Mon Film Préféré Tati

Tonight on TCM, Jacques Tati’s wonderful 1958 film, Mon Oncle, airs at 8:00 p.m. (EST).  Of all the silent filmmakers, Tati is my favorite.   While his films were made in the sound era and even contained sound, music and dialogue, they were, for all intents and purposes, silent films through and through.   The dialogue is pointless babble, no matter what the language.  I’ve actually seen Mon Oncle dubbed into English and it made absolutely no difference whatsoever.  I don’t even understand why anyone bothered to do it.   It’s the perfect silent film.

Mon Oncle 03

I have had the good fortune to see both Mon Oncle and Playtime on the big screen and both are extraordinary works of art but Mon Oncle is my favorite.  Tati always plays order against chaos, rigidity against looseness, modern against established.  It’s a theme exploration that worked well for him and one where most people would place Playtime at its apex but I think he achieved more, years before, with Mon Oncle.

As with all Tati films, there is no real plot.  It starts with dogs roaming through the older parts of the city, scavenging garbage as they advance towards the more affluent and modern suburbs.  Once there, the smallest dog finds his way to a modern home that turns out to be where he lives.  He makes his way in as the lady of the house cleans every perfect, unblemished surface.  Her husband is perfectly well-kept, his briefcase shiny, his car striking and new.  Their son makes his way out to the car and as father and son drive away the mother polishes the fender.

This is contrasted with the older part of town where we meet Tati’s Monseiur Hulot, reading a paper used to wrap fish.  There we see children playing, people talking and arguing and a vibrant community of vendors, street sweepers and artisans.  Hulot makes his way up to his apartment in a four story building that looks like it was designed by Rube Goldberg by way of Dr. Caligari.  Hulot goes up and down stairs to get to his top apartment where the key waits simply over the door.

Mon Oncle 01

Those two worlds interact for the rest of the movie with the dogs, Hulot and his nephew being the main interlocutors for the show.  They move back and forth between the two worlds and expose and enjoy the absurdity of both.  There’s really not a lot more to say about Tati’s basic contrasts because the point of a Tati film is not to engage in lengthy philosophical discussions about the meaning of it all but to engage in the act of watching the extraordinary visual sense of one of the most masterful artists of the twentieth century.

In Tati films, the idea isn’t the thing, it’s the jumping off point.  And that point isn’t simply a visual representation of the idea but a choreography as important and distinct as anything done in modern dance .   It’s just that Tati uses actors, animals, cars and machines as his dancers and the choreography is all of a piece, running the length of the movie with the dialogue and sound effects joining the music as the aural rhythm of the dance.  Really, truly, it’s hard to describe a Tati film to someone who hasn’t seen one.  Even after seeing one, it may all look so deceptively simple but the dance is deliberate and intricate and perfectly timed.

Perhaps I prefer Mon Oncle  over Playtime or Trafic because its dance is more intimate, brought down to a smaller scale but still expansive and not restrained to the antics of Hulot alone, as in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.  It’s the perfect combination of every Tati quality and, fittingly, comes right in the middle of his career as a feature length director (two before; Jour de Fete, which I have not seen, and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, and two after, Playtime and Trafic).

Mon Oncle also displays Tati’s incredible sense of color.  He keeps a grey palette for most of the modern world so that greens and reds and blues can jump out from them and play off of them.  He achieved an even greater sense of this in Playtime, where I once did a piece on the use of red and green played against a neutral palette, but he developed it here first, in Mon Oncle.

Mon Oncle 02

The only problem I have with Tati as a filmmaker, honestly, is recommending him to people who have never seen his works before.  It’s difficult to know who’s going to take to Tati and who isn’t.  I’ve been asked before online by someone venturing into his films for the first time, “Will I like Playtime? Mon Oncle? Trafic?”  and each time my response is the same, “I have no idea.”  Will a Tati novice appreciate the amazing sense of color and design?  I certainly hope so.  Will a Tati novice appreciate the choreography of the whole movie as a feature length dance?  I couldn’t say.  Will they find it funny?  I know I do.  But I also know that when a movie doesn’t give you a clear cut plot (though there’s always a story) and the humor is gentle and teasing, it’s a risk.  Honestly, when I first saw Playtime, it wasn’t until the second half that I really started to like it.  I found the first half a bit tedious because I didn’t realize it was building to an out of control climax.  I foolishly thought I was watching a bunch of disconnected sight gags that was going to continue until the closing credits.  I was wrong.  Ludicrously wrong and I can see that now.  Mon Oncle works the same way.  It starts out with a myriad of disconnected and disassociated characters and gags and builds into something not just connected but beautiful.  It’s my favorite Tati films, and despite the omnipresent sound, one of my favorite silent movies, ever.

