Charlie Chaplin had already starred in 41 films before he became an icon, universally recognisable by his appearance, mannerisms and pattern of behaviour. A lot happens in these films, mostly having to do with the hero’s pursuit of basic needs (food, money, sex, status) through the exercise of a kind of flighty, Zen belligerence. In Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), a cameraman’s efforts to film the proceedings attract the attention of a passer-by dressed in an ill-fitting hat, jacket, trousers and shoes. A moustache adds a fleck of maturity to his youthful features, and a cane a bit of panache. The icon had been sketched. A year later, The Tramp, Chaplin’s 42nd film, filled out the silhouette. The Tramp’s rescue of blonde, pensive Edna Purviance from a gang of hoodlums results in a brief spell of employment and the promise of romance before her fiancé shows up. But there’s a further twist. As a dejected Charlie beats a melancholy retreat down the road, his disappointment bottoms out. A skip punctuates the trademark waddle, followed by a twirl of the cane. It was the combination of quicksilver lèse-majesté with a tug at the heartstrings that drew audiences worldwide into the ebb and flow of the Little Man’s campaign against oppression and neglect.
In the decades after the Second World War, another supremely accomplished mime artist with a lively sense of the possibilities of film emerged as a plausible successor to the Tramp. Jacques Tati, born in 1907 and raised in one of Paris’s grandest suburbs, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, had by then broken sufficiently with family tradition to establish himself on the European music hall circuit, where he specialised in sporting impressions. Colette, who saw him perform in 1936, wrote admiringly of his centaur-like ability to play the parts at once of cyclist and cycle, tennis player and racket. But Tati understood, as he approached forty, that success on the stage was not going to be enough, in the long term, to satisfy the requirements either of a young family or of his own considerable ambition. Why shouldn’t the next Charlot be French? After all, Chaplin’s dandyish sangfroid owed a good deal to the first great French screen comedian, Max Linder, who replaced him at the Essanay film company in 1916 and went on to make several Hollywood features. Linder’s spoof of The Three Musketeers, The Three Must-Get-Theres (1922), supplied the perfect Gallic riposte to Chaplin’s belligerent charm. Dart-In-Again’s foes encircle him, rapiers poised for the kill; as they lunge, he ducks, so that they impale each other symmetrically, leaving him to step out of the neat ring of corpses as if signing off on a Symbolist poem. Chaplin, at any rate, was the filmmaker whose example – though not his comic technique – Tati sought to emulate.
After a largely uneventful war, Tati began to make contacts in a French film industry struggling to reassert itself against Hollywood’s now much enhanced global hegemony. In 1946, he got lucky. Fred Orain, a young engineer who had run the only major film facility in the non-occupied zone of France, and overseen the production of Marcel Carné’s epic Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), liked Tati’s idea for a series of comedy shorts. The two men set up Cady-Films, named after Orain’s dog. Their first feature, Jour de fête (1949), is about the visit of a travelling fair to the small town of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, located at the heart of the mythical territory of la France profonde. A cinema booth set up in the main square shows, as well as a Hollywood Western, a documentary on the ultra-efficient US postal system, which inspires François, the town’s gullible, accident-prone postman, to try to speed up his delivery round. The predictably disastrous consequences include a brush with two American military policemen in a jeep and a culminating headlong plunge into a river. François, the scapegoat for modernisation, is too indeterminate a character to inject much zest into a feeble allegory. In his excellent critical biography of Tati, published in 1999, David Bellos points out that less than three years before he began shooting the film (in May 1947) the Gestapo still had an office on the main square of Sainte-Sévère. And now American movies and military policemen are the problem?
