Jacques Tati is a chess master of modern film comedy, a creator of complex comic structures in which gag constructions and audience expectations become pawns on his cinematic board. The recurring figure in these games is Monsieur Hulot (played by the director), a blank-faced comic cipher garbed in a crumbled raincoat and ill-fitting trousers, an ever-present pipe muffling any words he may say, an umbrella clutched in indecisive hands. His determinedly irresolute stride across Tati's expansive canvases is the unlikely spark that sets the comic machinery afire. On the basis of a mere four features ("Mr. Hulot's Holiday" 1953; "Mon Oncle" 1958; "Playtime" 1967; and "Traffic" 1971) over a 20-year period, Tati managed to reshape slapstick comedy, turning it into an intellectual parlor game.
Tati began performing in French music halls and cafes as a pantomimist and impersonator. In 1931, he filmed a comedy short, "Oscar, Champion de Tennis," but it was never completed. Following were a number of short films which anticipated his later features in their use of natural and mechanical sounds--"On Demande une brute" (1934), "Gai dimanche" (1935), and "Soigne ton gauche" (1936). After WWII, Tati appeared in the features "Sylvie et le Fantome" (1945) and "Le Diable au corps" (1946). In his short film, "L'Ecole de facteurs" (1947), Tati created the character of Francois the postman, a character he would play himself in his first self-directed feature, "Jour de Fete" (1948). "Jour" used the riffing gag structure Tati would explore more fully in his later features, plus creative sound as a source for gags.
Unhappy with the Francois character, Tati sought a persona with a more universal appeal. With Monsieur Hulot, Tati found his cosmic archetype: a zero who creates comic anarchy in his wake. In "Mr. Hulot's Holiday", Tati applies Hulot to the gag structures of "Jour de Fete." "Mon Oncle" deals with the tension between Hulot's old world sensibilities and the new world of modern mechanization and consumerism. "Playtime", Tati's masterpiece, released in 70mm and stereophonic sound, examines the disappearance of humanity within the maze-like confines of post-industrial society. "Trafic" portrays the anthropomorphism of automobiles and the mechanization of human beings.
Tati's cold, crisp examinations are a result of his re-inventing film comedy structures. Hulot has no purpose except to ignite the gag machinery. He is never the center of a gag sequence and frequently disappears from the gag situation once the perpetual motion machine takes hold. (In one sequence in "Playtime," Hulot appears merely as a reflection in a glass window.) Once the gag machinery begins, Tati subverts the punchline by either delaying it or ignoring it altogether. The result creates a tension for audience expectations: will the punchline continue to be prolonged or simply demolished? Tati does not allow his audience to identify with the main character in the scene; as a result, the subject of the shot becomes everything that appears within the frame. A Tati film is characterized by a tangled texture (especially on his densely packed soundtracks) that requires many viewings to unravel.
This complexity was Tati's commercial undoing; because of the prolonged preparations required to plan his films, Tati lost his audience. The nine-year gap between "Mon Oncle" and "Playtime" crippled the momentum of his career, and after the extravagances of "Playtime," Tati never recovered financially. When "Trafic" was released, it seemed a throwback to his films before "Playtime" and was a financial failure. In 1974, Tati released his final film, "Parade," a low-budget celebration of pantomime recalling his shorts from the thirties.
Although Tati influenced filmmakers as diverse as Jerry Lewis and Robert Altman, his career seems in a way to be both the beginning and the end of a comic tradition. Nevertheless, Tati's structural experiments did breathe life for a time into a moribund form.