Plot: What’s it about?
Whenever Criterion decides to release a box set of films it is worth looking into. In the past they have released beautiful box sets of Hitchcock, Kieslowski, and most recently Jacques Demy films. In this case with The Complete Jacques Tati they are actually releasing every single film and short that Tati ever put to celluloid in one seven disk box set. Tati was an acrobat, comedian, writer, producer, director, and star in his own projects. Most famous for his series of films featuring Monsieur Hulot, Tati was a meticulous director hellbent on perfection in both performance and set design. Watching his films, with their abundance of sight gags and Rube Goldberg style machinery, it is easy to get wrapped up in the amount of imagination and hard work he put forth to make his projects. In the following paragraphs I will summarize the films on each disk and my opinion of them. I will leave my final opinion of the box set in the closing notes.
Jour De Fete (Disk 1)
Jour De Fete was the first feature length film by Tati. The story follows a mustachioed postman named Francois (played by Tati himself) that Tati had previously introduced in a short film. In a small provincial town in France a carnival pulls into town. Francois arrives on the scene and is immediately thrown into the task of helping to put up a large tent pole. Upon accomplishing this task Francois gains confidence in himself as a leader, but in reality the town considers him a laughing stock. After a friend shows him a newsreel of the advances that Americans are making in performing their postal routes, Francois takes it upon himself to increase his speed of delivery. In the meantime, the whole town and the carnival workers proceed to get Francois drunk when possible and get a laugh at his expense whenever possible.
This being a Tati film, the plot is paper thin. For Tati it was more about the magic of the surroundings and observing people. For me, this film is pretty good, but not great. You can see a lot of the genius that Tati would cultivate in later efforts, but the film failed to keep me very interested. It’s possible that if I had seen this film first, I may have enjoyed it more, but that was not the case. That said, I am glad to have watched it and more glad that Criterion was kind enough to give us all three (you heard me …three) versions of the film in existence. My final verdict would be that the film is good but nothing compared to his later more accomplished works. As a completist, I do not regret having watched it.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (Disk 2)
After the grand success of Jour Du Fete, Tati took a break before he came back with a film that would pave the way for all of his later films. As you can guess from the title of the film, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday introduced the world to the character of Monsieur Hulot, a nearly silent pipe smoking gentleman who tends to have chaos follow him wherever he goes. Hulot in all of Tati’s films seems to just stumble around and disrupt people around him. He doesn’t seem to have any type of ill intentions, things just seem to happen when he is around. This character is closer to the lineage of silent film than that of the talkative French films I am used to. The interesting part is that, while this character is almost exclusively silent, the world around him is full of noise and sound plays a major role in each of Tati’s films.
The premise of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is simple: Hulot takes a holiday at a French beach resort. Hulot’s behavior unnerves almost all of those around him as he plays music loudly, engages in tennis and ping pong, goes to the beach, lights fireworks, and takes a leisurely drive (that ends disastrously.)
Like any Tati film, there are a tremendous amount of clever sight gags and beautifully shot scenes. This is the first time that Tati had made a film that perfectly blended the humor with his artistry and it is his most straight forward film for the audience to follow. Like other Tati films, the film is fairly democratic in that it doesn’t just focus on Hulot but also on the people around him: a young intellectual, a businessman, a pretty young woman, a family with children. The central idea of the film is that people on vacation never take a vacation from themself. The businessman answers the phone to check on his businesses, the former general tells war stories, the intellectual keeps up with the news. To Tati, these elements seem as important as Hulot, but Hulot really lights up the screen in this film playing off of his surroundings. I really like this movie a lot. This is one of my favorites in the set, and a film I will return to in the future.
Mon Oncle (Disk 3)
Mon Oncle revolves around the Arpel family- a mother, a father, and son. The Arpels live in a modern house, drive a modem car, and the father works at a factory that produces plastic tubing. Their son is incredibly bored and has trouble enjoying himself at home due to its museum like qualities. Luckily, his uncle is Monsieur Hulot. The film follows Hulot’s adventures with the boy and Hulot’s search for a job. Along the way Hulot manages to be a burden on the Arpels who have trouble cutting loose.
Out of all the Tati films, Mon Oncle is considered to be his most beloved film. It is the second most accessible (next to Holiday,) and the second most inventive (next to Playtime.) having now watched it a second time, I believe it to be my favorite of his films.
Mon Oncle answers questions that viewers of Holiday must have asked: where does Hulot live? What does Hulot do? Does Hulot have family? Along the way it sets up some of Tati’s best set pieces including the fantastically designed apartment of Hulot, the tubing factory, and the Arpel home. All of these serve the purpose of showing that the modern world, for all its inventiveness, is quickly leaving behind the quaint and wonderful idiosyncratic world of before.
My six year old son has liked the movie both times as most of the jokes are not dependent on the language. There is a lot here for both children and adults. It’s pretty great.
