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THE COMPLETE JACQUES TATI
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jacques Tati
Director:  Jacques Tati
Audio:  PCM Mono (Playtime DTS HD 5.1)
Video:  Standard 1.33:1-Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  Over 600 minutes
Release Date:  October 28, 2014

Overview of Set ****

For fans, the world of Jacques Tati needs no introduction.  For those who may not have experienced this unique talent and genius, let me introduce him.  He was a titan of comedy, a brilliant visionary, and impeccably gifted filmmaker.

Throughout his life, he made comedies of increasing artistic stature, but never skimped on humor.  With his lanky and comic form, he authored some brilliant slapstick before finding the character he was born to play, M. Hulot.  Like Chaplin with The Tramp, Keaton with the Stone Face, and later like Atkinson and Mr. Bean, Hulot became the soft-spoken (actually, RARELY speaking) protagonist that centered some of Tati's greatest works.

Hulot may not have said much on screen, but with this character, Tati spoke volumes about the world, especially the increasing modernization of "civilized" society against the warmth and charm of the old world.  But if Tati had apprehension and bad feelings about this inevitable change, he expressed them in the way he knew best:  humor.  A genius like Tati could try and create a cold world of glass and steel, but somehow he had faith in humanity (expressed through Hulot) that we would still find a way to have a good time through it all.

The Complete Jacques Tati is an incredible new SEVEN disc box set from Criterion that encompasses not only Tati's seven feature films, but seven short films as well.  This box set is an amazing journey through the imagination of a comical legend...and we see a man whether at the top of his game or struggling to make his vision work, always had a style and a laugh for his audience.

Jour De Fete ***

Jacques Tati made his feature debut with Jour de Fete, although the Hulot character would have to wait one more picture before emerging.  Here instead, Tati turned his attention toward a small village where a festival was underway, and brought a character of a bungling mailman into the celebration.

The mailman has a challenge getting his job done...everywhere he goes, people want to stop and chat with him, and buy him drinks.  There are moments when he's almost too drunk to pedal his bike and get his letters delivered!  Then, to top it off, the traveling fair has a cinema showing a rather outlandish look at the American mail system, where it's claimed they are so fast, they actually air-drop mailmen from helicopters down to their delivery destinations!  (I hate to say it, but the REAL American postal service is closer to Tati's drunk on a bike.)

Annoyed by the questions about American speed, our hapless hero tries everything he can to show he can do it, too.  He hitches his bikes to trucks, finds amusing shortcuts, and slings his parcels into unsuspecting (and often unprepared) hands.

This is a good first effort from Tati, and those who know him mainly from his earlier works will find this one a bit talkative.  Dialogue is heavy here, and Tati speaks far more words in this film than he would in his next five features combined!  But Tati shows right away his gift for crafting comedy and working out gags...a favorite is when the tipsy mailman knocks on a door to try and deliver his mail, but ends up unseen when the recipient swings the door open wide and flattens him against the wall!

Tati envisioned a color film, and actually made the movie using two cameras:  an experimental color system called Thompson Color, and a black and white (for backup).  The backup was a good idea...Thompson went out of business before the color negative could be processed!  It wasn't until the late 80s that the color negative was discovered...in between, Tati tinkered with the film and added some hand-drawn color here and there to bring it more in line with his vision.  However, modern technology has finally allowed the development of the original color negatives, and thanks to Criterion, all THREE versions are present on this disc.

The studios were initially so enthralled with Tati's mailman character that they offered him a good sum of money to make another film with him.  Tati refused, knowing that this character was not THE character.  THE character would come in the very next film.

M. Hulot's Holiday ****

M. Hulot’s Holiday is a sweet, effervescent little mixture of nostalgia and comedy, taking place over the course of a holiday week at a seaside resort where a number of amusing and memorable-but-nameless characters gather for vacation.

Monsieur Hulot is named, however, and he is played by the film’s writer and director, Jacques Tati.  A performer who began his career as a mime, his Hulot is instantly as striking and memorable as Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s Stone Face:   he is tall, thin, and excessively angular, with a pipe that only serves to add more strange geometry to his endearing face.

Indeed, the film plays out almost like a silent comedy.  Words are used, but are rarely more than murmurs or a cacophony of voices.  The first ten minutes play out with only one subtitle, and by the time you finish the movie, you realized that what few subtitles existed weren’t really necessary.  Tati crafts a comedy with expressions, choreographed movement, and camera placement to convey feelings and laughs with equal strength.