Many of the best scenes in Jour de fête are a homage to Buster Keaton, who had developed a technique unfamiliar, for the most part, to allegorists and slapstick comedians alike: rigorous understatement. The protagonist of The General (1926), seated side-saddle on a locomotive’s coupling rod, is too caught up in his own woes to notice that he has begun to rise and fall rhythmically as the wheels ease into motion. The scene makes a gentle point about the perils of self-absorption with a minimum of fuss. From the start, Tati knew how to understate. François decides to freshen up between rounds by taking advantage of the facilities in the town’s Bureau de Poste. The washroom is an annexe to the main office, where his unreconstructed colleagues are at work. A barrage of noise is soon identified as a plumbing malfunction on the floor above. François clatters up and down the stairs. There is a sound of glass shattering. François appears carrying a broom. He stands the broom on tiptoe on its own bristles in the centre of the office, and then retires. For a second or two, the broom remains bolt upright, a janitorial exclamation mark. François emerges once more to reclaim it, and so completes the enigmatic pas de deux. His little dance of self-exculpation, so graceful in its redundancy, is all the confirmation we need that he’s not cut out to be an apostle of progress.
Chaplin operated within a factory system and once he’d perfected his formula he stuck with it. Tati, part-owner of Cady-Films and determined to remain an independent producer, chose to think his way from film to film at his own pace, or rather at the pace permitted by a series of seat-of-the-pants funding schemes. Again, luck was on his side. Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953) hit the slapstick jackpot. Unlike the busy postman François, Monsieur Hulot would only ever be truly in his element while en vacances: that is, at once on holiday and in a state of vacancy, or obliviousness. The film’s credits roll over images of sea and sand intended to evoke, as the script puts it, the ‘irresistible attraction of the bathing in prospect’ (‘du bain possible’). But we’re not there yet. The great postwar bourgeois institution of the select seaside holiday depended for its allure on its remoteness. First came the protracted ordeal of ‘getting away’: a sequence of episodes of I Spy burnout, escalating travel sickness and navigational trauma that must surely have had some part to play in the invention of the Tardis in Dr Who ten years later. Tati deftly sketches in mass departure by train, bus and car. There’s a superbly choreographed mêlée at a railway junction, as an incomprehensible loudspeaker announcement sends a scrum of bewildered families scurrying from one platform to another and back again, while trains arrive and depart regardless. Then we’re in the back seat of a family saloon, with the window wound down, as the resort of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer sweeps into view and two small boys inhale a first glimpse of sand and sea. I wasn’t much older than them when I first saw Mr Hulot’s Holiday on its rerelease in February 1962. (‘The funniest film of all,’ the posters outside the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square declared.) My own experience of being got away, by car from London to Cwm-yr-Eglwys on the north Pembrokeshire coast, at least found some relief towards its conclusion in the spectacle of the Port Talbot steelworks, a lattice of towers and gantries backlit by sunset and threaded through with plumes of steam. But I knew exactly how they felt.
Hulot is a sound before he is an image: the sputter of his decrepit 1924 Salmson AL3, a car from the heroic age of motoring, which continues bizarrely even after the engine has been switched off. Like Charlie in Kid Auto Races, he begins as a silhouette; a reverse-Tramp, some have said. A tall man, and straight-backed, he leans forward from the ankles, his defiance of gravity accentuated by a jutting pipe. His elbows splay backwards. Where the Tramp waddles, Hulot favours a bouncy glide on the balls of his feet. He habitually wears a soft hat, an overcoat, trousers a couple of inches too short in the leg. He is not an outsider, as is generally assumed. Courteous and considerate, he is always willing to lend a hand; his offers of help are rarely declined. If anything, he makes too much use of the hotel’s facilities (gramophone, ping-pong table, tennis court) rather than too little. Hulot en vacances is in his element, as thoroughly at home as the children who observe him with fascination and who constitute his natural allies.
But this is not a children’s film. Cahiers du cinéma, founded in 1951, welcomed Tati with open arms; Les Vacances featured on its front cover in April 1953. In the January 1954 issue, François Truffaut, whose Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) was shortly to launch the Nouvelle Vague, published an incendiary article denouncing mainstream French cinema, with its ‘tradition of quality’, for its over-reliance on literary adaptation and tame psychological realism. As an example of the more adventurous filmmaking that had begun to take shape outside the mainstream, Truffaut cited ‘la démarche de Hulot’: that is, both the distinctive gait of the film’s protagonist and the attitude or approach it might be thought to express.
