Jacques Tati is perhaps the filmmaker with the greatest reputation from the fewest films – even Andrei Tarkovsky’s tragically short life left us seven films, but the great French actor-director Tati completed only six features between Jour de Fête in 1949 and his death in 1981. There are shorts among this, but this limited production is testament to both his working methods as well as the personal and financial strife that jeopardised his career particularly around his masterwork, Playtime – with a production that took years and which bankrupted himself and nearly the whole French film industry, it took a definite toll on his productivity. But the six films we are left with are very special indeed – clearly the work of the same artist, and though in the vein of other great comedy actor-directors (Chaplin, Keaton, Lewis), each film is a clearly realised world that is distinctly his own. Madman Films has brought together the six films onto Blu-ray in Australia for the first time. The company that was my own first introduction to Monsieur Hulot (on their older DVD copy of Mon Oncle) is taking him through to the HD era, with the additions of the two least known of his films, Trafic (1971) and Parade (1973).
Defined by his on-screen alter-ego Monsieur Hulot, a bumbling yet inquisitive figure, a few steps out of touch with his modern surroundings, Tati’s filmography is bookended by non-Hulot films. The first in the set is Jour de Fête (1949). A charming tale about a postman in a small town delivering mail, the film has many delights, if it is the slightest of the bunch – all Tati films are centred around the gags, but Jour de Fête suffers slightly as Tati has directly lifted previous set-pieces whole from his earlier short L’ecole des facteurs (also in the set) – watching Jour after that then feels necessarily less inspired, but it’s an impressive film, offered in three different cuts in this package – varying in runtime due to edits made by Tati, and also in colour – it was the first French film to be shot in colour, but was also shot in B/W and generally released as such.
Les Vacances de M. Hulot is the film that established Tati in world cinema behind the camera and perhaps more importantly, in front of it as well as the first incarnation of the iconic Monsieur Hulot. But rewatching it for the first time in years, Monsieur Hulot is only nominally the main character. It’s a rich tapestry of characters throughout the film, and Hulot isn’t always the one you focus on – all the small comic characters feel just as well-realised, and these small characters that all come together have stories and lives behind them; even something as simple as the older couple who stay inside while everyone else heads to the beach communicates a sweet and self-contained story. It’s a really delicate, pleasant film that also manages to capture the rare sense of freedom and relaxation of being on holiday, and a nostalgia for a time and place you may not have ever visited but think of fondly.
The next three films for me seem closest aligned – all reappearances by Hulot (against Tati’s wishes, but necessary for getting them made), in colour, and satire on modernity and technology, as well as man’s place within them. They also are even less concerned with plot, or even traditional ‘funny’ humour, evoking wry smiles rather than belly-laughs. Mon Oncle is one of the highlights of the lot for sure – probably his warmest film, set in one of the most iconic domiciles in cinema history. The ultra-modern house of Mr and Mrs. Arpel is an extreme example of what Tati sees as post-war France’s obsession with Modernist architecture and technology, of gadgets and design that are at once both overly pragmatic and completely impractical – an early scene shows Mr Arpel being readied for work by his wife, who functions in the same way as one of the robotic gadgets in their kitchen. Monsieur Hulot is uncle to their son Gerard, and proves a healthy influence – his old-world charm and fun proving a bright spark of individuality in an over-designed, overly clinical modern world.
The scope and scale of Mon Oncle is taken to extreme lengths in Tati’s next film, Playtime, which is one of the most ambitious and visionary films ever made. Gigantic sets were constructed, known informally as Tativille – which became one of the largest and most impressive canvases a filmmaker has ever worked with. If Mon Oncle looked at modernity in the home and family, Playtime goes further and looks at the modern world in the context of large city. An essentially plotless film, Playtime has a series of loose segments full of complex visual gags, leading up to a forty minute finale inside the opening of a new restaurant that descends into chaos – a beautiful, harmonic chaos as patrons get rowdier and less controlled and the restaurant’s facades of respectability literally and figuratively get pulled down. A true sense of fun, vitality and humanity emerges after a whole film of exploring the city, the offices and the institutions that repress that. It’s such an incredible film that bears multiple rewatches, with different patterns, details and gags sticking out each time, and with a gorgeous visual palette – washed out with greys and blues and whites, the rare use of bold colours is so striking that it creates a near visceral response in the viewer. Playtime is often considered Tati’s masterpiece, and even my most contrarian-leaning tendencies can’t allow me to dispute that – in a set of films so great across the board, and so clearly the universe of the same mind, it still sticks out as the grandest and most effective realisation of his vision.
In light of that, however, a film like Trafic gets unfairly looked over. My father also greatly preferred the film to Playtime, if that means anything (it doesn’t). What it is, however, is arguably Tati’s funniest film; that is to say the most I found myself outright laughing. The film is Tati’s final outing as Monsieur Hulot, who with no regard for any real continuity is now inexplicably working as a designer of cars, ahead of a car show in Amsterdam. Hulot and his team try to make the roadtrip to get the car – a ridiculous campervan hybrid, with a range of utilities and accessories – to the showcase in time, in what becomes a great road movie. The fascination with vehicles is really interesting, used for moments of great visual irony (the car showcase with people moving hurriedly, around stationary cars) and absurd slapstick, like an elaborate car collision involving about ten cars that wilfully ignores all laws of physics. It’s not as widely acclaimed as his earlier films, and there’s a certain cynicism as opposed to the warmth in the other films but even watching snippets would prove to anyone that no other director could have made this, and it has some of the best sequences Tati ever shot, including a very moving ending.
