on 29 January 2009
Jacques Tati is one of the great comedian/directors, but he was an impossible perfectionist in his movie-making, and died bankrupt as a result. He lost the rights to his movies in the wake of the ruinous folly that is "Playtime", and since his death the bones have been picked over for profit by a variety of people. As one reviewer points out, the British Film Institute misses out scenes, while I've seen the Japanese DVD which has completely irrelevant sub-titles. If you are offered something billed as the 1977 version, don't buy it, it's chopped around. And there's no cheap easy way into Tati, as all his films retail at £12-£15, even assuming they're available.
Many people don't "get" Tati, frustrated by his lack of plot, and episodes which don't seem to go anywhere. But those who complain about his lack of skill as a film-maker are probably watching a duff version.
Certainly "Les Vacances" has only the plot of a fortnight's holiday, but that's enough to give the film a rhythm, each day started with the catchy clarinet tune and the opening of the window to look at the sea. (The only day which doesn't have the tune is the last, when everyone is sad to be going home.) Like holidays, the days seem to merge into each other, punctuated only by special Treats like the picnic, the fireworks, the Costume Ball. Some events, like some gags, lead nowhere, other jokes are recurring.
What makes Tati great seems to me threefold. First, unlike so many comics, he isn't a one-trick pony. He spreads his gags around all the characters, who are fully rounded and believable people. Most of them we know little of - like we know little about the people we happen to share a hotel or a beach with. But we know enough to know who we like and don't like, who are the sticklers and who are the quiet rebels.
Second, he has a wonderful eye for composition. The tiny two-hotel village is perfect, and every shot looks good. More than this, there's always something happening in the corner of a frame, which maybe you don't spot first time round. This feeds into his sense of rhythm. He knows how to compose a joke, and it's not obvious how he does it. I know trying to describe comedy immediately kills it, so I won't say too much, but in addition to the physical comedy, a lot of the jokes work through the editing, and he comes at the laughs sideways, so they come at you slightly off-centre, when you're not expecting them. This quality is what suffers most in the bastardised versions around.
Finally, there's the quality of his sense of humour, which is in the absurdity of the everyday. One of my favourite sequences involves a small boy (Tati is always good with children) buying two ice creams and taking them back to his friend. There's nothing to it, except a camera following him as he climbs an impossibly high flight of stairs and opens a door, carefully watching the ices; but anyone who isn't mesmerised, charmed and appalled at the same time isn't quite all there as a human being. It's this quality which gives the movie its depth and flavour, coupled with a gentle but real morality which is on the side of the chaotic, and those who like the chaotic.
People go on about Tati as a slapstick, but to me that's the least of his qualities. "M Hulot's Holiday" isn't just about a holiday, it IS a holiday, and we feel the same regret at the end as we do when our holiday comes to an end.
If there was any justice in the world and any true appreciation of cinema and its history, some philanthropic soul would buy up the rights to Tati's films, restore them to the state the Director intended, and release the five key works - "Jour de Fete", "M Hulot", "Mon Oncle", "Playtime" and "Traffic" - in a £25 box set. Maybe then Tati would be appreciated for the unique talent he is. Is it too much to hope for?