Among the first to realise that something remarkable had happened between Jour de fête and Les Vacances was the poet and cinephile Geneviève Agel. In Hulot parmi nous, a brilliant little book first published in 1955, Agel sought to define this new ‘personnage’ as a rival to, and in some respects an improvement on, Chaplin’s Tramp. Charlot, permanently installed as the sole focus of attention, performs; Hulot bears witness. What’s more, the witness he bears is often painful. As a way of establishing Tati’s difference from Chaplin as a filmmaker, Agel compared him instead to Vittorio De Sica, the Italian Neorealist director of achingly observant films about living on the breadline, such as Ladri di biciclette (1948) and Umberto D. (1952). To be sure, Hulot has a lot less to worry about than frail, dog-dependent and ultimately homeless Umberto D. But his week’s holiday does involve rather more than its fair share of humiliations, not least during the course of a shy flirtation with Martine, the belle of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer. After a surprise triumph over one of his main rivals on the tennis court, Hulot, with a spring in his step, conducts Martine to the gate of her villa. Turning up the path, she kicks her leg backwards at him in what he proudly supposes is a gesture of affection, or more than affection. After he has departed, she repeats the gesture. She was simply scraping a piece of brick off the path. This is one of several occasions on which, as Agel notes, Hulot’s actions and reactions provoke in us a kind of ‘rire jaune’, or forced laughter. It’s hard to imagine Chaplin wanting to coerce laughter.
Hulot en vacances, oblivious for the duration, is steeped in contingency. Mishap and misunderstanding do not so much accompany him at every step as prepare the ground – or the lack of it – on which he is about to tread. The completeness of this immersion, while scandalous to the staff and guests at the hotel, quarantined against mishap, is exhilarating to children of any age who understand that the pleasures of holidaymaking begin in excess. Mishap, however, can prove adhesive. The stain it leaves on Hulot is a guilt bearing little or no relation to the degree of his actual responsibility for whatever has happened. It could very well have been his fault, he tends to suppose, even when he knows it wasn’t. At one point in Les Vacances, the sound of abrupt mechanical failure interrupts a placid shot of two women seated on the sand. The camera pans out to locate the source of the commotion in a rapidly unwinding winch. A boat attached to the winch slides down the slope into the sea, unseating its occupant. The search for a culprit begins. Hulot, caught in the vicinity, towels himself vigorously, as though he had just returned from a bathe. We can see that he’s not at all wet; he is, in fact, inadvertently towelling the metal pole against which he leans, rather than his own back. Gripped by blind panic, he makes himself scarce. There’s no evidence to suggest he ever touched the winch. But the key to Hulot is that he is at once oblivious and shifty. The flaps he gets into are testimony to the mortifying mischief released into the atmosphere by each flare-up of our inexpungeable relation to existence. André Bazin put it more ambitiously: Tati, he said, had raised Hulot’s characteristic démarche to the level of an ‘ontological principle’. That would make mishap the stain of being itself.
Les Vacances was a huge critical and commercial success, grossing twice what it had cost to make. Tati became an international celebrity. But success created its own problems. Tati and Orain, who had never been close, fell out over the division of the spoils. The resulting court case was the catalyst for a series of business disasters that culminated in his bankruptcy. Tati saw the figure of Hulot as an obstacle to the new kind of comedy he wished to create; he imagined himself as an auteur in the Cahiers tradition, a filmmaker for whom the camera was a pen, or more plausibly, in his case, a paintbrush. Charlot had made things happen. For Hulot, the reverse is true: things happen to him. But Tati reckoned that audiences could be made to appreciate Hulot’s susceptibility to chaos as a universal birthright. We’re all in the same boat sliding inexorably down a slope into the sea: never mind how the winch came unstuck. The multitude of gags generated by this new, more democratic kind of comedy would require production design of a scope and complexity well beyond anything he had hitherto had to contemplate. The industry did not intend to fund these projects unless they could be guaranteed to include Hulot.
