Jacques Tati

Jacques Tati

The Genius
The Genius

100% Genius –  100% Fool

If you like reading about strange celebrities this book is a must – Mine cost three pounds including postage, there are plenty to be found on the ABE Books web site.

Book Cover
Book Cover

I suspect some will not know who Tati was.  Jacques was a mime artist who managed to bring his art to the French cinema.  He made six films which have to be considered as unique – The School Postman – Jour de Fete – Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday – My Uncle – Playtime – Traffic – A sextet of strange mysteries, interesting, confusing, funny, sad, as you watch the films they seem to be without fixed story.  I feel his films are social commentaries, observation of the human crisis which is inadequacy, lack of confidence, bewilderment and ignorance.

The principal character in each film may be given differing names within each script but all who watch, know in some ‘psychic‘ way they are watching Jacques Tati‘s loneliness, spirit, soul and questioning mind. He has a name, Mr Hulot. There is no doubt many will find a resonance with actual life.  The struggle to live in a right way, doing the very best we can and circumstance takes away hope and inspiration.  When attempting to discover why failure follows failure, debt compounds debt, relationships dissolve, we realise the truth is there is no reason for the setbacks other than life itself.  Mr Hulot is a man who seems to be in the wrong place, needing to act in the right way and each desire to succeed is cruelly snatched away.

On Set
On Set

Tati tried to bury Hulot, fans adored the kind imbecile.  So unique and powerful is the character, either liked or disliked, none who watch him forget him.

Tati‘s early films made substantial amounts of money and due to contractual arguments for some years the profits were held by the French courts.  This changed in the early sixties and the Frenchman became a very wealthy man.  An award of an Oscar in 1958 for best foreign film (My Uncle – Mon Oncle) gave him cult status in France and its fair to say that from this marker the man became aloof, arrogant and selfish.

With an incredible income arising from the royalties from his work he began to make almost unbelievable errors of judgement.  As one ploughs through the book (I read it in two days) the incredible stupidity overwhelms the artist, actor, writer, director’s work and achievements.  Poor investment, the buying of the rights to numerous silent movies which he wanted to renew by adding new soundtracks.  An interesting concept which never materialised.  He invested in various other film ventures which failed to see the projector’s lamp.  Beginning project after project without completion and constant procrastination with employees over new films and scripts.  Many of the employees left him, due to low wages and lacking of respect.  Tati never forgave anyone who left his organisation.  His lack of forgiveness became dislike or even hatred for people who supported and inspired him.  The inevitable result was as he slipped down the ladder, there were none to help him when he hit the ground.


Each of the bricks to his folly were worth their weight in gold and would sink him like divers’ lead weights.  Its name Playtime –  a 124 minute film which took three years and 17 million francs to produce.  During the filming he fell out with practically everyone, he fell foul of the financial backers and made the most monumental mistakes.

At the planning stages he appointed a designer to plan the set who, after considering Tati‘s requirement, suggested that rather than build a film set of the two skyscrapers needed, it would cost the same to build actual buildings, use them for the film and then sell them at a substantial profit at the end of the project.  The great man would have none of it.  His choice was to rent a large area of waste land on the outskirts of Paris (earmarked for the new Parisian ring road) and then build two massive fake high-rise office blocks, complete with roads, traffic lights and roundabouts, damned with ill-fortune (his whole life was a series of setbacks) the first disaster came as heavy winds blew the structures down. Tati filmed it on 70mm wide angle film stock, a poor choice, the process is expensive, difficult to film and, believe it or not, difficult to watch.

I should write that the choice of 70mm panoramic film had a long term consequence as it makes it difficult to produce good video or later, DVD copies. This would not have been a consideration for Tati at the time. What was, was the full impact of the style of filming was either not accepted or properly explored by Tati – Watching a 70mm panoramic film is not well suited to movie stories, the viewers’ 46 degree angle of ‘focused’ vision makes watching the panoramic (as opposed to wide screen) film a tennis match affair!  70mm works well for long shots, landscape and fixed conversation documentary, any subject where the audience become deeply involved with a slow moving and factual subject will benefit. Fast moving story line simply does not work.  The viewers look to the right of the screen to see one detail and miss the information on the left!

A life long desire to make everything his way and an almost psychotic obsession with perfection, costs time, money, friends and the success of the film.  When the money ran out he deceived his mother out of her home and family savings, his sister of her family inheritance, he borrowed from, and as a consequence lost, most of his friends.  The betrayal of his wife, an affair with the principal actress sealed the maestro’s reputation as thief, con artist, deceiver, no one trusted or respected him.  The film was released and …. disaster.  With no American distributer to be found the inevitable indignity awaited like the sleeping snakes venomous fangs.  Bankruptcy.


All is lost, film rights to earlier films, the large mansion, possessions and commercial property – In his darkest night there were three lights – His wife and two children, goodness knows how or why they supported Jacques Tati.  One can only speculate as to how his mother coped with losing so much –  His sister was supported by her husband, however what should have been a very comfortable retirement for her turned into years of difficulty and worry.

Jacques Tati was an artistic genius.  He created incredible stories and by using a difficult acting technique – mime – he captivated audiences the world over.  He failed to realise his formula had a sell by date.  What’s more, he believed his artistic genius to be mirrored in his business acumen.  Stubborn, arrogant, difficult, Jacques Tati was simply unable to take criticism or advice.

The story is nearly over.  His last film – Traffic – was a reflection of his life.  In the film the ‘star’ Mr Hulot has a product – a camper van –  which needs to be delivered to a motor show in Amsterdam.  The film follows the hopeless journey with delays, setbacks, accidents.  The inevitable outcome is that the show is over by the time they arrive and for Tati the show was indeed over, critics slated the film.

This writer sees Tati’s work as unique.  Yes, there are those who copied the style.  There is only one Jacques Tati.  PlayTime and Traffic (Trafic) may have received poor notices at the time of their release, however, today I can only see them as wonders of artistic experimentation.  The films need to be revisited, each viewing gives a little more information.  Each an observation of the minutiae of the human character.  Laugh with them and you will laugh at yourself.

Don't Look Back
Don’t Look Back

Its easy to call Tati a fool, I’m not sure he was, preferring to think of him as a blinkered genius, like some many human beings believing their success is proof of their intelligence, genius and higher position on the ladder of society.

The book?  Brilliant and worthy of any film lover’s book shelf.

Next Time ‘Photo Exhibition’

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