There is no real story here: the picture starts when vacation begins and ends when its over.  In between are all the wonderful moments, from Hulot’s adventures with both a car and a boat that are far too small for him, to a strange tennis match, to a beautiful young blonde woman who seems to be vacationing alone and capturing everybody’s heart, to the glob of ice cream that never quite hits the ground.  Stringing the gags along is not a cohesive script, but rather, a feeling of warmth and nostalgia about beautiful places and magical times.  Chances are, this film will make you think of your favorite vacations.

Tati is an artist like the aforementioned silent craftsmen who has the knack for making gags that must have taken a lot of preparation look effortless.  My favorite is when he sits in his little boat on the shore and paints it.  The waves rush in, and carry off his paint can, but bring it back again in time for him to dip his brush.  He never notices it gone.  A second time, the paint can winds up on the other side.  When he realizes this, he doesn’t seem concerned:  he goes right on with his work.

Tati also has the knack for finding a topper.  When his tiny boat breaks in two, that’s enough of a laugh, but here, it folds up like a mattress and engulfs Hulot.  The boat now looks like a shark’s head, which momentarily terrorizes the vacationers.

You might be surprised at how much you remember once the picture’s over:  the bright, jazzy music, or the noise the kitchen door makes every time it opens, or perhaps, just the overall look of the film.  M. Hulot’s Holiday is a beautifully photographed black and white film with remarkable images and a busy little soundtrack to go with.  This disc represents Tati's final cut of the film, actually not produced until the late 70s...it has a more detailed soundtrack and is shorter by several minutes, but not to worry...the original version is also included on this disc, so you can compare for yourselves.

Tati would go on to reprise the Hulot character a number of times, but for many, this picturesque, unassuming gem of a nostalgic comedy would represent Jacques Tati’s apex as a performer and as a creator.  One thing’s for certain…you’ll want to go on M. Hulot’s Holiday again and again.

Mon Oncle ****

Mon Oncle is a satire…and it’s refreshing to write a sentence like that without having to say “biting” satire.  The film pokes fun at industrialization, class differences, and modernization/dehumanization, but does so without any anger or mean spiritedness.  Writer/director/star Jacques Tati conveys his ideas with a mischievous grin and a wink to let you know the wickedness is all in good fun.

Tati reprises his role as M. Hulot, who made his first screen appearance in M. Hulot’s Holiday.  But while that film was a playful, joyous, nostalgic romp, Mon Oncle, Tati’s first color film, is a tongue-in-cheek (and somewhat prophetic look) at the future of how we work, live, and play.

The subject of technology becoming dominant and unmasterable is not a new one in film, and Mon Oncle settles comfortably between Charlie Chaplin’s funny and poignant Modern Times and Stanley Kubrick’s computer run amuck in 2001.  Not only does it serve as a temporal medium, but a stylistic one as well, I think.  It has all the laughs and imagery of modernization-dwarfing-man as Chaplin, and some of the sterility of Kubrick, but manages to venture away from whatever seriousness those films has to offer.  Mon Oncle may offer food for discussion afterwards, but watching the film is undemanding joy.

There are two styles of living depicted here:  the world of Hulot is a simple, unstructured one that we often see from a medium distance shot, without close scrutiny.  Indeed, his apartment building is an ingenious set design, even though we never get inside it!  Hulot enters from ground level, and glimpses can be seen of him through windows and openings as he works his way up.  Hulot, of course, is a man who delights in the simplicity of his world, and takes little notice of other things.  His idea of joy, for example, is aiming his open window so that it reflects the sun on a distant bird’s nest, causing the bird to twitter happily.

The other world is the world of the Arpels, his sister and brother in law (Servantie and Zola).  Obviously more well off and self satisfied, their home and garden is a jaw-dropping set of geometric precision and sterility, equipped with as many gadgets as would later be seen on The Jetsons show.  The father is a successful factory operator; the mother is borderline obsessive-compulsive, which works for her world, as she never stops cleaning.

Their young son, Gerard (Becourt), seems more enamored with his whimsical uncle than with his father and all his expensive toys.  The two embark on some hysterical journeys into the city together (some of the boy’s friends pranks are hysterical), and Hulot, true to character, remains charmingly oblivious to just about everything.

His sister, however, wants something more for Hulot, and convinces her husband to get him a job at his factory.  This leads to two laugh fests:  the first time, Hulot finds himself fired before he ever performs a lick of work, and the second time, he causes a machine to crimp its production of red plastic hose, creating what appears to be a long link of sausages!

