not to punch home the gag, but to hide it and purify it, to force the spectator to intuit, and sometimes invent, the joke for himself.
Tati took four years to make his next film, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot's Holiday), which introduced the character he was to play for the rest of his career—a gently eccentric Frenchman whose tall, reedy figure was perpetually bent forward as if by the weight of the pipe he always kept clamped in his mouth. The warmth of the characterization, plus the radiant inventiveness of the sight gags, made Mr. Hulot an international success, yet the film already suggests Tati's dissatisfaction with the traditional idea of the comic star. Hulot is not a comedian, in the sense of being the source and focus of the humor; he is, rather, an attitude, a signpost, a perspective that reveals the humor in the world around him.
Mon Oncle is a transitional film: though Hulot had abdicated his star status, he is still singled out among the characters—prominent, but strangely marginal. With Playtime, released after nine years of expensive, painstaking production, Tati's intentions become clear. Hulot was now merely one figure among many, weaving in and out of the action much like the Mackintosh Man in Joyce's Ulysses. And just as Tati the actor refuses to use his character to guide the audience through the film, so does Tati the director refuse to use close-ups, emphatic camera angles, or montage to guide the audience to the humor in the images. Playtime is composed almost entirely of long-shot tableaux that leave the viewer free to wander through the frame, picking up the gags that may be occurring in the foreground, the background, or off to one side. The film returns an innocence of vision to the spectator; no value judgements or hierarchies of interest have been made for us. We are given a clear field, left to respond freely to an environment that has not been polluted with prejudices.
Audiences used to being told what to see, however, found the freedom of Playtime oppressive. The film (released in several versions, from a 70mm stereo cut that ran over three hours to an absurdly truncated American version of 93 minutes) was a commercial failure. It plunged Tati deep into personal debt.
Tati's last theatrical film, the 1971 Traffic, would have seemed a masterpiece from anyone else, but for Tati it was clearly a protective return to a more traditional style. Tati's final project, a 60-minute television film titled Parade, has never been shown in America. Five films in 25 years is not an impressive record in a medium where stature is often measured by prolificacy, but Playtime alone is a lifetime's achievement—a film that liberates and revitalizes the act of looking at the world.
Jacques Tati (1908-1982), born Jacques Tatischeff, is recognized internationally as one of the twentieth-century film's most innovative and perceptive comic directors and actors.
Tati's film personas—Francois the Postman in Jour de fete and the popular Monsieur Hulot in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, Mon Oncle, Playtime, and Traffic—helped reveal the inherent humor of humanity attempting to exist in an increasingly mechanized society and drew positive comparisons to the silent film comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. As co-writer, star, and director of these films, he sought to depict the foibles of society as it became more dependent upon as well as more confused by technology. While hugely successful with popular filmgoers, these films are also recognized by film critics for Tati's revolutionary method of conveying humor through overlapping audio effects and mise-en-scenes in which several comedic acts occur at once, which sometimes required more than one viewing to witness every action. Several subsequent directors, most notably Robert Altman, have employed this style successfully for their own films. While Tati only produced five films in a career spanning more twenty-five years, he is admired for developing a brand of humor that ennobles humanity while poking gentle fun at it, conveying that humor in a way that entertains and challenges audiences and advancing the film-comedy genre. Critic Dave Kehr, in his review of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, asserted that, without the films of Tati, "There would be no Jean-Luc Godard, no Jean-Marie Straub, no Marguerite Duras—no modern cinema. With his 1953 film, Jacques Tati drove the first decisive wedge between cinema and classical narration." In these films, the only recognizable actor is Tati as either Francois or Hulot, in order to keep audiences from focusing on the celebrity onscreen and concentrated on the situations and actions. Tati also composed his scenes to include several activities at the same time, which he captured with one stable camera that captured everything. He rarely employed close-ups or reaction shots, believing that audiences did not need such devices to find the scene's humor.
From Rugby to Film
Tati's father was an art framer and restorer who was disappointed that his son did not enter the family business. After attending the Lycee de St.-Germain-en-Laye, Tati was a rugby player for the Racing Club de Paris from 1925 to 1930. In the 1930s, he worked as a pantomimist and impressionist and toured European music halls and circuses. Much of his act consisted of pantomimes of famous athletes of the era. Several of these routines were filmed, including Oscar, champion de tennis and On demande une brute in 1934 and 1935.
