Before you start watching a Jacques Tati movie, it’s best to go into the film with a full understanding of his style of comedy. If you are reading this, you are a major film buff, a curious reader or a friend of an obsessed film buff. No matter whom you are, to watch a Jacques Tati movie is to see a comedy that can truly be called unique. He is not well known among mainstream audiences, but amongst respected film critics and film enthusiasts, this French film auteur is considered one of the best comedy filmmakers of all time. Though not as well-known as comedy legends Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, Tati’s bumbling alter ego M. Hulot is considered as memorable as Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Groucho Marx. In fact, you can see his influence on areas, especially with Jerry Lewis. Despite influencing and being influenced by comedy legends, Tati’s comedy style is all his own. There is literally no one like him.
It can be argued that he’s too unique. As comedies, his style of filming is so unusual that it may turn some audience members off. He is defiantly an acquired taste. Still, I believe his films are easier to enjoy when the audience knows how Tati works. And here’s where I come in. Through this guide, I will go into details of how Tati does comedy.
PART ONE: DIALOGUE
Because this French film, some movie goers will be resistant at the idea of subtitles. If it’s a consolation, Tati’s films have very limited dialogue. Even if there is, it most often so mumbled that the subtitles don’t bother with them. Tati is more about all about visuals when it comes to his films. He only creates dialogue when absolutely necessary.
PART TWO: SCREEN TIME
Like comedy greats Chaplin, Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis, Tati not only stars in his movies, but also writes and directs them all. It allows them to develop a unique comedy style associated with them. What separates Tati from these guys is the amount of screen time he takes up in his films. The other filmmakers use these films as to show case their comedic skills and make themselves stars. Tati however is barely in his movies. Sure, he’s always the lead characters in his films; he doesn’t really place much focus on himself. I swear, he seems to have less screen time in each movie than Godzilla had in his latest film.
He prefers to give every character in his films equal screen time. It’s admirable that he doesn’t make himself the focus of his own movies, given others a chance to shine. It certainly proves his films aren’t vanity projects. But when audiences are used to a protagonist being the focus of a film, it can throw some people off waiting for M. Hulot to appear on screen.
Despite his efforts to give himself little screen time, Tati has such an engaging presence he still steals the show whenever he appears on screen.
PART THREE: HUMOUR
If you are going in expecting a night of big laughs, you might have come to the wrong place. I’m not saying that he isn’t funny. There is at least one moment in each film that was laugh out loud funny. For the most part, his jokes aren’t so much big laughs as they are mild amusements. Unlike most comedy filmmakers, he isn’t trying to get his audience rolling on the floor laughing. He prefers to keep his humour as low key and melancholy as possible to give the jokes a feel of realism. Any situation is presented with a casual feel. Even during the major car crash in Trafic, the characters treat it as “meh”. Unprepared movie goers expecting laughs will be caught off guard from the chuckle worthy.
Not to say the jokes aren’t funny. As I have said, each film has at least one moment where I laughed out loud. He does demonstrate and observant eye for recognizing clever jokes. He will take a small element and find a clever spin on in. In M. Hulot’s Holiday, he finds a way to use wet leaves to get a flat tire confused with a wreath. You also see a lot of choreography in the way he presents his jokes, especially in Playtime, where he creates confusion using window reflections. It’s the tone of the jokes that film. This brings me to…
PART FOUR: TONE
In the end, it’s the tone of these films that will either make or break the experience for some people. His films don’t follow the classic story structure. He prefers to take a group of complete strangers, set them on a location and watch them react to the environment. Plus, he doesn’t try to engage any the characters. The camera never gets close to the characters. Scenes are almost always shot in the distance with long takes.
His films aren’t so many stories as they are observations. Tati is looking to create an experience where audiences can observe the mild amusements of live. Fans of pop culture Easter eggs will have a blast finding gags hidden in plain sight. This can turn off audience members who prefer classic story structure.
In the end, you won’t know whether or not you’ll like it until you’ve seen a Jacques Tati film. Even if you don’t embrace his films, you can still admire how unique his style is.
To be honest, I am not the biggest fan of Jacques Tati. When I watched the films in College, I wasn’t used to this comedy style and couldn’t get into them. Like Wes Anderson, his films have a tone that’s easier to admire than embrace. I don’t embrace him as much as I do with filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Guillermo Del Toro or Christopher Nolan. He may not be my favorite filmmaker but to me he is one of the most fascinating. But even then, I still felt interested in the films and sensed I was missing some point within the style. That and I notice his influences on Mr. Bean.
I wanted to write this for a long time because I wonder if I would like Tati’s films more if I knew about his style of comedy before seeing them. When my local library brought in the Jacques Tati collection from the Criterion Collection, I finally decided to write the beginners guide.
But now that I’ve finished writing this, there is still more about Tati that I want to talk about. So I’ve decided to go further and review all of his movies and shorts to see his progression as a filmmaker.