Jacques Tati - The Height of Comic Discretion
Retrospective part of French Film Festival 2009
Nobody put it better than the French critic André Bazin when describing Jacques Tati thus: “he himself seems unfinished; one might speak of his ‘discretion of being’”. Born in 1907, Tati was certainly educationally incomplete. David Bellos in his excellent biography of the comedian notes Tati nicely replying to a teacher who congratulated him on his fame: “I’ve forgotten everything you ever tried so patiently to get into my head…I do remember you as a kind and gentle teacher”. A colleague of Tati’s noted he even had a few problems with simple arithmetic.
Tati’s genius for logic lay elsewhere, and numerous commentators have admired the accumulation of detail that led either to wonderful pay offs or a deliberate refusal to let a gag have the expected conclusion. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday there is a lovely moment where a child walks with two ice creams in his hand along the street, up some stairs and hands one over to the little girl and keeps the other one for himself. Do we expect a mishap? We may anticipate it, but that isn’t what Tati delivers, as what we assume is a going to be a gag about a child’s misfortune, becomes no more than the very mild amusement of watching a boy protect his precious bounty. Tati offers us a benign observation that denies the malign pay-off – the cruel humour that insists the ice cream must fall out of its cone; that the boy trip up on the stairs.
On other occasions Tati very much follows through on the joke but again plays with our expectations. Near the end of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Tati shows us Hulot during the day chased out of an estate by a dog, and then cuts to another situation altogether as though the gag has been completed. But then it is evening and we hear the sound of the yapping dog and that Hulot is still being chased. This leads into the film’s major set-piece, where Hulot, hiding out in a shed, sets off the fireworks that start to fly in all directions – including at the hotel Hulot’s been staying in, and where he has already over the course of the film been involved in numerous minor mishaps.
There is a consistency though, whether Tati astutely observes the boy with the ice-cream, or offers a literally running gag that leads into the film’s set-piece denouement, and it resides in a subtle distrust of conventional comic logic. Bazin again proves useful: “Burlesque, French as well as American, is based on the gag, and the gag always supposes the exhaustion of the situation.” When Tati refuses the gag or extends it, he seems to be denying the logic of form for the discretion of being, for a gentleness of comic moments that denies what is central to cruelty in humour: schadenfraude – the pleasure gained from watching the mishaps of others.
Indeed there is another element of this gentleness that Bellos notices, and he talks of the three ways to reveal a sight gag based on somebody taking something for something else. The first is to let the character realize himself that he’s made an error of judgement, the second, is where another character points out the mistake, and the third where only the viewer notices. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday for example Hulot’s about to give a character a kick in the backside for what he assumes is spying on somebody else, only to notice that he’s actually taking a picture of his family. The scene is set up in such a way that we like Hulot assume the man is a voyeur, only for both the viewer and Hulot to see at the last moment that Hulot and we have misread the situation. Bellos reckons that gags of the second type “are almost entirely absent from Tati’s work” and that usually we see characters noticing the error of their own perceptual ways, or the viewer observing them even if the character does not. What Tati rarely practises is a sort of perceptual one-upmanship: where a character gets to laugh at or be superior to another character’s misfortune – the sort of humour that can make slapstick so cruel.
Critics have also noted that one reason why such superiority of one character over another isn’t acted out is that characters rarely interact. And how could they when dialogue is noise more than communication, where characters speak because they have mouths? It is a variation on Heidegger’s babble, yet this is less social critique than perhaps a benign acceptance that often what we say is of no more consequence than how we say it. Near the end of Jour de Fete it is true that after the central character, the postman François, careers into the river on his bike, that the village locals express in words that Francois should relax. Just because he has seen an American film showing high levels of efficiency in postal delivery; it doesn’t mean François has to emulate it. But most of the expression comes through intonation and body language; the words almost superfluous – as they would increasingly become in Tati’s work.
Sometimes Tati’s genius for the unexpressed in language allows for the brilliance of comic expression elsewhere. In one scene from Playtime Monsieur Hulot sits on one seat while another character sits nearby. Here we do have a scene of potential rivalry as the other man seems to see Hulot as potential competition for a job, and we notice how every gesture resembles an animal marking its territory: Tati amplifies the sound so that the man taking out his pen, writing on paper, or even the sound of his finger touching his face, comes across as low-key aggression. Like the waiter in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, or the woman who tells Hulot that they’re not looking for acrobats in Mon Oncle, this is the tyranny of the fastidious, of people who assume that their purpose in the world is somehow more significant than those of others – and especially more important than the likes of the socially incompetent Hulot.
This nevertheless doesn’t result in the low-key aggression of much comedy; instead it brings out the forlorn tenderness of those who live not so much for work, nor especially leisure – though critics have noticed how central even to Tati’s titles is relaxation (Jour de Fete, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Playtime) – but the capacity for observational remove. For a critic like Noel Bürch, such moments would seem to fit into the rhythmic consistency of the film: that it moves between “strong and weak moments, between deliberately action-packed, screamingly funny passages and others just as deliberately empty, boring and flat.” But surely a couple of early moments in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, like the one where we see the young boy’s head poking out of the bus driver’s steering wheel or the two umbrellas colliding with each other, while not incredibly funny aren’t boring either. Maybe it is more useful to think of casual observation and accumulated observation, of the accumulated gag that leads to the fireworks going off in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and François racing around trying to deliver mail in Jour de Fete, as opposed to the isolated moment that observes the funny in everyday life but doesn’t build towards a comic set-piece. This still allows Bürch’s rhythmic comment to hold, but from a slightly different perspective.
What is certainly true is that Tati’s work absorbs boredom as a human state. Whether it is some of the holidaymakers in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday who seem merely to be killing time or the three workers in Playtime who get in their car almost simultaneously, Tati captures a certain tedium in everyday life. In the scene in Playtime he does so partly, as in much of his work, through the ingenuity of sound, as the car doors click one after the other. Yet at the same time as showing boredom, few comic filmmakers more clearly illustrate the potentiality in escaping it, as Hulot is a greater observer of human behaviour, and seems to find the world endlessly fascinating. Where other major filmmaker of the period (Antonioni with Red Desert; Godard with Two or Three Things I Know About Her, even John Boorman with Point Blank) show the architecturally contemporary as problematic, Tati’s reservations in Playtime are contained by observations. When the literary critic James Wood said “Nabokov’s fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing” the same could be said of Tati. Burch may see dead passages; but others will see ‘good noticing’.
Tati’s ambition however was to make such noticing as open as possible, and often critics talk of the democratic comedy especially of Playtime, where there are several planes of action, and a number of potential gags going off within the frame. Some have questioned this, including Lucy Fischer in an influential article in Sight and Sound, where she talks of Tati’s use of sound and colour to indicate where the humour lies. But as Jonathan Rosenbaum said in reply to Fischer’s claim that Tati was “a marvellously benevolent despot”, “Tati functions rather less as a ‘benevolent despot’ and somewhat more as a duly elected official”. What seems clear is that Tati wasn’t interested in bullying in form and content, but wanted a discreet comedy of unassuming perception. Whether that was true on the set is another story altogether, and there are plenty tales of Tati’s bullying ways and caricaturing of amateurs that usually made up his cast. But that is an issue for biographers more than critics. Bellos says at the end of his book that Tati’s funeral was a deliberately unassuming affair, with less than a dozen people in attendance. If it had been “left entirely to Tati’s discretion, he would have had his body stuffed into a bin-bag and put out with the rubbish”. We might add that Tati might have wished it to be so to see if anybody would have noticed: a final sight gag for the keenly observant.