Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Complete Jacques Tati

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray Box Set, Release Date October 28, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

As much as any other director, Jacques Tati created his own hermetic film universe, a space loosely inspired by the modern(izing) world of the post-WW2 era but a world that exists nowhere but in a Jacques Tati movie. Tati labored for years on his projects, deliberating over each choice of set design, re-shooting scenes for the slightest change of gesture and pace, even adding new sequences to his films years after their initial release just because he'd finally thought of something that to make it all a little bit better. Sound was even more crucial than visual design in crafting this alternate dimension. Door hinges sproing and seat cushions go fwap to announce their formidable presence; a single sound effect can easily be the eccentric center of an entire gag. Tati's sound design places him in the inner pantheon of aural engineers along with Kubrick, Bresson and Lynch.

Monsieur Hulot avec pipe
How odd then that Tati's signature character Monsieur Hulot (no first name) wouldn't fit into his creator's custom-designed universe at all. Then again Hulot doesn't belong anywhere, not even in the world built to host him, and that is why we love him so dearly. Hulot, usually decked out in his gray-tan raincoat, ill-fitting trousers and too-long pipe, is a discrete unit of force, a fundamental particle of nature, unchanging and indivisible. He does not acclimate to his surroundings, he merely copes with situations with the gracious awkwardness that defines his being.

Mon oncle
All long legs and herky-jerky motions (surely John Cleese was born strictly as an homage), Hulot has to perform improbable bodily contortions merely to greet each new acquaintance or navigate his way through the various landscapes and social situations that constantly confuse him. When we first meet him in “Monsieur Hulot's Holiday” (1953), he cannot even speak his name clearly until a hotel clerk kindly removes the pipe from Hulot's mouth. In his second outing, “Mon Oncle” (1959), the simplest job monitoring a plastic tubing machine proves an insurmountable task. 

The modern world (even the off-kilter Tati version) has no patience for a man who cannot assimilate to its metronomic demands and Hulot's presence is a constant irritant to the finely calibrated system despite his good intentions. He's the nicest chaos-bringer you've ever met and he spends a lot of time apologizing for violations he's barely aware he's committed. Yet Hulot makes ripples, not waves (though there is the occasional fireworks explosion) and the vibrant communities Tati goes to great pains to establish usually maintain their equilibrium despite this lanky intruder's bumbling interference.

Because Tati's spaces are populated by so many characters it's OK if poor, clueless Hulot occasionally gets lost or even disappears altogether. Even in his first appearance he shares the Hotel de la Plage with dozens of other vacationers. In “Mon oncle” he is the intruder in the nuclear family and by “Playtime” (1967) he is just one player upstaged, not just by other tourists but even by a passel of fake Hulots. Tati's dispersed, democratized approach to narrative is yet another factor marking him as a true one-of-a-kind visionary.

Hulot is so indelible a cinematic presence it's hard to believe he only appeared in four feature films, or that Jacques Tati only made six features over the course of thirty years. That makes a “Complete Jacques Tati” set manageable though still an overwhelming experience for the viewer with multiple versions of several of the films and close to 1,000 minutes of extra material.

Tati as Francois the postman in Jour de fete
The seven-disc set kicks off with Tati's debut feature, “Jour de fete” (1949), the film that made him a star as Francois the postman, a more talkative proto-Hulot, and ends with the post-Hulot “Parade”(1974) in which a 67-year-old Tati serves as both ringmaster and star, performing his old mime and slapstick routines for an audience consisting of real attendees, paid extras, and even cardboard cutouts. It's his least-seen film and probably the least of his films, but his extraordinary charisma is undeniable. Another disc consists entirely of short films by or featuring Tati (see below).

In between are the Hulot films that form the core of Tati's legacy, “Monsier Hulot's Holiday,” “Mon Oncle,” “Playtime,” and “Trafic” (1971), each a joy worth revisiting time and again. I have spent three weeks sifting through the films and extras on this massive set and I feel both disoriented and exhilarated. I recommend you take more time to tour one of the most remarkable careers the big screen has ever witnessed. 

The films have all undergone 2012 or 2013 digital restorations (in 4K resolution for “Playtime” and 2K for the others) by Les Films de Mon Oncle with the support of a variety of groups.

“Playtime” was previously released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection and the most significant change is in the color palette; the 2009 BD had a more uniformly cool bluish look while this is a bit softer with more green and lighter gray visible and slightly more color variation within the shots.

The others have not been released on Blu-ray in North America. Criterion has pulled out all the stops to provide the highest quality upgrades.

