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At the MoviesMichael Wood

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directed by Jacques Tati.
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Monsieur Hulot​ , with his manic politeness and his endless, baffled curiosity, loped into movies in 1953 in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. He became instantly familiar, although there was a lot we didn’t know about him, like his first name or where he lived, or how he paid for his smart jackets and too short trousers. He bowed a lot and lifted his hat, he walked like a kangaroo trained by Groucho Marx, everything he touched went wrong or wild, like the shed full of fireworks in the movie. Everything except his tennis serve, that is, which looked like a wind-up toy’s attempt at manslaughter and floored his opponent every time. He wanted to be part of things, he was always, in intention, kindly and helpful. He hovered on the edge of a society that was never going to find room for him, that could only laugh at his eager awkwardness, if it bothered to pay attention to him at all. He was the last bourgeois perhaps, the ordinary man as outsider.

He first appeared in the film I have just mentioned, then in Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967) and Traffic (1971). You can see all of these, and more of Jacques Tati’s work, in a magnificent new Criterion set; and a new print of Playtime is showing at the BFI as part of a Tati retrospective. They wear well, these films. Or rather, they don’t wear, they grow. Everyone agrees that Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is the classic, but Jour de Fête (1949) now seems even funnier than I remembered it; and Playtime, unsuccessful on its release and the work that ruined Tati financially, has turned into a critics’ favourite. It’s probably a little too diffuse to become a greatly loved film, but its last hour is spectacular, something like a version of Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro (1960) made with Tati’s incomparable, meticulous patience.

Jour de Fête, Tati’s first full-length feature film, doesn’t call on the not yet invented Monsieur Hulot. Tati here – a lower-class, uniformed, moustached forerunner of the rather dapper Hulot – is François, the postman in a small French village. He gets into all kinds of scrapes on the national holiday of the movie’s title, but the heart of the film is his virtuoso relation to his bike. Every bike gag you ever thought of is here, and quite a few more. François parks by a fence, and mounts the fence by mistake, pedalling away at thin air. His bike gets caught on the barrier of a railway crossing and is lifted out of his sight when the train has passed. In one extraordinary sequence his bike escapes him, like the magic of the sorcerer’s apprentice, and takes off for a trip of its own through the village and down a few country lanes. François races vainly after it. Then he has an idea. He can outwit the bike by taking a short cut over a hill, the bike will have to follow the road round. Yes, he is going to make it, he scrambles down the other side of the hill, the bike is approaching. No, there is a ditch between the hill and the road, just enough to delay François for another minute, to strand him there as the bike sails past.

He rides this machine at incredible speeds, always seeming to be about to fall off, and always, as the great comic figures are, in impeccable control of every risk. Who else could steer the thing and ring its bell with one hand while carrying a fancy iced cake in the other? Miss every obstacle he seems directly headed for? Every obstacle except the one that’s funniest for him to hit, of course: that’s the rule. In one amazing scene François rides drunkenly towards another equally drunk cyclist in a country lane. They weave and wave and wobble – and are bound to hit each other. No, that’s the other movie. Here they narrowly, beautifully miss each other. This is an illustration of Bergson’s theory of laughter but with a subtle emancipating twist. If we are funny when we become mechanical, lose the adaptability that is supposed to characterise us as humans, fail to see the manhole or banana peel we would ordinarily have noticed, Tati suggests that our adaptability is overrated, and that grace and luck exist too. It would be funny if the drunken cyclists crashed. It’s funnier when they don’t; they can always crash another day.

Playtime still feels, at its beginning, like a too heavy satire of the modern world. ‘Modern’ here means tall buildings, lots of glass walls and doors, men in suits and squawking American women. America was always one of Tati’s targets. In Jour de Fête, François sees a supposed documentary about postal services in America – helicopters, daredevils and muscular male beauty contests are part of the story – and decides to speed up his deliveries, to modernise the pace of Old France. A fine series of images shows him on his bike hooked to the back of a small lorry, using its tailgate as his office, stamping and filing letters as he goes. But he rides even faster when he is on his own, easily overtaking a whole batch of racing cyclists.

