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A classic collection, but why no Traffic?
on 24 October 2009
I've been waiting for a Tati collection for a while now. And when one finally appears it doesn't include the worthwhile Traffic, but does include the fairly irrelevant Parade. Anyhow, I've never clicked fully with the first Jour De Fete. I'm glad his postman character never returned as he's not a particularly interesting comic creation. The idealized slice of rural French life is a joy and it washes by pleasantly, but the comic set-ups strangely never make me smile, and the dialogue is uninteresting and shows Tati was wise to largely ignore it thereafter.
Les Vacances de M. Hulot is for me his masterpiece and introduces the bumbling Hulot, one of the finest comic creations in all cinema, a man so primed for comic mayhem his very walk is amusing. There's no story as such, just Hulot arriving for his holiday at a sea-side resort that is both instantly familiar while being one that you can only dream of visiting. There are dozens of other holiday makers, each with their own routine, and comic walks, and gradually over the course of the film various running jokes are set-up that are a masterclass in how to make comedy work. All Tati's themes are on display here of social division and snobbery, the joy of old-fashioned products rather than cold and impersonal modern technology that doesn't work, and the general failure of modern consumer-driven life. But unlike later works the message is never put before the comedy and is instead subtly delivered.
Mon Oncle is a natural development from the previous film in which Hulot returns to the big city and devotes the next couple of hours to destroying his materialistic brother's technologically advanced house and products, all to the delight of his nephew. The contrast between Hulot's pleasant, but somewhat squalid, existence and his brother's square block of a home of the kind that people still build on Grand Designs is a theme that is still fresh today. Oh, and it's also very funny in its clever running gags, and is subversive in a gentle way.
Playtime is one of the strangest comic films ever made. It was to be Tati's masterpiece summing up his life's work, but it cost a fortune to make and lost a fortune when nobody watched it. It carries on from Mon Oncle, but now Hulot has been absorbed by the big city in a slight story concerning him getting involved with a group of tourists being shown around Paris. No longer is he in centre stage creating mayhem; he's lost within a square world of office cubicles, square apartments and even squarer people. Unlike the previous films in which the humour is obvious, this is a film that requires careful watching. The screen is often filled with dozens of people, with Hulot being just a small character in the background. The viewer has to work out what is going on rather than being spoon fed. When I first saw it on a small screen tv I struggled to stay awake to the end, having no idea what was going on, but luckily I later got to see it on a cinema screen and then I loved the film, picking up on its clever and subtle touches. This is a film that was made to be watched on the largest screen possible, which is nicely ironic for a story that prophetically pokes fun at the horrors of modern life.
I'm not sure why Traffic isn't here, although it has no message other than that traffic jams aren't fun and modern cars have too many gadgets in them. It's not available individually. It just seems to have disappeared. It's not a masterpiece by any means, but it is the last of the Hulot series and it has many great set-pieces. I'd rate it as being as funny as Mon Oncle, if not so well-structured or so tightly focussed. Instead we have Parade, which is a recording of Tati doing various mimes and which didn't entertain me in the slightest.
Luckily this collection contains three comic masterpieces, all almost silent, and all put together with so much care and attention to detail they can be watched countless times, and every time something new will spring out. The word genius gets used too often these days, but for a man who made six films in forty years, it's deserved.