Because of tax season stress, I am repeating this post from March 2006:
It is difficult to say which Jacques Tati film I love the most. In the end, it is a tie between Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958), with Jour de Fete (1949) and Playtime (1967) close on their heels. In the end, I chose Mon Oncle because I thought its humor has almost attained the status of myth. In the inter-generational rapport between M. Hulot and the young son of his social-climbing sister, we see how new Hulots are created. By the end of the film, even the insufferable CEO brother-in-law (shown in background above) has become Hulot-ized as he complicitly clasps the hand of his son.
We don’t usually think of the French as being funny. Yet there was a tradition of film comedy in France going back to Max Linder in the silent era, followed by the early talkie musical comedies of René Clair. It is in Jacques Tati (real name: Tatischeff), however, that it reaches its pinnacle. During his film career, which extended from 1934 to 1974, he directed only nine films and acted in fifteen, including shorts. Some of these are minor, but the four films named above are gems that will stand the test of time.
To illustrate how natural Tati’s comedy is, I will mention one scene. Hulot’s nephew plays with a bunch of lower-class kids who like practical jokes. They hide on a hillside overlooking a street corner where there is a lamppost. When they see a likely victim coming, one of the boys runs down with a broom and starts vigorously sweeping the sidewalk in front of the oncoming pedestrian, in effect directing him to walk toward the post. As he nears the post, another boy gives a loud whistle, which causes the pedestrian to look around and walk face first into the lamppost. They run several variations on this until they are caught.
Hulot’s Paris is a layered city in which eccentric ne’er-do-wells laze around picturesque streets and social climbers dine at horribly pretentious restaurants like Kington’s (which looks ahead to the destruction of a similar restaurant/nightclub in Playtime).
For more information about Tati, click on Tativille, the “official” site of this great comedian. If you have never seen any of his films and need some cheering up, I urge you to get one of the recently released DVDs of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday or Mon Oncle and have yourself a ball.