“Jour de fete” and “Monsieur Hulot's Holiday” both show off strong image detail. The films tend to more sun than shadow so I can't quite say the black-and-white contrast is pronounced and if there's any minor soft spot on these transfers it's that the whiter shots in “Hulot” look a bit washed out, but that may be from the source material.

“Mon oncle” is an absolute revelation in high-def looking almost supernaturally detailed and brightly colored; it is as vibrant and alive as the day it was screened. “Trafic” is almost as strong. “Parade” is the weakest of the lot but that's attributable to its production and the fact that the “hippy circus” look Tati was going for guarantees that the colors are always going to look too garish.

The short films also received 2K digital restorations and look solid overall though a few necessarily show some signs of damage.

Playtime gets a 3.0 surround track with both French and English options, the other films get Mono track. All audio is lossless, of course, and everything sounds remarkably sharp with Tati's idiosyncratic effects standing out as distinctly as they need to; they are the key to his films. Optional English subtitles are provided for all films.

Almost as many cars in Trafic as extras in this set.
You would think six discs packed with ten features (more on that below) and seven short films would be reasonably “Complete” but they barely account for half of the running time of the material included in this boxed set.

First, let's start with the various alternate version of the movies. Tati constantly tinkered with his films, adding scenes while also removing original footage, usually winding up with significantly shorter running times even with entirely new sequences included. For “Jour de fete” we get the original 1949 release all in black-and-white. Among the extras we also get the 1964 version in which Tati employed animator Paul Grimault to add hand-painted color to some of the objects and details within the black-and-white scenes and added an entirely new character. This cut runs 80 minutes to the 1949 version's 87 minutes. Yet we can't say either is a “definitive” version because Tati actually shot the film in color, only using a second camera shooting in black-and-white as a back-up plan; the back-up would be needed once the experimental color film couldn't be processed. Daughter Sophie Tatischeff finally rounded up the original color elements and had them processed, releasing a color version of the movie in 1995 (80 min.) The image quality isn't so great which is to be expected as they were stored in the basement for about half a century, but it's fun to see.

“Monsieur Hulot's Holiday” has an equally complicated history. Tati re-edited the film in 1962 and again in 1978. The main version on the disc is the final re-edited cut, but the extras include the original 1953 version which runs 12 minutes longer at 99 total. This cut shows plenty of wear and tear; the opening credits show a double image but it's still watchable.

“Mon Oncle” is presented in its original French-language version, but the disc also includes “My Uncle” in which the main family speaks English but other characters still speak French. Tati intended this for an American release and re-shot scenes to include English street signs but somehow still managed to whittle it down to ten minutes shorter than the French cut.

The other discs merely include a single version of each movie. Cheapskates!

But that just scratches the surface. We might as well start with the unexpected star of this Criterion set, Tati scholar Stéphane Goudet. Goudet has written and directed visual essays on every film in the set except for “Trafic” and he is not just punching the clock. The essay on “Jour de Fete” clocks in at 82 minutes, “Monsieur Hulot's Holiday” at 40 min., “Mon Oncle” at 51 min., “Playtime” at 19 min., and “Parade” at 28 minutes, meaning that Goudet has produced a Peter Jackson epic's worth of material spread out onto five discs. Oh yeah and he also chips in with a feature called “Professor Goudet's Lessons” (31 min.) on the Tati Shorts disc. The latter might be favorite of the lot; Goudet “lectures” on the main themes of Tati's works but within the context of a very charming comedy skit. The visual essays are wide-ranging in scope from details about production history to stylistic analysis. It's an impressive scholarly contribution but I wonder how many people will ever have the time to watch it all. I guess it's just as good when sampled over time, just like Tati's work.

Goudet's leviathan effort has eclipsed poor Terry Jones whose old 2001 introductions are included on “Monsieur Hulot,” “Mon Oncle,” and “Playtime” but his heartfelt appreciation of a comedian who inspired him to grow up and be a Python are still worthwhile.

But wait, there's more. A lot more. From this point on I will go by disc. I also won't bother to point out which features were included on the old Criterion releases because that would just take too much time. There are a few features from the previous releases not included here as well as many new additions just for this set. Some have been juggled around too, moved, say, from the “Playtime” disc to “Trafic.”

TATI SHORTS: Let's start here since this contain the earliest material. In addition to seven short films (see immediately below) there are two extras, the aforementioned “Prof. Goudet's Lessons” and “Tati Story” (20 min.) a 2002 documentary by, wait let me look up his name, oh yes, by Stéphane Goudet which provides a brief tour through Tati's life with clips, photos and other archival material. Onto the short films.