So Hulot had to turn out again, in three further films: Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967) and Trafic (1971). Now in occasional or indeterminate employment, he drifts through a succession of studio-built domestic and working environments: bijou residence, plastics factory, airport, corporate HQ, high-end restaurant, motorway, exhibition hall. People try to find him a steady job (Mon Oncle), or arrange for a meeting (Playtime), or enlist his services in delivering a prototype camper van to an international motor show (Trafic). These environments provide the scope for human-machine entanglements on the scale of the factory scene in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), a film influential enough in France to have given its name to Les Temps modernes, the heavyweight journal founded in 1945 by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Jour de fête’s American movies and military policemen have been replaced as emblems of modernity by a whole array (or system) of identikit structures and institutions. Playtime required the construction, at vast expense, of an entire city – Tativille – on wasteland near the Bois de Vincennes. Charlot, a compound of abstractions, had always been the anvil on which Chaplin could beat out allegory whenever he needed to. Hulot, by contrast, became less and less distinct as Tati’s ambitions ramified. The new kind of comedy had somehow to be the comedy of an environment and its many and variously motivated users.
In his new book, Malcolm Turvey takes this particular bull by the horns, proposing that Tati’s films should be regarded as a form of ‘comedic modernism’. We are accustomed to thinking of the international movements of the postwar period, from Neorealism through to the Nouvelle Vague and beyond, as ‘modernist’ in their dedication to experiment and critique: a dedication which recalls, and in some cases explicitly recovers, earlier initiatives such as German Expressionism or Soviet montage cinema. Turvey, however, has something at once broader and more specific in mind than affiliation to a movement, a fate from which Tati’s instant success at the box office had in any case spared him. In his view, Tati set out to ‘modernise’ the mainstream tradition of comedian-centred comedy by devoting unprecedented attention to the hermeneutics of the gag. The comedy of environment would be the comedy of how we figure out what the hell is going on in a teeming universe populated for the most part by people who aren’t Hulot, but in some cases look a lot like him. The characteristic Tati gag is in effect a joke about interpretation.
Someone in a film mistakes one thing for another (the flexing of a leg, say, for a come-on). If the mistake is to raise a laugh, it has to be revealed as such either to the unfortunate perpetrator, or to someone else in the film, or to the viewer. Traditional comedian-centred slapstick comedy relied heavily on the second type of gag, establishing a firm distinction between those who are in on the joke and those who aren’t. Tati chose instead to develop the third type to ever higher levels of complexity. He wanted to oblige the viewer to undertake the labour of interpretation. For him, the sequence of actions, gestures and sound constituting a gag was raw material to be worked and reworked into ever more subtle patterns: by the elision or concealment of a crucial element or stage, for example; or by delaying the outcome, so that one sequence interweaves with or interpenetrates another, the comedy then residing in the relation between them. Tati preferred whenever possible to disconnect the slap from the stick. Turvey provides a sharply observant account of the scope and function of the more ‘cognitively challenging’ of these comic devices in Tati’s major films. It’s worth noting that the modernism he plausibly attributes to Tati is pretty hardcore. The purpose of these films, he argues, is to ‘tutor’ us in the skills required to ‘discern the comedy of everyday life in the real world’. Their slapstick routines ‘prod’ the viewer to seek out and disentangle ‘comic meaning’ and foster a more ‘active mode of vision’. And there’s enough in Tati’s public statements to suggest that he meant it that way.