In 1939, Tati enlisted in the French Army. Following World War I, he was a supporting actor in two films by Claude Autant-Lara, Sylvie et le fantome and Le Diable au corps. In 1947, he made the short film L'Ecole des facteurs, which he expanded into the 1949 feature film Jour de fete, a comedy film in which Tati portrays the French postman Francois. Francois becomes obsessed with attempts to make his post office operations more efficient after observing an American postal training film. Tati employs this premise to lampoon the impersonality of technology. While much of the film's humor is physical, Tati consciously avoids slapstick by staging much of the action behind objects placed in the camera's foreground, forcing audiences to imagine the full thrust of the gags they are visually denied. Jour de fete is, for many critics, similar thematically to Chaplin's Modern Times; both directors seem to believe that civilized humanity is lost in the rushing onslaught of its own technology.
Following the release of Jour de fete, Tati spent four years making the internationally successful Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot's Holiday), which introduces the character he portrays in all his subsequent films. Hulot is a tall, thin pipe-smoking man, who is presented as an objective, innocent observer of the pratfalls of the characters he encounters. Hulot is as much a straight man as a source of humor.
The English-language version of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot begins with a warning: "Don't look for a plot, for a holiday is meant purely for fun." The film does not feature a plot in the traditional sense of a novel or short story, but presents recurring themes, episodes, and characters that bear more of a resemblance to poetic structure. The film is also noted for Tati's use of wide-angle cinematic framing, in which a motionless camera captures the action without following the actors or cutting to close ups that emphasize the jokes and actors' reactions.
In 1958, Tati released Mon Oncle, a sequel to Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. In this film, Monsieur Hulot receives much less screen time as the uncle who conspires with his nephew to thwart the encroaching modernism of household appliances. Tati's first color film was also an international success, despite the fact that he had relegated Monsieur Hulot to a supporting character. During the 1950s, Tati was approached by American television with an offer to produce a series of fifteen-minute short films featuring Monsieur Hulot, which he turned down.
Increasingly annoyed by audiences' association of Tati with his creation Monsieur Hulot, Tati only employed the character briefly in his next film, Playtime. The film took Tati more than nine years to film, largely because he insisted on constructing large, elaborate, futuristic sets that were both expensive and time consuming. An epic film, originally clocking in more than two-and-a-half hours, Playtime was shot using seventy millimeter film and stereophonic sound for enhanced visuals and audio. In order to finance the film, Tati sold the rights to his previous films and eventually went bankrupt when the film failed at the box office upon its release in 1967. He tried to recoup his loss by shortening the film by more than forty-five minutes; it was shortened again to ninety-three minutes upon its release as a thirty-five-minute monaural film in the United States. Reducing the length and width of the film, however, rendered much of the visual humor unintelligible. The film revolves around Monsieur Hulot's attempt to arrive at a job interview in a modernistic city that is confusing and impersonal.
In Playtime Tati once again refused to allow the camera to isolate the humor. Instead he used long shots to create what Kehr called: "Long-shot tableaux that leave the viewer free to wander through the frame, picking up the gags that may be occurring in the foreground, the background, or off to one side. The film returns an innocence of vision to the spectator; no value judgments or hierarchies of interest have been made for us. We are given a clear field, left to respond freely to an environment that has not been polluted with prejudices." While the film was unpopular with film audiences, other directors borrowed freely from Tati's style, including Robert Altman, who used a similar style in his film, M*A*S*H.
While some critics believe Tati's last theatrical film Traffic, released in 1971, marked a creative retreat by Tati in order to recover the financial losses of Playtime, others compliment the film as an inspired revisiting of Monsieur Hulot's battle against technology. Tati abandoned the futuristic settings of Playtime for a more contemporary setting of Monsieur Hulot's automobile and the roadways he travels on his way to the Paris Auto Show. The films, however, bear thematic resemblances in their handling of modern progress and human isolation. While Playtime is set in an ultramodern city constructed of glass, steel, and concrete behind which humans lose contact with one another, Traffic is set inside the cars of the individual characters who also have cut themselves off inadvertently from each other. The more relaxed visual style of Traffic marked a return to the style of Tati's earlier films. His last film, Parade, is a one-hour film made for Swiss television. Tati died in 1982 of a pulmonary embolism in Paris.
Lyon, Christopher, The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, St. James Press, Chicago, 1984.
Sarris, Andrew, editor, The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Wilhelm, Elliot, editor, VideoHound's World Cinema: The Adventurer's Guide to Movie Watching, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, Visible Ink Press, 1994.
"Jacques Tati," Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2000. □