Jacques Tati Film Festival: Four Rare Films, 1935–1967

Jacques Tati was the gen­tle poet of French cin­e­ma. His come­dies, includ­ing the clas­sics Mon Oncle and Mr. Hulot’s Hol­i­day, are less about hilar­i­ty than what Roger Ebert calls “an amused affec­tion for human nature.”

Tati’s six fea­ture films coin­cide with the peri­od of French his­to­ry known as the trente glo­rieuses, the thir­ty “glo­ri­ous” years of rapid­ly ris­ing pros­per­i­ty after World War II. As mod­ern France grows up all around, Tati’s pro­tag­o­nists bum­ble along at an agrar­i­an pace. Tati’s “out-of-synch­ness” is evi­dent not only in the con­tent, but in the form of his films. They are essen­tial­ly silent films in an age of talk­ing pic­tures. Sound and dia­logue are sec­ondary. Tati’s pro­tag­o­nists tend to mum­ble while com­mu­ni­cat­ing through mime.

Today we offer four rarely seen short films fea­tur­ing Tati as a per­former. Gai Dimanche (“Live­ly Sun­day”), above, is the sec­ond of Tati’s sur­viv­ing film per­for­mances. Direct­ed by Jacques Berr in 1935, it fea­tures Tati and his friend Enri­co Spro­cani, a cir­cus clown who went by the name of “Rhum,” as a pair of city tramps who hatch a scheme to spend an all-expens­es-paid day in the coun­try. The sto­ry was writ­ten by Tati and Spro­cani, and was inspired by their own straight­ened eco­nom­ic cir­cum­stances. It’s a rough film, with just a hint of what was to come. “Gai Dimanche,” writes David Bel­los in Jacques Tati: His Life and Art, “seems to have less to do with Tati’s méti­er as a mime, and more to do with the ear­ly devel­op­ment of the themes that he would lat­er elab­o­rate into films of real imag­i­na­tive qual­i­ty.”

Soigne ton Gauche (“Watch Your Left”), 1936:

Direct­ed by René Clé­ment, Soigne ton Gauche is a more pol­ished film than Gai Dimanche. Draw­ing on Tati’s ear­ly music-hall work as a “sport­ing impres­sion­ist,” it tells the sto­ry of a dull-wit­ted dream­er thrust into the role of a box­ing cham­pi­on’s spar­ring part­ner. “Though the mimed box­ing match is the cen­tre­piece of the movie’s plot,” writes Bel­los, “all the inter­est of the work is in what is added to the com­ic fight–the pic­to­r­i­al and nar­ra­tive sur­round, its fic­tion­al­ized con­text, and espe­cial­ly the make-believe of the chil­dren and of the char­ac­ter of the unin­ten­tion­al spar­ring part­ner.”

L’É­cole des Fac­teurs (“School for Post­men”), 1947:

Tati’s first film after World War II, L’É­cole des Fac­teurs is also his first as direc­tor. Although the film is often dat­ed 1947, the exact year of pro­duc­tion is uncer­tain. Accord­ing to Bel­los, film­ing may have begun as ear­ly as 1945. Filmed near the south­ern vil­lage of Aix-en-Provence, L’É­cole des Fac­teurs is in many ways a tri­al run for Tati’s first full-length fea­ture, Jour de Fête (“Fes­ti­val Day”). It tells the sto­ry of a rur­al post­man’s clum­sy efforts to join into the mod­ern spir­it of ever-increas­ing effi­cien­cy. “The vision we share through L’É­cole des Fac­teurs is a satir­i­cal one,” writes Bel­los: “through exag­ger­a­tion and ridicule, it prompts a neg­a­tive view of those things that Tati disliked–work, effi­cien­cy, hur­ry, organisation–and no less sure­ly sug­gests that men in peaked caps are arrant fools.” The film is Tati’s first mature work. As Bel­los writes:

There is not a visu­al­ly dull moment in L’É­cole des Fac­teurs, and its qual­i­ty derives in large part from its extreme econ­o­my of means. But with­out the pecu­liar effect of Tati’s size, of his anti­quat­ed half-mil­i­tary uni­form, and of his com­ic clum­sinss so well-honed that it acquires a kind of grace, the film would not be any­thing very much. It was intend­ed as a launch-vehi­cle for Tati as a new com­ic cin­e­ma per­son­al­i­ty. It is not a mas­ter­piece; but it is a very promis­ing start, far ahead of any­thing Tati had done before the war.

Cours du Soir (“Evening Class­es”), 1967:

Where the oth­er three short films we’ve pre­sent­ed make up a kind of pre­lude to Tati’s career, Cours du Soir seems more like a coda. The film was shot in 1966 by one of Tati’s assis­tants, Nico­las Ribows­ki, at “Tativille” the sprawl­ing set of Play­time. Although Bel­los calls it one of Tati’s “least excit­ing per­for­mances ever,” the film offers a rare glimpse of the mas­ter explain­ing the art of mime to a group of stu­dents. As always, Tati appears as a man out of step with his time.

The films men­tioned above will be added to our meta col­lec­tion of Free Movies Online.


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