Few films manage to transcend culture and language boundaries, and touch the collective consciousness, by being both a commentary of contemporary human society and a work of original artistic value. The films of Jacques Tati are nevertheless quintessentially French and steeped in a post-war culture in transition, where French people, still rooted in their traditions, discovered with fascination the technological marvels and explosive way of life of America.
The universe of Jacques Tati teems with characters whose idiosyncratic behaviors resonate with many because of the universality of their everyday life. Tati’s humor lies in a series of parallel events which the audience can follow all at once unlike the protagonists themselves, as if the spectators could look at a functioning society from a bird’s eye view.
Tati himself inhabits the character of ‘Monsieur Hulot,’ a humble, good-natured man who interacts with his surroundings with constant wonder and puzzlement, especially when confronted with modern technology. His awkwardness in such moments creates a very subtle form of comedy of gestures reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, a vehicle to suggest an ironic look at the world of humans, and their fantastic, sometimes bizarre creations.
His films have influenced countless flimmakers, such as Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, who relate to the surreality lurking just beneath the veneer of an seemingly plain, ordinary world. More generally, artists like them appreciate the cinematic qualities inherent to films which rely less on dialogues than visuals. In this sense, Jacques Tati proved himself a master at staging long and complex scenes involving delicate timing between actors and their environment; in addition, sound effects are used prominently, and provide a rich counterpoint to the action, often even becoming central comedy devices.
And for those who are still learning French, rejoice because Tati’s comedies are essentially silent. But you will get a genuine experience of French life of the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps the period that is most often stereotyped — but in a good way! And Tati’s films are delightful in that sense, and tinged with a warm nostalgia, especially for French people themselves.
Here is a wonderful trailer to get a sense of Tati’s comedic style, for ‘Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot’ (Mr. Hulot’s Holidays).