Mon Oncle (DVD)
Recounting his first viewing of M. Hulot's Holiday on this new DVD release of Jacques Tati's first Monsieur Hulot film, Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones describes it as "the moment I first realized that comedy could be both funny and beautiful." Tati's detractors see this combination as unworkable, but virtually every frame of the writer, actor, and director's films suggests otherwise. One school of thought holds that all art aspires to the condition of music, and Tati seems to have taken this dictum to heart. Eschewing all but the most basic elements of plot, he constructs comedic symphonies driven by some underlying rhythm rather than the dictates of formula. Tati's most obvious precursors come from the Silent Age, Buster Keaton in particular, but overstating the connection does Tati a disservice. From the bursts of jazz that disrupt Holiday's stodgy seaside resort to the ambient hum of Playtime's office tower, sound gags are every bit as important as sight gags. Only words get thrown out. Tati's films seem to belong to a cinema that discovered sound but never found much use for dialogue, which more often than not serves as background noise. Tati was far more interested in what people did than what they might say, which lends the Hulot series an almost anthropological quality. Perhaps that's why the character of Hulot, played by Tati, always appears to come from another world. Even the simplest activitiesa short drive, a job interviewoffer him the chance to fumble into near-disaster. But Tati's alter ego, an enormously sympathetic character who's out of place in most surroundings, is treated as more than a simple klutz. Invested with a rumpled, good-hearted nobility, Hulot never comes close to the absurdity of the world around him, eventually becoming a stand-in for all that opposes the dehumanizing elements of contemporary society. Only a suggestion of that motif pops up in 1953's M. Hulot's Holiday, Tati's second feature after Jour De Fête. (The latter has been restored, but that version remains out of circulation due to the whims of its distributor.) After setting off to a small resort, Tati wreaks havoc simply by attempting to enjoy himself. A flat tire, for instance, involves him in a somber funeral which he's too polite to leave; an invitation to tennis makes a mockery of the game. Holiday is packed with more gags than a Naked Gun film, but Tati, as always, assumes a slow pace, not so much to allow viewers to savor his craft, but because his jokes need time to unfold. The comedic beauty Jones first observed in Holiday has only grown more refined with 1958's Mon Oncle, which revived Hulot and stressed some of Tati's more serious themes without sacrificing the humor. Now seen as a resident of a colorful Paris neighborhood, the unemployed Hulot spends his days escorting his affectionate nephew to his sister's ultra-modern, gadget-laden house, which seems designed to befuddle all who interact with it. Every bit as funny as Holiday, Oncle may also be the greatest account of how the first half of the 20th century faded into the second. With workmen already chipping away at its borders, Hulot's world is about to give way to the new order of his sister's neighborhood. Nine years later, when Playtime was released, that transition is essentially complete. Tati offers a vision of Paris overrun by metal and glass, its landmarks glimpsed only in the distance, or as fleeting reflections in swinging doors. As the title suggests, he still has fun with his scenario, sending Hulot through a gauntlet of modern conveniences, pretentious restaurants, and other potential catastrophes. Tati's most elaborate film, Playtime stands as his masterpiece, an awe-inspiring work of intricate choreography with a heart to match its technical expertise. Its box-office failure also helped bankrupt Tati, whose deliberate work methods never allowed him to create many films. Another Hulot outing, Traffic, followed a few years later, as did Parade, which was virtually ignored as Tati's fame dissipated in the years before his 1982 death. In addition to the Jones intros, each of these new Tati DVDs contains a short film. In Cours Du Soir (1967), which accompanies Playtime, Tati attempts to teach his comedic approach to a class of attentive students, demonstrating the proper way to walk into a wall or trip over a staircase, then inviting them to imitate him. They don't even come close.