A lot of the glass jokes in Playtime are very good – people are always mistaking reflections for the actual thing, or crashing into doors they thought weren’t there – and Tati peoples the movie with false Hulots. The real one is there too, but there are several men with coats and hats and socks and lopes resembling his. When they are accosted as Hulot they turn and reveal themselves to be someone else. There’s distant recall here perhaps of the moment in Duck Soup when Chico and Harpo Marx dress up as Groucho, who is already dressed up as himself.

Playtime settles down into the masterpiece it finally is at a very specific moment: the satire vanishes, and you realise the work is not about the folly of advertising and conformity but about the way we enthusiastically build worlds we can’t live in – and live in them. Hulot meets an old army friend on the street. The friend invites him into his brand-new flat for a drink, and we witness the whole thing from outside. The flat is on the ground floor and the living room has a vast picture window, as if domestic life were a department store display. Hulot greets the man’s wife and daughter, and takes his leave when they are all set to show him a home movie. The film we are watching is a silent one at this point because of the glass, or silent as far as its action is concerned: we can hear the buses and cars on the street. Then the camera moves slightly to the right, showing the next picture-window flat, different people, similar scene. After a while the camera lifts to show the flats on the next floor, and we now see four pretty much identical apartments (and scenes) at once. The effect is of a split screen, four separate shots combined. But the screen isn’t split, this is rectangular, quadruplicated city life. Why are the people so happy here? Why aren’t they screaming, as Philip Larkin might say. For good measure – or for whatever measure we saw with the cyclists’ escape from disaster – one of the inhabitants of one of the flats turns out to be the man Hulot has been trying all day to see in his glassy office. Now he meets him on the street when the man walks his dog, and they have the conversation they have been failing to have.

The whole brilliant last hour of Playtime rests on a gag borrowed from Jour de Fête. Tati has simultaneously multiplied Hulot and taken him from the centre of the scene, but also remembered the world of François the postman. In Jour de Fête the owner of the village café has had the seats of his place painted, and the running joke is that they are not dry yet. Victim after victim sits on them. In Playtime a fancy Paris restaurant is opening, welcoming its very first guests. The maître d’hôtel approaches the recently seated firstcomers, walking across the small dance floor to reach them. A sticky, flapping noise accompanies him by the time he gets to the table. One of the tiles of the dance surface was loosely glued and is now attached to the sole of his shoe. He retires as gracefully as he can to take the thing off. This effect is repeated, at discreet intervals, in almost every imaginable way. The waiters’ clothes tear on the sharp-edged designer chairs, the serving-hatch from the kitchen is too small, the coat-check girl is still doing her hair, the air-conditioning doesn’t work, and Hulot, continuing a motif, shatters a glass door by walking into it. After this – shades of Duck Soup again, a mirror scene this time – the doorman simply holds the large round golden door handle in the place where it was, and moves it backwards and forwards when guests arrive, as if the glass were there. Only a drunk walks through the absent door-space.

There are plenty of pompous and boring diners being fed or failing to be fed here, and Tati’s view of well-heeled France is not affectionate. But most people are having a wonderful, anarchic time. They haven’t created the disorder or wanted things to go wrong; but they certainly enjoy the disorder more than they would have enjoyed a high-toned propriety, and their gaiety suggests, finally, that whatever is fun is right.

The film ends, to cheery dance music, on a traffic jam at a roundabout. The cars, buses and lorries scarcely move, but families board taxis, carry packages, jokes are exchanged, streets are cleaned, men and women go back to work. The roundabout, seen from above, irresistibly evokes a … roundabout, a carousel. This is a new day, everyone has survived the wreckage of the night, life goes on, or at least turns in slow circles. It doesn’t change much, even if it’s full of ghastly, dysfunctional inventions. But it doesn’t let us down, Playtime implies. For every crash there’s a near-miss. For every failed ceremony there’s a party.

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