Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Brief Vacation

I have seen one of the films Jacques Tati appeared in prior to Jour de Fete (1949), which launched, if that is the word, his career as a filmmaker. It was Autant-Lara's charming romance, Sylvie et le fantome (1946). Tati played a romantic ghost, which prevented him from having to speak but which also made it necessary to use double-exposure in all his scenes, which made his performance somewhat insubstantial. But it showed me that Tati had been a character player, as did Jour de Fete, in which he played a village postman.

In 1953, a the ripe age of 46, he introduced the character he would play in three more feature films, known only by his last name, Hulot. Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr Hulot's Holiday) is, by most estimates (which have never been that enthusiastic), his best film. I have read just one brief review of the film, in Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films. It wasn't a rave by any means, but, strangely, Tati would get a great deal more critical attention as his films grew worse, through 1958's Mon Oncle, 1967's Play Time, and 1971's Trafic. In all those films, emboldened to be philosophical, Tati tried to satirize life in the modern world. He was much better just looking at people and finding some of the absurd things they do funny, as in Mr. Hulot's Holiday.

People act silly when they travel and are in unfamiliar surroundings. It exaggerates their idiosyncrasies, and Tati observes these well. But as a film comedy that some people have compared to the best of Chaplin, Mr. Hulot's Holiday has long stretches that can only be called dull. As a filmmaker, Tati's framing and directing are good, but his pacing is bad. When Hulot in onscreen, things are much more interesting, because Tati was a gifted clown. For instance, thee is an earlier scene in the hotel dining room in which Tati is on the right of the frame and does practically nothing, while the maitre d' and the waiter go in and out of a swinging door. We are supposed to be watching them, but it is impossible to take one's eyes off Tati. This is as clear as any an example of Tati's miscalculation. I'd have watched ninety minutes of Tati just sitting there in character, rather than than have to bother about all those, to me extraneous details. (Try and imagine a ninety-minute film of buster Keaton sitting at a table.) Tati fancied he was such a brilliant observer of human nature (he wasn't) that he deprived us of himself.

Also, the film doesn't hold up well on subsequent viewings. Maybe I've seen it too many times, but I have seen Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925) probably a dozen times over the years, and I look forward to seeing it again. The same goes for Keaton's The General (1926). There isn't a thing I don't know about either film, so I cannot say that they give me something new each time I see them. So why do I bother watching them so many times? I do it to renew my sense of what a film comedy should be, and to relive, however imperfectly, some of the wonder I felt on seeing them for the first time.

I get nothing like the same feeling with Mr. Hulot's Holiday, and I don't believe I'm being unfair to Tati by comparing him to Chaplin and Keaton. I'm only making the comparison because everyone else does, for reasons I can never understand. I know how much the auteur critics love him, and why - without, of course, agreeing with anything they say. Tati was an excellent clown, but he was simply not a very good filmmaker. Overlooking his very real talent by praising his imaginary genius is the real reason why Tati hasn't worn well in fifty years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I understand it's important to re-evaluate old standards, to never accept what anyone else says without seeing for oneself. But the movie you're so intent to knock off its pedestal is a classic for a very good reason. It's a great film. (You also missed a few typos in this post.)