Parade is the black sheep of the lot, however. In light of the massive financial disasters that both Playtime and Trafic turned out to be, very few financiers were willing to give Tati money to do anything – this here was a culmination of an agreement with Swedish television. It’s not only unlike the rest of Tati’s filmography, it’s unlike any other film I can really think of – the closest analogy would be that it’s the best 70s variety TV show ever made. Ostensibly a filmed circus show, Tati is MC of sorts, as well as often the main attraction with a variety of mime routines in amongst other musical numbers, juggling acts and at one point, a perverse rodeo. There’s also a strange complicity by the audience who seem to vary between professional performers, extras and what carnies would call ‘rubes’. It’s all quite strange, but ends up being really fascinating, and a film I didn’t want to end (aside from the occasional dud musical number) – it ends up being so unpretentious and lively that you really come to appreciate this singular entry among his films. It also showcases 66-year-old Tati’s physical comedy skills to an extent that the character of Hulot never really allowed.
There’s no reason to doubt that these are the exact same prints used in the Studio Canal Tati collection being released in the UK. The transfers are nearly across the board impressive. Both black-and-white features show excellent contrast with a sharpness and consistent grain, presented in their original 1.37 aspect ratio; they are very pleasing to the eye. The colourised version of Jour de Fête is available also, in 720p, and is a great addition as a curiosity rather than a substitution; it looks quite bad, sub-DVD quality, but clearly due to the rough condition the colours were in. The three colour films that follow are also stunning – my two key points of reference were from my own collection, the previous DVD available of Mon Oncle and the earlier BFI Blu-ray of Playtime. The difference in quality between the two Mon Oncle versions was, even to my amateur eye, like night and day – key in all Tati’s films is detail; he loathed close-ups and the iconic Tati setpieces are mid-long range shots capturing a range of characters, surfaces and minor details, with a subtlety in framing and colour that is crucial to appreciating his work. Mon Oncle looks gorgeous, with a rich and delicate picture that was a joy to revisit, akin to seeing the film for the first time. David Lynch once said it’s his favourite use of colour in a film and on Madman’s Blu-ray it’s easy to see why.
More shocking however than the invariable improvement from DVD to Blu is the difference between my two Blu-rays of Playtime, with this version taken from the recent 4K restoration. Detail is much sharper, the print is much cleaner, but most notable is the difference in the overall colour of the picture. The previous Blu-ray (not just from BFI but also Criterion) had a slightly darker, blueish tint over the picture, which although made a consistent palette over the film, is gone here – a more natural, lighter colour scheme of greys is present. This of course could be a matter of personal preference – some aren’t as sold, citing the less ‘futuristic’ look due to the overall lighter colour scheme – but I do prefer the new version and in addition to the jump in quality this is clearly the far superior edition. The selectively and carefully chosen moments of colour pop that much more and it also brings the film’s aesthetic more in line with that of Mon Oncle and Trafic and makes his vision that much more consistent. For diehard Tati fans, I’d recommend having a look online for screenshots between the two versions, but I’m firmly in this camp and I imagine most won’t worry too much at all. Lastly, Playtime is also the only Tati film not shot in 1.37, rather 1.78 from being shot in 70mm, so it fills the entire television screen nicely – this is a film that you need to be actively looking at every spot of the frame, and I think this Blu-ray is the best way yet to be able to do that.
Trafic looks very good, and uses strong colours slightly more than the previous two films. I hadn’t seen this film before and have no point of reference, but I was very pleased by the video quality. Parade however is a tricky one. Vast parts of it were shot on videotape in the 70s (again, this was primarily envisioned as a TV project) in addition to film. Parts look good, if grainy, but in comparison to the rest of the films in the set, the sections clearly shot on video – crowd shots, establishing shots etc – look pretty ghastly. But this is from limitations in the source material and I strongly doubt it could look any better. It’s distracting early on, but by the end is pretty easy to take on board.
The audio was pleasing across the board – sound design and music are vital to his films (and by its conspicuous absence, so is dialogue) and there’s nothing to fault in this department. I’ve still got the infectious score to Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday in my head!
The extras are also very solid. I haven’t mentioned yet the vast amount of short films available on their own Blu-ray, ranging over five decades, from comedy shorts in the 1930s through to Tati’s first ever use of documentary filmmaking in the 70s. You realise this set is less an essential Tati collection, but rather a near exhaustive treasure chest of the man’s works, including everything he’s credited with directing, as well as shorts he acted in or wrote. Also for just about every film there’s a video essay by Stéphane Goudet that illuminates each film, especially the lesser known films like Parade, with little critical discussion around them. And if that weren’t enough, also included is Michael House’s documentary The Magnificent Tati, tracing the filmmaker’s career.
This is an incredible package – housed within a classy black box, this contains just about the entire oeuvre of one of cinema’s most iconic directors. I found revisiting the films I had seen to be extremely rewarding and thought-provoking, as well as very enjoyable and relaxing. Not previously available in Australia on DVD, Trafic and Parade were also great revelations that really illuminate a fascinating career, artistic highs amongst personal and professional lows. Combined with a ton of supplementary features, and stunning transfers, this gets one of the easiest recommendations I’ve ever given. I almost did a double-take when I saw the price point as well – this is incredible value for what you get. Kudos to Madman for bringing this collection to Australia, I have no doubt that this will be the best home video release to hit Australian shelves this year.
Jacques Tati: The Restored Collection can be purchased online from Madman direct here, and is also in stock at JB Hi Fi. It is also available in a DVD only edition.