The Overlooked Cinematographic Brilliance of Jacques Tati

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Jacques Tati's Playtime 1967 Office cubiclesThe release of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in ‘glorious’ 70mm has triggered a new interest in why directors use the aspect ratios and formats they do. The history of 70mm is well known for epics like Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and Cleopatra, but a director less frequently associated with format is Jacques Tati. And yet there is an interesting story behind exactly why he chose to shoot his films the way he did – above all in his classic Playtime.

It is probably comedy and maybe socks which come to mind first when people think of Tati. Not normally cinematography of directorial technique anyway. It’s a shame to ignore what he does with a camera and also a shame to concentrate on the comedy, not least because it’s not particularly funny – watching an unfathomably stupid man repeatedly getting stuck in a bush isn’t as funny as it undoubtedly was in the 50s – Whilst this is a bit simplistic, it is really the messages behind Tati’s jokes that are of interest, most of the actual humour can probably be consigned to the Del-Boy-falling-through-the-bar category.

Jacques Tati Trafic 1971

Trafic (1971)

There is, instead, considerably more joy to be had in observing the peripheries of Tati’s films. Playtime in particular, but also Trafic and Mon Oncle, has so much crammed into an average shot that the eye simply can’t take it all in, and it deserves to be watched and re-watched because it’s all very deliberate. It was shot on 70mm for widescreen, but instead of abiding by the rules of cinema and allowing for empty space or distance to save the eye having to trace across the huge shots, Tati often packs all the action in together.

Whether this was an error of filmmaking or an unorthodox masterstroke is up for debate, but it certainly makes Playtime feel chaotic and stressful. But try it again and again, and in the busier scenes you’ll start to find a new, neatly choreographic gag in the far corner of a shot. What was at first chaos slowly turns into a thoroughly enjoyable balletic clutter.

It’s the Where’s Wally of cinematic humour. As David Cairns explains in a considered essay on the subtlety of Tati’s humour: ‘An inattentive viewer could miss all the comedy in Playtime or Trafic, because it is distant, tucked away in the edges of the frame, and often quite oblique.’

Some of this was derived from Tati’s perfectionism. He demanded that one of the more complicated scenes in Playtime be reshot due to a minor continuity error with a waiter’s underwear. Although this was probably intended to show the cast that every nook of every shot is to be observed, it also tells you something about Tati as a director. David Bellos, his best respected biographer, explains this attitude in a story of Tati as an apprentice framer for his grandfather’s framing businesses, where, after painstakingly gilding an elaborate frame, his grandfather ordered Tati to take it apart and do it again as it was too good and drew attention away from the painting.

The visual beauty and perfectionism of Tati’s films cannot, however, be solely attributed to him as the all-pervading auteur. The painter Jacques Lagrange designed the beautiful house in Mon Oncle, for example. It was intended as a poke at suburban socialite pseuds and a satire of the linear international style of architecture in the 1920s and 1930s. Despite its intentions it’s still a crisp, clean, pastel dream with luminescent colours sparingly painted into the frame, not in order to beatify it but to direct the audience’s attention. This was a brilliant achievement on Tati’s first real colour film, and a detail which sticks in the mind far more than when Hulot drops something, falls over something, walks into something etc…

Jacques Tati Mon Oncle houses 1958

Houses built for Mon Oncle (1958)

The set of Playtime retained much of this beauty but was something altogether more epic. Designed by the architect Eugene Roman, it was so comprehensive that, as costs started to soar, a realistic alternative was suggested that it would literally be cheaper to build an entire town and just sell the buildings afterwards. Tati refused as he wanted to leave the grand set to the French film industry as part of his legacy. A noble, if ultimately stupid, gesture as the film pretty much bankrupted Tati.

That is not to say that it was not money well spent! The effect this attention to detail has is to create a completely engrossing world which is both familiar in the way that people interact, but alien in that you are watching these interaction happen collectively – as if on CCTV. This is an effect that remains, even if the comedy of the individual puns has long since evaporated.

In the same way, it is the absence of the time and attention paid to set design and the space around the edges of the frame that makes Trafic a far less enjoyable film. This was due in no small part to the fraught filming process, which took place over several separate installments, often without Tati’s oversight. The fragmentation is evident in a film that offers little in design and theme. Trafic feels far less meticulous too. Where Tati apparently obsessed over the underwear of a marginal extra in a scene in Playtime, he was happy in Trafic to allow for continuity errors and an overall lack of coherence in comparison to Mon Oncle or Playtime.

Jacques Tati Play Time 1967 traffic jam

Playtime (1967)

Roger Ebert put it well on what makes Tati’s technique great when he wrote: ‘Jacques Tati is the great philosophical tinkerer of comedy, taking meticulous care to arrange his films so that they unfold in a series of revelations and effortless delights.’ It is exactly the way that a repeated ‘series’ of apparently random events collide to produce something neat and coincidental. It ‘delights’, as Ebert says, and so makes us laughs. It is not dissimilar from the way mathematicians explain how certain equations can be beautiful and have a profound impact on them; it’s the creation of order from chaos that hits on something quite fundamental in everyone.

Taken to an extreme, you could even say that Tati’s films are more about the setting than the jokes and interactions within them. His films are a rough progression from the traditional rural values of Vichy France in Jour de Fete and Les Vacances, to the transitional struggles of postwar, bourgeois suburbia in Mon Oncle and through to the crushing anonymity of modern France in Playtime and Trafic. Although making a reluctant reappearance in Trafic, Tati’s lead protagonist has almost disappeared by Playtime and indeed is even replicated as many false-Hulots. He is, ultimately, swallowed by the confusing and stifling environment of the modern world as seen by the buildings, roads, cars and fields which surround him.

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Part-time film writer and maker. Enjoys Mark Cousins’ voice, Mark Kermode’s hands and Lindsay Anderson’s If.

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