Playtime (Disk 4)
Playtime follows Tati’s Hulot through a Paris that has grown technologically advanced and cold, as Hulot attempts to get a job, visits an old friend’s apartment, and dines at a new upscale restaurant. As per usual, Hulot blindly wanders from location to location and chaos follows him.
Playtime is in many ways one of the most difficult of Tati’s films and ultimately is probably the most rewarding for those who watch it repeatedly. Tati had decided after the success of Mon Oncle that he was going to make his epic gargantuan film. He took years off to design the film and hone the ideas of the film and then undertook what must be one of the most audacious and innovative comedies ever conceived. The film itself took nearly two years to FILM. Over a year of shooting days. For any film this is an extraordinarily long amount of time. Most films’ principal photography are completed in three months time. Tati filmed four times that amount in just the days that they shot film. To create the film they designed and constructed essentially a city block outside of Paris, with real working traffic lights and traffic. When I first saw the film I had no idea where he and found all of these ingeniously used sets. When I realized that they had built every single set minus the Orly airport, my mind was blown.
So, what was the point of all this painstaking labor?
The central idea of Playtime was to make a film that examines how everything in or world is big homogenized by technology and modern architecture. Tati was trying to show how people travel the world and see that every city is becoming the exact same. As the skyscrapers and office buildings go up in cities across the world they become the same city essentially. Tati was not far off. If you look around the world these days, every major city seems to be ripping off the vibe of Brooklyn, emulating their speak easies and craft brewing and brunch menus. It’s fairly incredible that Tati envisioned this in the sixties. This also leads to some viewers finding the first half of the film to be a but cold and monotonous.
The other idea behind Playtime was to make a film that is democratic in the audience’s attention. The central character of the film is his beloved Hulot, but he is hardly the focus of the film. In fact, for large sections of the film he is completely off screen. So what does that leave the audience with? Some of the most meticulously planned set pieces ever put on film. This is why Tati shot the film in the extra wide 70mm format. Tati wanted people to watch the film and everywhere they look see comedy. The audience should laugh at all of the restaurant workers and guests in the best portion of the film, and it doesn’t matter where the eye lands. This proactive leads to the replay value I mentioned earlier. Every time you watch the film you should see it with a new pair of eyes.
The saddest part of the story of Playtime is that it ran far over its budget. It did not manage to secure distribution in America and forced Tati into bankruptcy, losing the rights to his own films along with his beloved house.
At the end of the day, Tati did not regret making Playtime and knew it would live on as his masterpiece. For me, it ties Mon Oncle for his best overall film. I have watched it twice, and after the supplements it keeps getting better and better.
Trafic (Disk 5)
Trafic follows Hulot, now working as a designer for a car company, as he tries to transport the new camping car model to the Netherlands for a car exposition to promote the model. Along the way all sorts of car issues and traffic related issues occur. It was also made in the seventies so there are hippies now too!
After the failure commercially of Playtime, Tati said he would never again make another “film.” Luckily, Tati had one more masterpiece in him. Trafic is a lot of fun. It may not have the lofty ambitions of Playtime, but the car related sight gags are ingeniously designed and the film is so unpretentious that my six year old son enjoyed it. It is also the shortest of the Tati films since Jour Du Fete, making it easier to digest. The film does a great job of sending up our transportation systems and the drivers in the cars for good laughs.
Since the story is simple, and there is not much to examine about the film, I will just say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. Its great. Tati lied when he said he would never make another “film.” Trafic qualifies.
Parade (Disk 6)
Parade is essentially a variety show of circus performers, acrobats, and musicians with Tati as the ringleader. There is somewhat of a storyline involving two kids in the audience.
Parade was made for Swedish television. Parts of it wee shot on video and some on film stock. It was later released in French theaters. It is, in my opinion, the only false step that Tati made film wise. I could not get into it. Then again, it is obviously geared towards the interest of children. To be honest, I couldn’t finish it. I was thirty minutes in, realized I couldn’t get into it and turned it off. This is for completists only. I do not recommend it.
Tati Shorts (Disk 7)
This disk includes every single Jacques Tati short as well as one by his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff.
On demande une brute – Tati’s first short film is not that great except for seeing how much his work improved. This revolves around an actor that accidentally signs up for some tough work.
Gai dimanche – his second short film was better, revolving around two tramps trying to make money by giving people a ride into the country.
Soigne ton gauche– this short was directed by Rene Clement who would later direct Purple Noon. This revolves around a stable boy that ends up sparring against a boxer. Pretty good.
L’école des facteurs– this short (also directed by Clement) was the basis for Jour du Fete. It follows Francoise the postman as he tries to outdo the American postmen. I actually prefer the short to the film.
