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mheu, Historical Museum of the Urban Environment


Jacques Tati

2h 32mins
70mm colour film
© Les Films de Mon Oncle

View this work in The Street exhibition

The work

1967 - 70mm color - 152 minutes (cut to 137 minutes)

Jacques Tati's fourth film has us follow a busload of American tourists fresh off the plane in a brand-new Orly Airport. The group leads us through a futuristic city of glass-and-steel tower blocks, interspersed by wide, rectilinear avenues designed to worship the cult of the automobile (a concept beautifully shot by Tati). Monsieur Hulot is also on hand, having missed a meeting, presumably of a business nature. We find him wandering up and down endless corridors, getting lost in faceless offices, being swallowed by lifts and roaming through an exhibition hall, all leading to a series of chance encounters, reluctantly wreaking havoc and confusion along the way! The result is a veritable assault course, strewn with gags, culminating in one of the film's most memorable scenes: the opening evening at the Royal Garden, a chic, pretentious restaurant, which opens its doors even though the workmen have yet to finish their job.

There, Hulot encounters a charming American lady with whom he sets about transforming the luxury surroundings into a noisy, sleazy, populist Parisian dance hall. The shift from an unpleasant reality to a dreamlike world is a recurring theme with Tati. The visual and sound effects that scatter the scene—almost like a film within a film stretching to a frenetic crescendo akin to trance—make it one of the great moments in cinematic history. In the early hours of the morning, each person goes their separate way, shattering the burgeoning idyll, with the tourists seeing nothing more of Paris than reflections in the windows of the tower blocks and the bus that takes them back to the airport. The final shot, however, leaves a hint of hope, as a massive traffic jam turns into a wonderful carnival before Tati's magical lens.

The artist

Jacques Tatischeff was born in the outskirts of Paris on October 9, 1907. Destined to follow in the footsteps of his father, a picture framer, he abandoned his studies to become a mime artist. He performed his pantomime parodies of sports on stage and then in short films. In 1947, he made L'école des facteurs (School for Postmen), a promising outline of his first feature-length film which came out the same year: Jour de Fête (The Big Day). This first work was greeted with critical and public success. Proudly claiming descent from the great American burlesque comedians headed by Chaplin and Keaton, Tati established his own offbeat style, a silent and very resonant cinema: a great comic filmmaker was born!

In 1953, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Monsieur Hulot's Holiday) was an international triumph, especially in the United States. This was the first appearance on screen of the emblematic character to which the filmmaker now lent his own tall silhouette. Mon Oncle (My Uncle) came out in 1958 and received the highest accolades: the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in Hollywood. Tati, attached to his independence and creative freedom, then turned down the most enticing propositions: so we never got "Monsieur Hulot goes skiing", or "Monsieur Hulot in New York", in space, or anywhere else! Audiences delighted in the discovery of a funny stylized cinema, based on the minute and affectionate observation of Homo sapiens in a changing world. Lucky fans of Jacques Tati's cinema, faced in real life with bizarre noises, snatches of conversation or street scenes with a doubtful, potentially comical, outcome have all been known to say "why, it's just like a Tati film!".

Playtime, his fourth film, was released in 1967 and was as resounding a flop as it was an ambitious and costly project. The disappointed critics and public could not make sense of this gigantic work (originally 152 mins then edited down to 137 mins), profuse with details in which Hulot himself seems lost in the abundance of each shot (filmed in 70mm). A film to watch over and over again and spot something new with each screening!

Jacques Tati never got over this failure. The releases of Trafic in 1971 and Parade in 1973 did not soothe the bitterness felt by their maker. His final years were painful: he was ruined, deprived of the income from his first four films and seriously ill. Tati was however honored in 1977 by the Académie des Césars, for his entire, exemplary and consistent, oeuvre: six films in thirty five years! He finished writing what should have been his next film: Confusion which was never completed nor filmed. Jacques Tati died of a pulmonary embolism on November 4, 1982.