Is there a message?  Yes, of course, but it’s so self-evident that Tati doesn’t dwell on it the way Chaplin might have, or elevate it to the nightmarish proportions of Kubrick.  He is interested in comedy, which he attains through his amusing situations and masterful uses of set and art design.  The premise is simply that Hulot doesn’t fit into this newly modern world:  would we fare any better?  (One could argue that his siblings don’t even make that good a fit, considering their constant trouble with their own gadgetry and how it sometimes complicates, rather than simplifies, their lives).

The film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, but audiences in the States didn't have to see it that way...Tati also simultaneously crafted My Uncle, replacing most of the dialogue with English (the background characters still twitter away in French), and shortening the movie just a little.  Trust me...the original French is the way to go.

Mon Oncle is a visually rich yet stylistically grounded comedy that delivers laughs and entertainment galore.  It’s been called Tati’s greatest achievement, and rightly so.

Playtime ****

Playtime is like no other film youíve ever seen or WILL ever see.  Itís sprawling and ambitious, yet sublimely personal.  There is no way to separate the vision from the man who dreamed it up.

Jacques Tati crafted Playtime as the third film to feature his indelible character, M. Hulot.  Each of the three films was a masterpiece, and each was singular and distinct in tone and style despite the anchoring presence of the angular and affable Hulot.  M. Hulotís Holiday was charming and nostalgic.  Mon Oncle was warm and outrageously funny.  Playtime?  Hard to describe in words, unless you throw out ones like ďalienatingĒ and ďdetachedĒ, which sound like condemnations.  Perhaps only an artist of Tatiís caliber could make alienating and detached so absorbing, endearing and unforgettable.

Each of the films seemed to reflect the constantly growing intrusion of the modern world.  If M. Hulotís Holiday was like a classic postcard from another time, Mon Oncle showed the juxtaposition between old and new in comical light.  In Playtime, Paris is nothing but glass, chrome and steel.  Sterile floors stretch forever, and giant windows make everyone look like animals in a pet store.  There is no warmth in the architecture.  But there still manages to be some in the people, who live out their lives in this modern world with a kind of balletic play.

Thereís no plot, just an attitude and a series of happenings.  Tati views the modern world with bemusement.  There may be a touch of regret for the old disappearing world, but he still finds much to embrace in the luxurious prisons we concoct for ourselves.

This point of view comes across in classic vignettes.  Thereís the office building Hulot visits early on, with big cushioned chairs that seem to flatulate whenever someone sits on them.  Thereís the Army buddy who invites Hulot into his apartment.  The whole scene plays from the street as we look in through the windows.  No dialogue, just the noise of the city.  As they watch the television set in the wall, it appears as though they and the occupants of the next room are really watching each other. 

And of course, the restaurant opening which is most of the second half of the film.  Everything goes wrong, but the more it does, the more fun the customers seem to be having.  A little chaos in a perfectly structured world can be cathartic.  For them AND for us.

Playtime was, for 1967, the most expensive French production ever undertaken.  The massive sets, the endless construction, the detail and the 70 mm photography in addition to the years it took to assemble and film took its toll on Tatiís financial situation.  When the movie was finally released, it did poorly.  Audiences used to the warm comedy of Hulot didnít know what to think with this movie, in which Hulot plays a role no more significant than any other character, and in fact, many of his appearances turn out to be false sightings because he looks like so many other fellows wandering through the frames.

Itís all shot in long and medium shots.  No close ups.  No stories.  No developed characters.  All in all, it was the kind of film that put a lot of people off, particularly on first viewing.  As Roger Ebert remarked, you almost have to see the movie as a prerequisite for seeing the movie.  You have to watch it once to understand the kind of picture it is, because as I said, it doesnít compare to anything else.  Then on repeated viewings, youíll relax, study the frames, and enjoy the whimsical ballet of humanity against the modernity.

But that didnít help Tati when his picture was released.  It failed, and Tati eventually lost everything: his home, his savings, his ownership of his own films.  He never recovered.  And he never really got to make another feature with complete creative control.

Sad how creative freedom can sometimes make and destroy an artist at the same time.  Playtime is one of the most savory films Iíve ever seen, and my second biggest ambition as a movie lover, after seeing 2001 on a big screen, is to see Playtime projected in 70 mm.  Itís a visual masterpiece; expressive, thoughtful and funny, and projecting warm feelings despite the cool look.  It cost Tati his past and his future, but Iíd hate to envision a world where Playtime didnít exist.