Cours du soir – this is by far my favorite of the shorts. This is an extremely long short (about thirty minutes) and well worth your time. In this short Tati teaches a course on observation and mimicry. It is really funny and includes some great sports impersonations. If you only watch one short on the disk, watch this one. Classic Tati.
Dégustation maison– this is a short by his daughter about a bakery that puts a lit of liquor in the goods. Pretty funny actually.
Forza Bastia– an unfinished documentary by Tati about the soccer game played by Forza Bastia. Tati’s daughter finished the film. I liked it pretty well for what it was.
Video: How’s it look?
I do not want to go too overboard the specifics of each release as there is so much to discuss. Instead I will give the bullet points:
Jour De Fete – 6.5/10- this film looks pretty good overall but does not have the great look of the other releases. This is no doubt due to the difficult shooting conditions (attempted to shoot in color, only shot in black and white in case something went wrong. Something did go wrong, so the black and white looks sharper than the color negative.) parts of it look sharp and great, but more of the film looks DVD or VHS quality than you might hope. keep expectations low on this one.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday – 9.5/10- this has been beautifully restored. Shadows and contrast are excellent. This shows how much better the conditions for filming were in this case. There are a few scenes that are a bit blurry, but this is a pretty spectacular job by Criterion and Studio Canal.
Mon Oncle – 9/10- this is a solid job by Criterion and a Studio Canal, but it felt like the image could have been just a bit sharper. After watching the work on Playtime and Trafic, Mon Oncle looks really good, but not as good as those two films.
Playtime– 10/10- shot in 70mm, Playtime is absolutely gorgeous in Blu-ray. This movie is the best looking in the set and Criterion have performed a perfect master in my opinion. Be aware that this transfer will differ from the 2009 transfer. I was amazed at how this film looks. Stunning.
Trafic– 9.5/10 – Another great transfer. Only loses points in comparison to Playtime. Fans of the film will love this update. Colors are bright and playful. Contrast and clarity are excellent. No glaring signs of compression. What’s not to love!
Parade-6.5/10- keep in mind that this was a television special, so most of it is shot on video. The truth is the image is just not that great to look at minus the occasional scene shot in another format. I don’t blame Criterion. This is actually more to do with the filming itself.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Jour De Fete – No problems with this mono track. Solid if a bit canny due to the age of the film. Nothing special, but not bad.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday – a very solid job on preserving this mono track. No complaints whatsoever here!
Mon Oncle – this really shows off how important sound was to Tati. This track is a very solid mono track. Very good work in this one.
Playtime– this is the standout track. Tati used an experimental form of recording to give us this 3.0 surround track. While not as robust as the 5.0 or 7.0 tracks we are accustomed to these days, the Playtime track delivers sufficient immersion. Tati was obviously just way ahead of his time.
Trafic– Tati had abandoned his experimental surround after the failure of Playtime, but this mono track is solid none the less.
Parade– similar to the video, this audio track is not on par with the rest of the films. It doesn’t sound bad, just not impressive really.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Jour De Fete
- The 1964 Version – the 1964 version of Jour de fete.
- The 1995 Version – the 1995 version of Jour de fete.
- “Jour de fete: In Search of the Lost Color” – is an episode of the French television program Cinema Cinemas that aired in 1988. This discusses the discovery of the original color negatives of the film and its reconstruction. Pretty interesting. In French, with optional English subtitles. (31 min, 1080p).
- L’Americaine – a visual analysis of Jacques Tati’s Jour de fete by Stephane Goudet. The essay also appeared on StudioCanal’s release of Jour de fete. I enjoyed this, but it almost ran a little bit longer than I would have liked. There is some great information about Tati and how he came up with the ideas in the film and chose the location. In French, with optional English subtitles. (81 min, 1080p).
Monsiuer Hulot’s Holiday
- About This Version – short description addressing the basic differences between the two versions of Les vacances de M. Hulot included on this Blu-ray release.
- Terry Jones Introduction – I enjoyed this, as a big Monty Python Fan. The video introduction was recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2001. In English, not subtitled. (4 min, 1080i).
- The 1953 Version – Jacques Tati’s original 1953 version of Les vacances de M. Hulot.
- Clear Skies, Light Breeze – Jacques Tati scholar Stephane Goudet discusses the production history of Monsiuer Hulot’s Holiday in this visual essay. I was most impressed by how Tati would continue to fidget with the films and reshoot scenes, even decades later. Worth watching. In French, with optional English subtitles. (41 min, 1080p).
- Michel Chion – in this brand new video interview, composer Michel Chion discusses the sound design of Jacques Tati’s films. I liked this feature, but it was not extremely memorable. The interview was conducted exclusively for Criterion in Paris in 2014. In French, with optional English subtitles. (32 min, 1080p).
- Cine regards – Tati discusses his work in an episode of the French television program Cine Regards. The episode was broadcast in 1978. In French, with optional English subtitles. (27 min, 1080p).
