Thoreau maintained that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Tati would claim that most men and women lead lives of quiet exasperation or habitual confusion. Various critics have seen his comedy as basically Russian (Slavic fatalism?) or English (understatement?). It cannot be adequately explained or assessed in such nationalistic terms. One might as well label it Gallic simply because Tati was French. It is, perhaps, most felicitous to see his Monsieur Hulot character as a kind of Everyman in a chaotic world which is committed to postures of order and stability. Not that Hulot sees the truth of things beneath the surface. His creator does, or he wouldn’t have been able to make the films for which he is renowned. Hulot observes without comment. He is the innocent bystander caught up in everyday complications, an anti-hero who does not mock the conventions with which he comes into conflict because he is neither sceptic nor cynic.
People are not funny when they are trying to be funny. Tati does not laugh at himself. M. Hulot remains unaware of his absurdities. As Penelope Gilliatt observed in a profile of Tati, he shows that the absurd lies not in the film universe but in the consciousness of the spectator. “His gags are never one-liners detached from character, however much the characters are detached from one another. The tail of each gag follows the original burst of life, like a comet.”
Tati places the camera behind the incoming party and facing the outcoming one. The humour of this scene cannot be explained verbally because it is essentially visual. This is true of any Tati film. What seems inconsequential in print becomes on the screen an illuminating view of human nature. It is hard to imagine Tati working from a screenplay when what appears on the screen seems so spontaneous.
Tati’s sense of the ridiculous transforms a matter-of-fact, anonymous world into a repository of comic juxtapositions. The screenplays are all around us, all the time, if only we had the wit and sagacity, the inner vision and enough sense of the ridiculous to observe them. Jacques Tati does so for us. One can see a Tati film any number of times and each time discover fresh perspective and incidentals.
Jacques Tati's Playtime screens on Saturday and Sunday, October 9th & 10th, at 15.35.