Was any comic as fixated on (mis)perception as Jacques Tati? “Sight gag” doesn’t begin to cover the worlds Tati designed—a seaside village, an ultramodernist house, a hall-of-mirrors city—and laced with playful misprision and graceful goofs. A compleat comedian-auteur like Chaplin or Jerry Lewis, Tati played his most famous character, Monsieur Hulot, with music-hall-honed agility, but also as the windswept bystander to his mass orchestrations. MOMA presents a centenary-and-change retrospective with new prints, following the huge Cinémathèque Française exhibition that re-created the entire house constructed for Mon Oncle (while we pore over Tim Burton’s cocktail napkins).
While the Modernist Times funhouse of Playtime comprises Tati’s magnum opus, the idealized French provinces prevailed in his first two features. In Jour de fête (1949), a fussy, twitchy-mustached postman (Tati, pre-Hulot) on a bike gets drawn into a village’s hectic prep for a fair. But it was with Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), an international hit, that a star was born—not just Hulot, but the innovative stylistic armature of gags in long shot, sharply delineated sound design, and sidewalk-café observational pacing. Tati has an affectionately zoological eye for the inn dwellers and beachgoers of a beachside resort: chattering clutches of card players ruffled by open-door drafts, a grump chucking aside every seashell his wife hands him, Hulot himself helplessly drawn to rescue a droopy ball of taffy. Visual puns (birdsong played over tennis players behind cage-like fences, a tire mistaken for a funeral wreath) encourage the viewer to play along.
Mon Oncle (1958), in which Hulot’s sister keeps up appearances (and gadgets) and nudges bro into her husband’s plastics factory, confirmed Tati’s modernist fascination and tight control over color, score, and noises as idiosyncratic as voices. Playtime (1967) was the culmination of his interests: Tati/Hulot visiting Paris’s outer limits, with its International Style architecture, and ritualizing the mistake of the city newcomer: paying attention to everything, with sweetly absurd results. Specially designed by Eugene Roman, a (multimillion-franc, bankrupting) complex of glass skyscrapers, corridors, and cubicles corral Hulot—now a face in the crowd—yielding as potent a treatise on urban design as Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her through tricky perpendicular editing. (The “real” Paris is glimpsed in reflections.) This is the film that fully anoints Tati as “democratic” visionary and unsung godfather to cinema modernism. A jostling, jazzy Dionysian restaurant sequence, masterfully escalated and attended by the best bad waiters ever, sees us into dawn and a characteristic diminuendo ending.
Throughout, Tati is a joy to watch, an artist in motion: pipe, raincoat, stalking gait with a liquid lag, murmuring and awkwardly gallant. The top-bottom bodily disconnect is key to his stops, starts, and bows—and recalls his Colette-endorsed horse-and-rider bit, on display in his nostalgic final work, Parade (1974), a joyful potpourri of filmed circus acts. It’s shot on video with hangover-of-’60s garishness, and like the extraordinary long-shot detail and color of Tati’s perpetually detoured 1971 “road-movie” Trafic (inexplicably starring Hulot as a designer of the very thingamajigs that once flummoxed him!), the richness fills the screen and the eyes.
Besides a 1936 René Clément short with gangly Tati as a farm boy recruited for sparring (sports-based routines were initially his specialty), MOMA also shows the delightful Cours du soir (1966), shot during Playtime downtime, in which Tati presides at a night school for pratfalls and mime. It’s quite an education, but then, Tati was always good at training us all as observational comedians.