15 Responses Mon Film Préféré Tati
Posted By Nick R. : July 21, 2013 11:22 am

When I first saw Playtime I hated it, but a couple years afterward I watched this and “Holiday” and got what he was all about. Ever since then I’ve been a diehard fan and have seen Playtime on the big screen 3 times (and Mon Oncle, in English, once).
Greg, do you not count Parade as one of his features?

Posted By Emgee : July 21, 2013 3:38 pm

If there is a central theme running through all of Tati’s films it’s that of a man struggling with modernity. He doesn’t fit in with the modern world (and doesn’t want to), but realises his goodnatured struggle is eventually in vain. The simpler. more communal way of life he prefers is vanishing before his eyes, and there’s not much he can do but poke gentle fun at it.

It’s been ages since i saw a Tati film; your article has prompted me to rewatch both Mon Oncle and Playtime ( not Jour de Fete, which i never liked).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 21, 2013 8:26 pm

Nick, it’s strange how expectations can get in the way sometimes. My expectations deflated the first half of Playtime the first time I saw it but the second time, I loved it.

Never seen Parade. Just looked it up and might be interesting. Never really heard anything about it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 21, 2013 8:30 pm

Emgee, never saw Jour de Fete. It’s not a Tati film people ever talk about so I guess it’s not surprising you didn’t like it. Just curious, what about it didn’t you like?

Posted By Jonah : July 22, 2013 2:34 am

Frankly, the first paragraph, in which you call the Hulot films “silent . . . for all intents and purposes” is so foolish it put me off from reading the rest.

It’s one thing to note that in Tati’s Hulot films, the “meaning” of the dialogue is often intelligible or irrelevant–that’s largely correct. But the _sound_ of the dialogue–as a kind of musique concrète–is a key part of the carefully-sculpted soundscapes of the films. If you don’t think the texture of the voices of the party guests in MON ONCLE contribute to the humor and the meaning of that extended scene, then you aren’t listening.

Indeed his soundscapes are one of the things for which Tati is known and celebrated. They are alive not just with sound “gags” in a narrow sense, but with arresting, surprising, amusing, and sometimes terrifying discrete sounds. Not to mention Tati’s miraculous attentiveness to sonic ambiance and shifts in same.

Basically in order to call Tati a “silent filmmaker” you have to collapse all of “sound” into a narrow notion of conventionally-functional dialogue. In doing so you are committing the same sin as some of the earliest “talkie” directors and their critics. But anyone with an even slightly more expansive notion of what “film sound” consists of will recognize this other aspect of Tati’s genius.

Don’t believe me?

Posted By Jonah : July 22, 2013 2:38 am

(I meant to write “unintelligible” rather than “intelligible” up above)

Posted By Emgee : July 22, 2013 4:24 am

Greg, to be honest it’s been ages since i saw Jour de Fete, so why exactly i didn’t like it is hard to say. What i remember is that compared to his later films the jokes were rather predictable and the central plot too thin to support an entire movie. A short one maybe, but even at 70 minutes it seemed too long for me. I probably expected more after seeing his other movies, which i really like.

Posted By swac44 : July 22, 2013 9:26 am

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend seeking out the animated feature The Illusionist, from the director of Triplets of Belleville. It is for all intents and purposes a cartoon Tati, based on an unfilmed story of his about an unsuccessful French magician who winds up in 1950s Edinburgh. Gorgeous cartoon, and we even get a glimpse of live-action Tati when a character goes into a movie theatre (like in Triplets, where we caught a bit of Jour de Fete playing on a TV in the background).

