REVIEW: The Magnificent Tati

Like the character of Monsieur Hulot for which he was renowned, the work of Jacques Tati is often seen as being somewhat out of place in the world. Despite the high esteem with which the French performer and director is now commonly held, Tati’s brief filmography testifies to his status as an artistic outsider. It’s this aspect of his filmmaking that Michael House reveals in his concise but timely exploration of the long-legged legend of European cinema.

The Magnificent Tati begins by recounting the Tati’s path into comedy through the series of sporting-inspired mime routines that he developed while performing within the music hall scene in occupied France during WWII. Work in cinema followed soon after, and while Tati was considered for a role in Les Enfants Du Paradis (1945), the near miss eventually led to his first feature film, Jour De Fête (1949), which he remarkably wrote, starred in and directed.

As the documentary points out, while success followed in the form of Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Mon Uncle (1958), for which he was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, the director resisted numerous requests to work within Hollywood. Unlike the American industry, Tati was fascinated with a form of cinema that was less protagonist-driven and more observational in its comic approach.

The distinction between Tati’s approach to physical comedy and that of the American silent stars he’d grown up admiring (Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel) is nicely articulated by the documentary through a comparison with the work of Charlie Chaplin. As one interviewee remarks, if Chaplin’s approach was about finding comic ways ‘to get out of a scrape’, then Tati’s comedy (in his guise as Hulot) was organised around ‘putting the world into scrapes’.

Beyond the biographical, The Magnificent Tati explores the technical artistry that characterised Tati’s distinctive brand of filmmaking, in particular his use of sound (as opposed than dialogue) to complement his physical humour. It’s somewhat of an irony then that technical innovation in the cinema is seen as partly responsible for his eventual exile from the film industry. Rejoicing in the grand potential of 70mm filmmaking, Tati’s Play Time (1967) – for which he constructed an entire mini-city – failed to connect with audiences of the time and left him financially destitute.

While Play Time (a film with a strong contemporary resonance) has been reappraised as an unappreciated masterpiece, the director’s work has also found new life recently in the form of Sylvain Chomet’s excellent animated feature, L’Illusionniste (2010), based on an unproduced Tati screenplay. As Chomet and other artists who appear in the documentary, such as director Mike Mills (Beginners) and singer Frank Black suggest, Jacques Tati was a unique artist deserving of far greater recognition. The Magnificent Tati certainly aids that cause.

Filed under : Review

2 Responses to “REVIEW: The Magnificent Tati”

  1. It is now pretty common to say that Tati is an unsung genius, which is tantamount to stating that he is a genius. but Tati had a tendency to keep his audience at a distance, which paradoxically make his film seem rather cold. It isn’t surprising that his best film, Mon Oncle, is also the warmest and most human and that can be mostly attributed to that truly unsung genius Pierre Etaix, Tati’s greatest pupil who, in my opinion surpasses his master.

  2. Samuel Henron says:

    I just saw Mon Oncle, during my weekly-foray into off-the-cuff and artistic movies. I definitely noticed the standoffish qualities his film had; but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a reply