- Terry Jones Introduction – actor and comedian Terry Jones introduces Mon Oncle. The introduction was recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2001. Like the other introduction, I enjoyed this. In English, not subtitled. (6 min, 1080i).
- My Uncle – presented here is an alternative version of Mon Oncle which Jacques Tati created for English-speaking audiences.
- Once Upon A Time… Mon Oncle – this documentary film is the best of the documentaries in the box set featuring interviews with the great French comedian Pierre Etaix (The Suitor/Yoyo), Jacques Lagrange (artistic collaborator of Jacques Tati), legendary writer Jean-Claude Carriere (Belle de jour, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), stage designer Macha Makeieff, and actress Collette de Glasier PlayTime), and others. The documentary was produced by Marie Genin and Serge July in 2008. In English and French, with optional English subtitles where necessary. (52 min, 1080i).
- Everything is Beautiful – this focuses on the architecture in Tati’s films. I found this to be totally dry. Skip it.
- Everything’s Connected – Stephanie Goudet expounds on the film. Good, but like his other essays, a bit overlong. The essay was produced in 2013. In French, with optional English subtitles. (52 min, 1080i).
- “Le Hasard de Jacques Tati” – a quick clip of Tati discussing the dogs from the film and his dog, Hasard. The episode was broadcast in 1977. In French, with optional English subtitles. (9 min, 1080p).
- Terry Jones Introduction – this video introduction by actor and comedian Terry Jones was recorded in 2001. It also appears on Criterion’s first Blu-ray release of PlayTime. Can’t seem to get enough of these! In English, not subtitled. (7 min, 1080i).
- Selected-Scene Commentaries – These commentaries are all pretty interesting and focus on different aspects of the film. I actually enjoyed all three.
- Philip Kemp – this commentary by film historian Phillip Kemp was originally recorded for the British Film Institute. The commentary also appears on Criterion’s first Blu-ray release. (47 min, 1080p).
Stephane Goudet – this commentary features Jacques Tati scholar Stephane Goudet, who deconstructs two key scenes from PlayTime. It was recorded for Les Films de Mon Oncle in 2013. In French, with optional English subtitles. (13 min, 1080i).
Jerome Deschamps – theater director Jerome Deschamps discusses four additional scenes from PlayTime. The commentary was recorded for Les Films de Mon Oncle in 2013. In French, with optional English subtitles. (14 min, 1080i).
- Trailer – original trailer for Jacques Jacques Tati’s Trafic. In French, with optional English subtitles. (3 min, 1080p).
- “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” – presented here is an episode of the British television program Omnibus in which film critic Gavin Millar interviews Jacques Tati at the Hotel de la Plage (from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday). I liked this piece, but the interviewer was pretty goofy. The episode was broadcast in 1976. In English, not subtitled. (50 min, 1080i).
- In the Ring – in this new visual essay, Jacques Tati scholar Stephane Goudet discusses the film’s visual quality (portions of it were shot in 16mm, 35mm, and video) and different aspects of the film. Godet could almost make you like Parade. Almost. The essay was created in 2013. In French, with optional English subtitles. (29 min, 1080p).
- In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot – presented here is a two-part documentary directed by Jacques Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff. This is a solid send off for the director from his loving daughter. In French, with optional English subtitles. (104 min, 1080i).
- “An Homage to Jacques Tati” – An archival interview with painter and set designer Jacques Lagrange as he pays tribute to Jacques Tati. I enjoyed this. The episode was broadcast in 1982. In French, with optional English subtitles. (15 min, 1080p).
- Professor Goudet’s Lessons – originally an art installation by Stephane Goudet. The reason to watch are the commercials by Tati and clips from interviews with Wes Anderson, Jean-Claude Carriere, David Lynch, Olivier Assayas, Michel Gondry, and others. The program was created in 2013. In French and English, with optional English subtitles where necessary. (32 min, 1080i).
- Tati Story – Given all the other (better and longer) documentaries in this box set, this seems unnecessary. The documentary was produced by Stephane Goudet in 2002. In French, with optional English subtitles. (21 min, 1080i).
The Bottom Line
Like I said, when Criterion releases a box set, it is an event. The fact that you receive every single thing that Tati was ever involved in is already impressive. That means you are receiving four classic films, one good film, one dud, and every short he was involved in. Add on top of that the sheer amount of supplemental material, and you are looking at weeks worth of material to peruse. It took me nearly a month to watch everything (bear in mind I was busy, but it was a concerted effort.) if you like Tati at all, this is a no brainer. If you are on the fence, watch Mon Oncle. I enjoy watching these films with my family knowing that they are geared towards the inner child in all of us. The technical merits of Criterion’s work is fantastic as well. Personally, I can’t think of any reason to not give this box set my highest recommendation.