The more you watch it, the more you see in it, which is why itís one of a small number of films I could watch over and over again without getting tired of it.  One shot says it all for meÖa pretty American tourist enters into yet another glass and steel structure, andÖwhatís that she sees?  Reflected in the door as she opens it is the Eiffel Tower.  She looks off in the distance, but obviously canít see where itís coming from.  The old world has become a dream.  But she shrugs it off and proceeds to enjoy the rest of her time in this post-modern version of Paris.

And so do we.

Trafic ***

Playtime could have been the end of the line for both Jacques Tati and his immortal creation of M. Hulot.  The ambitious, expensive film was a marvel of design and technique, but audiences used to the warmth and charm of Tati were a little alienated.  Time has proved Tatiís extraordinary vision was and is a masterpiece, but in the aftermath, his studio went bankrupt and he lost ownership of his own movies.

But neither Tati nor Hulot were finished.  A few years later, both would return for one last hurrah in the smaller and under-appreciated Trafic.  Tati had to scale back his sense of grandeur, and as such, a great deal of his bemusement with modernity isnít there, but Hulot is, and just as amicable, charming, and accident prone as ever.

More than any of Tatiís previous Hulot installments, Trafic actually has some semblance of a plot outline.  In it, M. Hulot is working as a designer for a French car company, and his latest creation, a camping car, is going to be the automakerís entry into a big industry show in Amsterdam.  With a truck driver Marcel and a public relations person Maria (the actors keep their own names in the film), Hulot sets off on the road to the big event.

Itís a disaster almost immediatelyÖtheir truck has a flat and runs out of gas.  An incident in customs forces them off the road for a while, as the trio dutifully demonstrates the camper car and its many wacky, wonderful gadgets for the agent.  An accident leaves their show car impaired, forcing them to wait while a dry Dutch mechanic (Knepper) straightens it out.

And all of this is played against the ballet of traffic everywhere.  Much of the film may remind you of the finale of Playtime in how cars and drivers interact with each other, but if you think about it, all of the Hulot films used cars for comedy, whether it was the gauche Arpel car and haywire automatic garage door in Mon Oncle or Hulotís own bizarre contraption in M. Hulotís Holiday.  As he had done with modern architecture, Tati seems to find an amusing play in the streets with cars, cars and more cars.

Tatiís imagination has always seemed childlike to me, in that he seems to look at the same world we see every day, but with more wonder.  His gift as an artist was the ability to express that wonder so that all who viewed his films could share in it.  But his gift as a comedian was in his timing, his sharp construction of gags, and the ability to coax laughter out of very common everyday occurrences.

Most of his jokes are up to standard, with maybe only a couple of misfires.  A sequence showing a string of shots of drivers picking their noses seemed a little beneath Tati for my taste, and one where some kids use a fur coat to make Maria believe she ran over her own dog was a little distasteful.

But for the most part, Trafic hearkens back to M. Hulotís Holiday, with simpler designs and a more intimate feel.  There is more charm here than in Playtime, even if it lacks some of the brilliance.  For my own part, my imagination always pictures Paris the way it appears in Tatiís films, from the ballet-like interaction in the streets to the quirky appeal of the characters.  Paris is probably nothing like that, but even though Iíve seen dozens of French films in my career, I always like to think of France as being the way Tati presents it.

If nothing else, Trafic reminds us of the simplicity of Tatiís genius, and that he didnít need outlandish budgets or towering intricate sets to make us look at the world his way, or to laugh at it the way he wants us to.  It may never have the same shine in comparison with his earlier works, but this film remains a fitting and funny farewell to one of cinemaís most beloved characters.

Parade ***

For his last film, Jacques Tati would take his amazing career full circle, and turn his cameras toward the world of the live stage.

Filmed for Swedish television, this picture showcased a circus, though not the kind we are used to in the States.  This was more of a variety show, featuring comedy, animals, acrobats, an orchestra, a rock band, and more, with Tati serving as both Master of Ceremonies and as a participant.

It gives Tati the chance to recreate some of his hilarious early mime skits, and all are memorable.  I especially liked the badminton match, the boxing bout, and his impression of a soccer goalie.  But Tati shares the screen time, not only with other performers, but with audience members, who sometimes get into the act.

