Most cinema fans, with a basic knowledge of film history, can tell you a little bit about Charles Chaplin, his life and work. However, only true cinephiles can provide an inquisitor with the same amount of information on French comedian/director Jacques Tati. It was on this month of November; more specifically November 5th, 1982; Jacques Tati passed away at the age of 75.
The similarities between Tati and Charles Chaplin run deeper than many people would ever guess. Like Chaplin, Tati would master the theatrical stage before he ever dove into the cinema – though he was in his mid-twenties and Chaplin was a mere boy. Tati’s strength was in mimicry. A natural athlete, he took to mime. He would hone his act on the stages of 1930s Europe.
Young Jacques would also dip his toe into acting, both on the stage and appearing in a few short films, in the time just before the war. Wikipedia takes up the tale from here:
Tati’s act also caught the attention of Max Trebor, who offered him an engagement at the Theatre-Michel, where he quickly became the star act. After his success there, Tati tried to make it in London, playing a short season at the Finsbury Park Empire in March 1936. Upon his return to Paris in the same year, he was immediately hired as top billing at the ABC Théâtre alongside the singer Marie Dubas, where he would work uninterrupted until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Tati’s act would find a prominent admirer in noted author Colette. She would write:
“From now on no celebration, no artistic or acrobatic spectacle can do without this amazing performer, who has invented something quite his own…His act is partly ballet and partly sport, partly satire and partly a charade. He has devised a way of being both the player, the ball and the tennis racquet, of being simultaneously the football and the goalkeeper, the boxer and his opponent, the bicycle and the cyclist. Without any props, he conjures up his accessories and his partners. He has suggestive powers of all great artists. How gratifying it was to see the audience’s warm reaction! Tati’s success says a lot about the sophistication of the allegedly “uncouth” public, about its taste for novelty and its appreciation of style. Jacques Tati, the horse and rider conjured, will show all of Paris the living image of that legendary creature, the centaur.
But a world at war would put Tati’s dreams on hold as it would everyone else’s. Tati would find himself conscripted into the French army in 1939. He would see some action but his regiment was demobilized by the occupying German army.
Tati would return to performing. He would set up a production with an acquaintance, which would serve as the platform or Tati to bring his seminal character, Mr. Hulot, to the world.
Though he is a comic type character, there was far more to Mr. Hulot than what one saw on the surface. Jacques Tati was as much Mr. Hulot as he was Jacques Tati. His’ Mr. Hulot would make his film debut in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. The film would make the name Jacques Tati known beyond just France alone.
Much like Chaplin, comedy was a serious business. Tati would spend a long time setting the camera for the shot he wanted, much like Chaplin. He would tightly block his films. Tati’s films were studies on human nature but they were the creator’s and no one else’s. This was Mr. Hulot’s world, and if anyone knew what did and did not exist in Mr. Hulot world, it was Jacques Tati.
Tati could afford to be that exacting. What was the producer going to say to him? He was the producer. It also, however, hindered the director. His steadiest period of work would be from 1949-1967, where he would only make five features, three of those where he would portray Mr. Hulot.
Why does Jacques Tati and his creation, Mr. Hulot, still endure despite spending very little time on the cinematic map? Noted movie critic, the late Roger Ebert summed it up best in his review of Tati’s first entry in the Mr. Hulot canon, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday –
“The first time I saw Jacques Tati’s “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” I didn’t laugh as much as I thought I was supposed to. But I didn’t forget the film, and I saw it again in a film class, and then bought the laserdisc and saw it a third and fourth time, and by then it had become part of my treasure. But I still didn’t laugh as much as I thought I was supposed to, and now I think I understand why.”
It is not a comedy of hilarity but a comedy of memory, nostalgia, fondness and good cheer. There are some real laughs in it, but “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” gives us something rarer, an amused affection for human nature–so odd, so valuable, so particular.