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Totally Tati – The French Film Festival

The ‘Totally Tati’ tribute offers a rare opportunity to see the almost complete works of France’s unique master of comedy film, from his early shorts to his masterpiece, Playtime, Jaques Tati was a loner and didn’t belong to any school except his own. He kept his distance from other directors and from ideas like the cinéma d’auteur. Yet his four main features, made with meticulous care between 1947 and 1968, were created almost entirely by him, as writer, director, and star.

What’s special about Tati’s vision is that the camera never tells you to look at the main action. Often, there is no main action! But something is going on in every part of the screen. Using mostly long shots, Tati invites you to see not the comedian, but comedy itself. That’s why he’s given us the adjective "tatiesque" to describe the delicious absurdity of people behaving… well, as they do!

Who was Jacques Tati? Born in 1907 and brought up in a well-to-do home in the west of Paris, he was not a bright boy. In fact, he was so hesitant with words that even when he was a famous film director many people thought him a bit dim. The village-idiot postman act that he performs in his first slapstick feature, Jour de fête, is also stylised self-mockery. Tati left school at 16 and went to work as a trainee pictureframer.

Some of Tati’s concern with the composition of his frames on screen can be traced back to what he found a miserably tedious occupation. He also played rugby, and because he was tall and fast on his legs, he turned out to be good at it. But when he started to mime the exploits of his team-mates, he found his first great gift. He left home and job around the age of 25 to seek his fortune as a mime on the music-hall stage. Fame came in 1935 when Colette wrote a rave review of his performance as a horse and rider — Tati using his great long legs to mimic the horse, and his trunk and arms to mimic the rider.

Mime is integral to Tati’s idea of what film comedy should be. Using only amateur actors in all his movies, he directed them to imitate him as he mimed their own movements and postures. The ballet-like movements of the characters in his masterpieces of the 1950s — Les vacances de M Hulot and Mon Oncle — are the direct result of long-drawn-out mime lessons given on set every day of the shoot. Out of those exaggerated postures and outsize legs came the Ministry of Silly Walks and Mr Bean.

Tati’s clumsiness with speech is also faithfully represented in all his films. His characters do speak, but what they say is fragmentary and inconsequential, more like vocal gestures than proper speech. The nonsense-announcement on the station PA at the start of Les vacances sums up Tati’s attitude to words: incoherent noises making people run here and there, usually in the wrong direction. Monty Python never did it better!

Tati’s sound-tracks are nonetheless extraordinarily subtle compositions, made of music, ambience and a wide range of effects, each one of which was recorded separately and dubbed in. The farm noises of Jours de fête, the sound of a swing door in Les vacances, the bouncing plastic bowl in the kitchen of Mon Oncle, and the clack of Giffard’s heels in Playtime (which are actually the  sounds of human actors, a cello string, a sink plunger and ping-pong balls, respectively) are high points in the art of hand-made, synthetic sound. Playtime will be seen in its original and sumptuous format on 70mm panoramic film, for only the second time ever in the UK in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Cambridge only.

All Tati’s films celebrate leisure, as his titles announce: Jour de fête, Les vacances, Playtime…. The world of work is only represented in Mon Oncle, where it serves mainly to show M Hulot’s incapacity to settle in without turning everything upside down. (Watch the street-sweeper in the old town sequences of Mon Oncle to see Tati’s revolutionary perspective on the nobility of labour!) Tati’s films also seem to celebrate the old and the quaint, and to berate the modern. But it would be a complete mistake to see Tati as a reactionary anti-modernist. True, he is nostalgic for the pleasures of childhood — seaside holidays, jam-filled pancakes, and playground roundabouts, magically recreated in the coda to Playtime — but he is also unambiguously admiring of modern architecture, evenwhen stylised to the point of absurdity.

Tati took infinite pains with all aspects of his work, driving many of his staff wild with frustration at the delays. But he knew what he was doing. "Why do you look like a sad dog?" he was once asked in a TV interview. He looked straight at the lens and replied slowly, in his own kind of English: "I am difficult to make me laugh." That is why he laboured so hard to ensure that now, and always, his films would make us laugh too.

David Bellos/FFF/ Expatica

The French Film Festival is screened in cities across the UK and delivers some of the best contemporary cinéma français from established auteurs to new talents. The 2009 and seventeenth French Film Festival UK runs from 8 November to 20 December and will feature special tributes to two diverse but legendary figures: Jacques Tati and Jean Eustache. Visit the website for more information.

Screenings happening at: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Stirling, St Andrews, Dumfries, Coventry, Cambridge, London, Manchester, Durham.