Genius of French funnyman Jacques Tati never grows old

As a new book sings the praises of funnyman Jacques Tati, The Connexion examines his influence and how it lives on

26 February 2020
Behind the madcap goings on in Jacques Tati’s films lay some masterful comic insights, whose impact still resonates strongly today
By Samantha David

If you do not know the films of Jacques Tati, you are lucky because you still have the delightful pleasure watching his films for the first time.

His comedy is visual, timeless and hysterical.

You do not need to speak French to enjoy his jokes, you do not even need to be Francophile, although perhaps recognising his characters renders them even funnier.

If you still do not know what I am talking about, head along to YouTube and watch Mr Hulot’s Holiday in 8 minutes.

Jacques Tati (1907-1982) was a mime artist, filmmaker, actor and screen-writer whose eye for the bizarre lunacy underlying every human experience made him an enduring star, although he only ever made six full-length feature films.

His amiable alter ego Mr Hulot is well-meaning and just slightly hapless; but never stupid, gross or embarrassing.

Dogs make faces at his heels rather than attacking him.

Tati began his working life in the family firm as a picture framer, but having discovered a talent for amusing his sporting friends with impressions of them, he soon left the company to tread the boards.

The act he developed was called Impressions Sportives and in time it became a smash hit.

When Colette saw it in 1935, she wrote that it was “partly ballet and partly sport, partly satire and partly a charade.

He has devised a way of being both the player, the ball and the tennis racquet, of being simultaneously the football and the goalkeeper, the boxer and his opponent, the bicycle and the cyclist. Without any props, he conjures up his accessories and his partners. He has the suggestive powers of all great artists.”

He took his act to London in 1936 and then back in Paris, was hired to top the bill at the ABD Theatre where he worked until the outbreak of the Second World War.

During this period he also performed in Berlin and began making short comic films.

In 1939 he was conscripted, and fought in the Battle of Sedan before being demobilised in 1940. He then went back to work doing his impressions at the Lido de Paris.

After the war, he devised his much-loved Mr Hulot character, with his trademark raincoat, umbrella and pipe in order to explore themes including Western society’s obsession with consumerism, the speed of modern life, the strains of communication between social classes, and the cold and often impractical nature of space-age technology.

None of these themes has dated in the slightest. We are all still befuddled.

His most famous films include Jour de Fête, which was about a confused village postman who becomes mesmerised by a travelling fair and under the influence of too much wine, goes to insane lengths to deliver the post as fast as possible.

Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot introduced M. Hulot as a well-meaning but hapless August holiday-maker in Saint-Marc-sur-Mer (Loire Atlantique) where a statue of Tati has been erected on the beach. Rowan Atkinson acknowledged that he saw Mr Hulot’s Holiday when he was 17 and that it was a huge influence on his as a comic.

Mon Oncle, shot in colour, saw M. Hulot return, this time with his nephew Gérard in tow as he struggles to understand modern life and technology.

David Lynch chose the film as one of his all-time five favourite films. “The guy is so creative, it’s unbelievable. I think he’s one of the all-time greats.”

In Playtime, M. Hulot and a group of American tourists get lost in the futuristic glass and steel suburbs of Paris.

The making of the film bankrupted Tati, but has consistently been cited by filmmakers as a masterpiece. Steven Spielberg said he paid homage to it with his 2004 film Terminal.

Jacques Tati died in 1982 of a pulmonary embolism, leaving three children and a final script which he had completed with Jacques Lagrange.

New publication L’Intégrale Jacques Tati by Alison Castle is available from bookshops and online (in French and English).

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