Mr. Hulot was Jacques Tati’s most famous creation. A tall, silent figure in a smashed hat and crumpled raincoat, a polite witness to all modern absurdities, he combined Gallic elegance with a benign obtuseness—Tati the actor stumbling through a world which (as director) he controlled with breathtaking precision. His exacting genius is the focus of this complete, eight-film retrospective.
Born Jacques Tatischeff in Paris, a distant descendant of Russian nobility, Tati began his career as a music hall mime before turning to cinema. (David Bellos’s recent biography, Jacques Tati, chronicles the painstaking years of labor he devoted to each film.) Jour de Fête (1948), his first feature, follows an ungainly mailman (Tati) who bicycles around a small French town on fair day, tormented by bees and humiliated by a film about American postal efficiency. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) introduces our mild-mannered bumbler relaxing at the seaside. As in all of Tati’s films, there’s no center of attention, but a million things happening in peripheral vision: A horse kicks in the rumble seat of a dandy’s car, a hotel door creaks persistently. Yet beneath the slapstick runs a strain of melancholy. In Mon Oncle (1958), Mr. Hulot’s sister is married to a man who owns a tubing factory. Their hilariously futuristic suburban château includes a sterile garden whose centerpiece, a fish-shaped fountain, frequently malfunctions. Had Tati glimpsed the world of Wallpaper magazine in a vision? The avant-garde accoutrements meld seamlessly with bourgeois pretension.
Playtime (newly restored for AMMI’s retro) was Tati’s grandest conception. Tativille, the cinematic metropolis outside Paris where the film was shot, took him six months to build; its caverns of glass towers, escalators, neon signs, and nightclubs ruined him financially. No aspect of contemporary life escapes unscathed here, from the inanities of tourism and leisure to the dehumanization of labor and the decay of privacy. Yet it’s all in good fun, of no more importance than the hissing of a vinyl chair as you sit on it.