Jacques Tati, in all his films but most notably his outings with his character of Mr Hulot, makes incredibly dense films that defy easy categorisation. They are comedies at a certain level, but they’re also performance pieces that could be video art in a contemporary art gallery. The way they take apart the space of the modern European city, radically decontextualise it, and then make fun of its inhabitants is awe-inspiring, if not always entertaining per se. However, the way he layers incident and movement within the frame is something he developed throughout his work but was especially evident in Play Time, and this subsequent film has a rigorousness to it that makes watching it almost superfluous; certainly I think you’d need to see it several times to pick up everything that’s going on. Right from the start, he sets up his style perfectly with an extreme long shot within an enormous and cavernous warehouse space where there are wires criss-crossing the floor. We can’t really see them, but we see these figures, engineers holding blueprints, moving around and carefully stepping over the wires with almost balletic precision, staged in several parts of the frame at the same time. It’s drolly amusing yet it’s somehow abstracted from humanity at the same time.
I can’t really explain as well as others the way Tati uses the frame of the film as much as anything within that frame: there’s his own physical presence of course, which recalls Keaton or Chaplin; technically, there’s a plot too (he’s transporting a prototype camping car from a factory near Paris to a car fair near Amsterdam) but it’s just a way of hanging on a series of set-pieces that advance a sense of farce more than story. Tati doesn’t hate humanity, and I’m not even sure he hates modernity, but his mission seems to be to find the ways in which this modern world (the one being constructed in the utopian 50s and 60s) resists human-shaped interactions. And in its saturated colours and hyper-stylised action it feels like what Godard was doing around the same time, but without the party politics, just the terror of the capitalist abyss.
The main extra on this disc, aside from a French trailer, is an episode of a British TV series (Omnibus), “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” (1976), which has critic Gavin Millar sit down with Jacques Tati to talk about his Hulot films and his idea of filmmaking. Millar starts out at the hotel where the first Hulot film was set back in 1952 and then moves to Tati’s office. He’s a genial presence, certainly very different from the character he portrays on-screen, who puts forward his ideas in fluent English, and even if Millar seems more interested in focusing in on specific gags as seen in the various films, there’s plenty there about what Tati was trying to do told in his own words, which makes it worth watching.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati; Writers Tati, Jacques Lagrange and Bert Haanstra; Cinematographers Eduard van der Enden and Marcel Weiss; Starring Jacques Tati, Maria Kimberly; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 15 June 2021.