This morning, jolted up at 6:00 a.m. by a loud drone from above, I threw open the shutter and looked up to what I thought was the noise's point of origin, only to see the glowing crescent of the moon in a dark dawn sky. I squinted at it for a long minute, imagining the moon to be emitting the sound. Then, upon further examination, I noticed a low-hanging helicopter hovering to its left.
Jacques Tati would have gotten a kick out of this misread noise cue--this momentary blur of nature and modernity, this powerless bafflement. The French filmmaker spent his career exploring the glitches in mechanized modern life as well as pondering the absurdity of bourgeois order. For him, that surveillance helicopter would have probably implied too much fascist intention, though. In a Tati setup, the helicopter would be a rumbling crane, constructing a skyscraper slated to block the moon from view. For him, encroaching menace was always the agentless creep of cold progress. Though he's certainly a humorist, there's also real sadness to Tati's focus on the pathetic actions of humans who design their own ritual prisons.
Ironically, though Tati was a critic of modern rigidity, his movies are meticulous affairs, their sight and sound gags choreographed with machinelike precision. Tati's Monsieur Hulot is often compared to the creations of comic absurdists such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But that comparison prompts unfair expectations of clowning. Though Hulot's silence is patterned on these pre-talkie models, Tati's raincoat-clad everyman is less a charisma bomb than a shy, sympathetic nonentity. His situations are less funny than they are illustrative of the limits of awareness. To be sure, the drab misfit Hulot is a klutz. His actions indicate a halfhearted attempt to toe the societal line, as in his continual attempts to perform jobs that the culture will value. But unlike chattier Hulot-inspired characters--Peter Sellers's arrogant Inspector Clouseau, the prankish outcast Pee-wee Herman--Hulot is enough of a self to really get himself off.
From his films, one gets the sense that Tati placed little faith in conversation and declarative speech. Sounds from human mouths tend to be a multi-tracked mix of misunderstood directions or overripe pleasantries. Certain phrases break out of the din only to distinguish their banality. And, as in The Triplets of Belleville, which bears elements of Tati homage, repeated musical themes routinely crowd out talk. In this swirl of leaderless babble, other sounds emerge as more fascinating than human language: doors, elevator bells, footfalls, breaking glass, faulty neon, squeaky shoes, sharp heels, decompressed chair vinyl. Hulot sometimes seems to exist only to help objects make their rightful noises.
The Hulot character, who first showed up in Tati's 1953 dissection of seaside frivolity, M. Hulot's Holiday, bumbling among Parisian beach-goers, ruffling their newspapers by opening doors, and tripping through their favorite sports, reappeared four years later in the vivid Mon Oncle (the Criterion DVD of which, along with that of Holiday, features a rhapsodic intro by Terry Jones). In Mon Oncle's poignant portrayal of insignificance, a jobless Hulot functions as absentminded babysitter to his nephew--a familial setup that highlights the split between the old Paris of Hulot's quaint neighborhood and the hilarious, contraption-filled modern tableau of his sister's prisonlike suburban compound. Hulot dodders around the malfunctioning fountains and bleeping appliances until, with Hobbesian cruelty, he is exiled to the provinces by his sister's bureaucrat hubby. Mon Oncle's devastating final scene finds him swallowed in an airport stampede as his nephew and brother-in-law chuckle at the misfortunes of others.
The Paris of Tati's Playtime suggests a world swallowed whole by the futuristic house in Mon Oncle. This is the film's only plot, and, in service to it, Tati indulges his tendency for ensemble shots at middle range; the film's star is simply the hum of urban living. Nine years in the making, Playtime is the film that financially ruined Tati, though many consider it his masterpiece. Again we're following people on holiday--this time a busload of female American tourists who ogle in their fussy flower hats various souvenirs of picturesque Paris amid the international style concrete and glass that's replaced it. In fact, they only experience the monuments of the old city--the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe--as reflections in swinging mirrored doors.
The studio cityscape elaborately created by Tati just outside Paris bore his name. But this Tativille, though futuristic, was no Alphaville: It is not a place of dark intrigue, but a sterile world of scrubbed shoe-clacks and cubicle droning. At times we follow the tourists, and at times a noticeably more ghostly Hulot, until their paths converge at the opening of an upscale nightspot that proceeds to fall apart as jazz blares. Hulot's path detours into a disorienting jaunt through skyscraper culture--culminating in an aching shot of our man on a mezzanine gazing through plate glass at a sea of green cubicles below. (If you've only seen the DVD, the seaweed glow of this shot on the new print is reason enough to head to Oak Street). The skyscraper sequences here, like the endless buzzing-gate gags in Mon Oncle, are an obvious interrogation of public versus private space. The old open world, which in Mon Oncle is happily explored by a free-running bunch of pups, has here become a world of cool lobbies and limited access.
Once Hulot makes his way to the nightclub, the film's last hour is as kinetic an ensemble revel as you'll ever see: Building slowly from snooty foibles into comic chaos, Tati's restaurateurs scramble to prepare for guests who begin arriving before the glue is dry on the dance floor tiles. A parade of fashionable couples and ill-equipped waitrons fills the room and the screen with escalating misunderstandings as the band squeals its cha-chas; things really fall apart with all the requisite snaps, crackles, and pops. Always a sound designer as much as a visual stylist, Tati indulges his onomatopoetic bent--from a burping control panel to exaggerated backslaps to an exploding glass door (which a resourceful doorman simply pretends is still intact).
Intermittently throughout Playtime, passersby mistake others for Hulot. The director himself shows up in functionary roles as a cop and a construction aide, insinuating both that Hulot is a fuzzily recollected cipher and that his identity is so porous it has bled through into the populace. The concluding image, linking the shape of tourist-clutched lilies of the valley to the design of the modern street lamps, hints at nature's defeat--and its tenacity, too.