Posted By jennifromrollamo : July 22, 2013 11:36 am

I’ve seen this film, and still prefer Mr. Hulot’s Holiday more.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 23, 2013 8:31 am

Frankly, the first paragraph, in which you call the Hulot films “silent . . . for all intents and purposes” is so foolish it put me off from reading the rest.

I kind of felt the same way about your comment but read through it anyway. You’re operating from a premise that silent film means no sound whatsoever. Chaplin not only recorded sound effects before recorded dialogue became big but many silent films were scored, either for a full orchestra or for a simple organ/piano, because the sound was integral to the image. You’re saying, “Hey, this guy says Tati’s a silent filmmaker but he used sound!” Yes, yes he did. So did many silent filmmakers. But the way they made movies was different than the way a sound film was made. Silent filmmaking styles are what I’m talking about. For instance, another great silent filmmaker (who only made one movie) was Charles Laughton. Night of the Hunter is a fantastic silent film, despite the score, sound and dialogue. It’s made in the style of Murnau, not Wyler. Tati, despite his marvelous use of sound, is closer to Keaton than the Marx Brothers. He’s a silent comedian who also makes great use of sound.

Posted By Jonah : July 23, 2013 3:12 pm

I am well aware of all of the historical observations you have condescendingly chosen to share with me as though my criticism of your blog post necessarily means I am ignorant of film history.

To say that Tati, along with Laughton and many others, was strongly influenced by silent filmmaking (specifically Keaton and Chaplin) is of course a truism. But being influenced by silent film is not the same thing as Tati being a “silent filmmaker.” You’re hardly the first to make the latter claim and you probably won’t be the last, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a meretricious one.

I think it is foolish to acclaim Tati’s Hulot films as essentially “silent” when in fact they make use of a complex and precise synchronized sound design scarcely imaginable even in the days of Movietone soundtracks. Which means that his MO as a director cannot be reduced to that of a “silent filmmaker” working in the sound era. That would imply that his soundtracks are of marginal interest, not central to Tati’s filmmaking process or to the overall effects he desires to achieve. Which is far, far from the case.

In any event, I hope next time you re-watch any of the Hulot films (especially Playtime), you choose to pay particular attention to sound. You will find great riches there.

Posted By Jonah : July 23, 2013 3:16 pm

I will add that you’re already backpedaling a bit, amidst all the doubling down. I’m glad that in your response you admit to “Tati’s… marvelous use of sound.” But in your blog you argue that his films are “silent… for all intents and purposes.” So his use of sound is “marvelous”… but irrelevant? I’m not really sure what your take is here.

Posted By Emgee : July 23, 2013 3:19 pm

What i find hard to believe is that somebody who writes such humourless, barren prose can even begin to appreciate what makes Tati a great filmmaker. The leaden academic jargon, the pedantic tone…..what university are you from?

Posted By Doug : July 23, 2013 4:57 pm

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Jonah, relax, man. Haven’t you heard: “I am always an expert about things which are a matter of opinion”?
Greg has one opinion, you have another. No condescension,no backtracking-you just disagree. He’s disagreeing more pleasantly than you are. {shrugs}
Greg, I think of Tati as a bit like Thelonious Monk-who used the pauses and quiet between notes and movements to complete the musical picture.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 23, 2013 5:48 pm

I am well aware of all of the historical observations you have condescendingly chosen to share with me as though my criticism of your blog post necessarily means I am ignorant of film history.

Jonah, if there was any attitude in my response, and there was I’m sorry to say, it was because of your opening sentence:

Frankly, the first paragraph, in which you call the Hulot films “silent . . . for all intents and purposes” is so foolish it put me off from reading the rest.

For future reference, it’s difficult to win anyone over to your side when your first instinct is to call them foolish.

Except for one other commenter that shows up here from time to time, I am accustomed to civil disagreement on this site.

As for backpedaling and digging myself in, I will only ask that you read through the comments of my other posts. I repeatedly concede omissions, mistakes, etc. In this case, I cannot see the great offense of my post that you’re seeing. Tati has a great silent film sensibility. That doesn’t exclude any other sensibility or diminish anything else he does with his movies but his silent film language is something I greatly enjoy in his films.

I’m not here to double down, I’m here to write about movies on TCM and the classics in general from my point of view and love of the cinema. Join in on the conversation anytime you like but please leave the hostility at the door.

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