There are also bits filmed in Paris to flesh out the movie; these are shot on film as opposed to the video of the live circus, making this a true multi-media event.  Tati, though aged, seems energized by the live performance, and proved that his physical comedy could still be the top draw, even amongst the younger entertainers.

This would be the final feature for Tati...he would work on an unfinished script and an unfinished short sports documentary, but would pass away in 1982 before seeing his last projects completed.  In an Entertainment Weekly poll naming the all-time greatest film directors, Tati would appear at number 49.  He had only six feature films to his credit...the fewest of any filmmaker to make the list.

Tati Shorts ****

What's not to love here?  Jacques Tati made short films from the 1930s to the 1970s, and they all have been included on the seventh disc in this set.  The titles include "On Demande une Brute", "Gai Dimanche" and "Soigne ton Gauche" (from the 30s), plus "L'ecole des Facteurs" (introducing Tati's postman character) and "Cours du Soir" (actually made during the making of Playtime...Tati was inexhaustible!).  There is also "Forza Bastia", a soccer documentary begun by Tati but completed by his daughter Sophie Tatischeff after his death, and finally "Degustation Maison", also made by Tatischeff and shot in the town of Jour de Fete.

Video ****

Simply superb...as you might guess, as the features (and shorts) progress in age, the quality improves, but there is unconditional four star quality for everything from M. Hulot's Holiday through Trafic.  Jour de Fete offers a nice, clean black and white transfer.  The color version is also included, and appears to be a two-tone type technology.  It's a little soft and a bit washed-out looking, but considering this version is actually an extra on the disc, doesn't count in our overall rating.  A truly awesome black and white transfer comes with M. Hulot's Holiday, and two of the best classic color presentations appear with Mon Oncle and Playtime.  Playtime in particular is as good as it gets with high definition, as it was shot in 70 mm and fills every corner of every frame with detail.

Audio ****

Though mostly all mono soundtracks (save for Playtime's full surround), I would say these tracks excel across the board.  Tati's use of music and sound was unmatched for the era.  The jazzy scores for M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle will stay with you long after the movies end.  But it's really the COMEDIC use of sound that works best...subtle cues and effects add to the laughter throughout.  Tati tinkered with these sounds his entire life, trying to make the perfect creation.  With the arrival of these Blu-rays, I think he has unquestionably succeeded.

Features ****

Where to start?  These seven discs are packed, and I mean PACKED, with extras:

 
ē Two alternate versions of Jour de FÍte, a partly colorized 1964 version and the full-color 1994 re-release version
ē Original 1953 theatrical release version of M. Hulotís Holiday
ē My Uncle, the version of Mon Oncle that director Jacques Tati created for English-language audiences
ē Introductions by actor and comedian Terry Jones to M. Hulotís Holiday, Mon Oncle, and Playtime 
ē Archival interviews with Tati
ē In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot, a 1989 documentary about Tatiís beloved alter ego
ē Five visual essays by Tati expert Stťphane Goudet
ē New interview with film scholar Michel Chion on the sound design of Tatiís films
ē Jour de FÍte: In Search of the Lost Color, a 1988 documentary on the process of realizing Tatiís original color vision for that film
ē Once Upon a Time . . . ďMon Oncle,Ē a 2008 documentary about the making of that film
ē "Everything Is Beautifu"l, a 2005 piece on the fashion, furniture, and architecture of Mon Oncle
ē Selected-scene commentaries on Playtime by Goudet, theater director JťrŰme Deschamps, and critic Philip Kemp
ē Tativille, a documentary shot on the set of Playtime
ē Beyond Playtime, a short 2002 documentary featuring on-set footage
ē An Homage to Jacques Tati, a 1982 French TV program featuring Tati friend and set designer Jacques Lagrange
ē Audio interview with Tati from the U.S. premiere of Playtime at the 1972 San Francisco International Film Festival
ē Interview with Playtime script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot from 2006
ē Tati Story, a short biographical film from 2002
ē Professor Goudetís Lessons, a 2013 classroom lecture by Goudet on Tatiís films
ē Alternate English-language soundtracks for M. Hulotís Holiday and Playtime

Summary:

I am just stunned beyond words, thrilled beyond measure, and happy beyond tears to have such a rich, rewarding collection of some of my favorite comedy films in one amazing and belief-defying box set.  Kudos to Criterion who gave the immortal genius of Jacques Tati all the respect and accommodations it deserves.  Highest recommendation.

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