The comic genius Jacques Tati was born Taticheff, descended from a noble Russian family. His grandfather, Count Dimitri, had been a general in the Imperial Army and had served as military attaché to the Russian Embassy in Paris. His father, Emmanuel Taticheff, was a well-to-do picture framer who conducted his business in the fashionable Rue de Castellane and had taken a Dutch-Italian woman, Marcelle Claire van Hoof, as his wife. To Emmanuel’s lasting dismay, Jacques had no intention of following in the family trade of framing and restoration. Instead, he went on to pursue an education (specialising in arts and engineering) at the military academy of Lycée de Saint Germain-en-laye. After graduating, his main preoccupation became sports. He already boxed and played tennis and was introduced to rugby during a sojourn in London. Back in Paris, he joined the Racing Club de France (1925-30), and for some time seriously contemplated a career as a professional rugby player. However, Jacques also had an uncanny talent for pantomime, imitating athletes at his school to the amusement of classmates and teachers. By the time he had reached the age of 24, encouraged by his success as an entertainer in the annual revue of the Racing Club, he suddenly decided to combine his two passions and, without further ado, entered the world of show business.
From 1931, Jacques toured the Parisian music halls, theatres and circuses with his impersonations, acrobatics, drunk waiter and comic tennis routines (the latter would be famously re-enacted by his alter ego, Monsieur Hulot). He had by this time changed his name to ‘Tati’ in order to accommodate theatre bills.The French magazine “Le Jour” was among the first to acknowledge his growing popularity, describing Jacques as “a clown of great talent”. At the same time, he made his screen debut in a series of short featurettes, tailored to show off his practised gags, notably Oscar, champion de tennis (1932) and Soigne ton gauche (1936) (“Watch your left”, a very funny boxing sketch). The Second World War, military service and inherent strictures resulting from the German occupation put a temporary halt to his career. Then, in 1946, through a friend, the writer-director Claude Autant-Lara, Jacques obtained a small role in the whimsical fantasy Sylvie et le fantôme (1946), about a girl (Odette Joyeux) in love with a ghost (Tati).
The small township of Sainte-Sévère, where Tati had taken refuge during the occupation, served as inspiration for his first film, initially conceived as a one-reeler entitled “L’Ecole des facteurs” (School for Postmen). Unable to find widespread distribution, Tati decided to re-shoot the bucolic comedy –with himself in the central role — as a feature film, using the villagers as extras and filming everything on location. And thus, Jour de Fête (1949) and Francois the village postman came into being. However, the film was soon overshadowed by his next enterprise and a critic of the satirical publication Le Canard Enchainé even proposed to fight a duel with anyone who would prefer “Jour de Fete” to Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)!
With “Holiday”, Tati reinvented the visual comedy of the silent era in a style not dissimilar to that of Max Linder. There is hardly any dialogue, except for background chatter, but natural and human noises are enhanced whenever required for the desired comic effect. The film is almost plotless, essentially comprised of a series of vignettes (to the recurring musical motif of Alain Romans’s breezy 1952 composition “Quel temps fait-il à Paris?”) at a seaside resort frequented by assorted holiday makers. All are stereotypical of their respective social class, as are the villagers themselves. Their inability to escape social conditioning and the stress they endure in the process of ‘enjoying themselves’ are observed with a keen satirical eye through their interaction with each other. At the centre is the ever-present character of the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, who arrives in a rickety 1924 Amilcar. Tall and reedy, clad in a poplin coat, wearing a crumpled hat, striped socks, trousers which are patently too short, rolled umbrella, a pipe firmly clenched between his teeth and perambulating with an odd stiff-legged gait, Hulot cuts an ungainly, yet hilarious figure. Well-meaning though he is, he invariably leaves disaster in his wake and departs the scene quickly as things go wrong, letting others sort out the mess. “Holiday” is more than just a brilliant collection of sight gags, but also an ironic observation of the foibles of human nature. Tati acknowledged the influence of both Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields in the creation of Hulot. Very much like Keaton or Charles Chaplin, he was also a consummate perfectionist who micro-managed each scene with unerring precision. Comedy for Tati was a serious business.
In Tati’s subsequent ventures, Hulot became relegated from being the focus of the story to merely subordinate to its concept. As just one of many characters, Hulot weaves in and out of Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967), his simple, old-fashioned world contrasted sharply against the coldness of mechanisation, obsessive consumerism and the growing uniformity of houses and cities. “Playtime”, shot in 70mm, took six years to make and required the creation of a massive glass and concrete high-rise set with myriad corridors and cubicles (dubbed ‘Tativille’ and built at a cost of $800,000) which raised the picture’s total budget to $3 million and left Tati bankrupt. His next project, Trafic (1971), a satire of modern man’s love of cars, failed to recoup these losses. Creditors impounded Tati’s films, which were not re-released until 1977, when a canny Parisian distributor expunged his outstanding debts. Throughout his career, Tati remained obdurately committed to his artistic integrity and to his independence as a film maker. He was one of few directors who consistently employed non-professional actors. He turned down offers from Hollywood for a 15-minute series of television comedies, following the success of “Mon Oncle”. He summed it all up by declaring “I could have satisfied the producers of the world by making a whole series of little Hulot films, and I would have made a lot of money. But I would not have been able to do what I like – work freely”. (NY Times, November 6, 1982)
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