Should we require further evidence of his intentions, we now have from Taschen a sumptuous five-volume box set edited by Alison Castle, which contains stills, scripts, interviews, autobiographical fragments and helpful introductions to each of the films. The scripts, in particular, make it clear that Tati’s methods left no room at all for improvisation. He planned in advance every gag’s last twist and turn. Sometimes a gag that didn’t work in one film was held over for use in another. The box set also includes a volume of informative essays about his characteristic themes (architecture, transport, objects, doubles) and aspects of his style. But the biggest treat it has to offer is the fabulous array of stills, which reveal just how painterly a filmmaker Tati was. My only reservation concerns the missed opportunity to do justice to Monsieur Hulot’s startling emergence as a rival to the Tramp. It would have been useful, for example, to be able to track Tati’s appearances in Cahiers from the 1953 front cover to the final interview in 1979, in which he spoke of Playtime as abstract art. And why include substantial excerpts from Penelope Gilliatt’s amiable but insipid 1976 biography rather than from Agel’s still thought-provoking Hulot parmi nous?
The early criticism reminds us that much was lost as well as gained in Tati’s elaboration of a comedy of environment. Truffaut, always a staunch advocate, nonetheless thought that in Mon Oncle Tati had tried too hard to emulate the allegorical scope of Modern Times. Mon Oncle opposes the ‘world of twenty years hence’ (brand new, gadget-infested home and factory) to the ‘world of twenty years ago’ (the ramshackle working-class district in which Hulot has an apartment and where stray dogs outnumber gadgets). The sequences set in the world of twenty years hence are ‘annoyingly over-insistent’, Truffaut noted: ‘The ultra-modern kitchen is funny the first time, somewhat less so the second, not at all the third.’ What he objected to, in effect, was Tati’s modernism: the determination to squeeze every last drop of cognitive challenge out of the expensive sets. The inevitable outcome of that inflexible ‘aesthetic position’, Truffaut concluded, was an ‘obsessive world view’: ‘We admire one sequence and suffer through another; the repetitions grate.’ An over-insistent modernism merely generates meta-allegory, playing our slowness on the uptake back to us as evidence of how far we have sunk into passivity and sloth. Playtime, the ultimate comedy of environment, begins in what looks remarkably like a hospital, but is in fact an airport. In modern times, it’s all too easy – until undeceived by a change of camera angle – to mistake one building-type for another. It’s a neat joke, perceptively analysed by both Bellos and Turvey. But a whole film made up of such undeceptions? Tati should have listened to Truffaut.
When Mon Oncle won the Academy Award for best foreign film in April 1959, Tati used the visit to Los Angeles as an opportunity to spend time with some of the legendary comedians who had inspired him: Mack Sennett, Harold Lloyd and Keaton. The debt he owed to Keaton, for whom the hermeneutics of the gag was just one strategy among several, remains clear, even in the late, over-insistent films. Keaton had known exactly what to do with the ultra-modern kitchen, by means of rigorous understatement, in The Scarecrow (1920). When he bought a decommissioned US army transport ship to use as the main set of The Navigator (1924), he did so primarily in order to explore the distinctive spaces its structure afforded. He set it adrift in the Pacific, crewed by a pair of hapless socialites. The beautiful inconsequence of the scene in which hero and heroine pursue each other at full tilt around its upper decks without ever quite coinciding offers its own commentary on where obliviousness will get you: a not unexciting place, as it happens. Equally magical is the panoramic shot, early on in Trafic, of the vast exhibition hall in Amsterdam where the motor show will take place. Men in dark suits mill around in the centre of the hall, stepping with awkward, bird-like precision over wires stretched at ankle level to delineate the area of floor space each stand will occupy. ‘They give the impression,’ the script says, ‘of a strange ballet.’ Hulot is absent from the scene. So was Tati, in fact; he left it to his Dutch co-director, Bert Haanstra. But the script includes a further sequence, subsequently cut, in which a man in a dark suit measures the dimensions of the camper van stand with lengthy strides reminiscent of Hulot’s characteristic walk. Hulot could have been there, as his own ghost, oblivious and shifty to the very end.