“On demande une brute” (1934, 25 min.) This comedy short, directed by Charles Barrois and co-written by Tati sees our henpecked hero accidentally get involved in a wrestling match. It has a few funny bits but suffers from slow pacing. However, the revelation to me is that the wrestler is played by Kola Kwariani, Stanley Kubrick's chess-playing buddy who played the hefty, hairy Maurice in “The Killing.” This isn't even listed under Kwariani's IMDB credits.

“Gai dimanche” (1935, 21 min.) Directed by Jacques Berr and co-written by Tati. An out-of-work-and-home Tati and a friend try to hustle business by giving a decidedly amateur tour. “Brute” was pretty generic, but this film hows Tati more in his element.

“Soigne ton gauche” (1936, 13 min.) Directed by Rene Clement and written by Tati, this feels like the Tati we know and love with some nifty pantomime/pratfall bits. Tati plays a farmhand who dreams of being a boxer then struggles when he achieves the dream. This starts with a shot of a postman riding his bike, an image Tati would recycle for his next short.

“L'ecole des facteurs” (1946, 16 min.) is directed by Tati and is the test run for what would become “Jour de fete.” It is wonderful entirely in its own right.

“Cours du soir” (1967, 28 min.) is a lot of fun. Shot during production on “Playtime.” It's directed by Tati's assistant Nicolas Rybowski but credited as “A Film By Jacques Tati.” Which it is. Dressed as Hulot, he plays a mime instructor and acts out some of his old stage routines.

“Degustation Maison” (1978, 14 min.) No Jacques Tati here, this is a short directed by Sophie Tatischeff. I can only assume the humor here is uniquely French and does not translate across language or culture. It won a Cesar for best comedy short.

“Forza Bastia” (1978, 27 min.) Tati never completed this film about a Dutch-French soccer match, but Sophie Tatischeff later found the footage and released a “completed” version in 2000. It consists mostly of flag-carrying fans filling the streets and a groundscrew trying to fix up a mud-soaked field with just a few brief snippets of actual play.

JOUR DE FETE: 1964 version of the film, 1995 version and Goudet visual essay (see above for all), A Trailer (2 min.) and “Jour de Fete: In Search of the Lost Cellar” (30 min.), the Feb 28, 1988 episode of “Cinema cinemas” which tells the story of how Tati's daughter Sophie Tatischeff finally got the color version of her father's film processed. It's easy for this feature to get lost in the shuffle but it's very interesting.

MONSIEUR HULOT'S HOLIDAY: 1953 version of film, Terry Jones intro, Goudet visual essay (see above for all). Nobody has written more insightfully about film sound than critic Michel Chion and it's only appropriate that he provide his analysis of the work of one of the great film sound designers. This 2014 interview with Chion runs 32 minutes and is indispensable. The disc also includes a 1978 episode of the French TV series “Cine regards” consisting mostly of an interview with Tati (26 min.) The Audio menu allows you to choose to listen to either French or English tracks.

MON ONCLE: Terry Jones intro, English version “My Uncle,” Goudet visual essay (see above). “Once Upon a Time... Mon Oncle” is a 2008 documentary (51 min.) including interviews with Tati, director (and Tati assistant) Pierre Etaix, David Lynch and others. It begins with a little French history to provide context for the film and then dives into the interviews. Etaix is particularly engaging. “Everything Is Beautiful” (2005) is a 3-part program including shorter features about the film's architecture (24 min.), fashion (20 min.), and its furniture (9 min.) I wasn't a fan of any of these. “Le Hasard de Jacques Tati” (1977, 8 min.) is a short TV piece in which Tati shows off his dog Chance (Hasard) and talks briefly about the dogs in “Mon Oncle.”

PLAYTIME: Terry Jones Intro, Goudet visual essay (see above). Goudet chips in with another short piece from 2002 (6 min.) which uses photos and some rare on-set footage (we get to see the buildings of Tativille being wheeled around the set) with some audio commentary. Selected-Scene Commentaries have been provided by critic Philip Kemp (2004, originally recorded for BFI and also included on the old Criterion disc), Stephane Goudet (who else? - 2013 commentary for 2 scenes) and theater director Jerome Deschamps (2013 – 4 scenes). “Tativille” (26 min.) is a 1967 episode of the British TV show “Tempo international” in which filmmaker Mike Hodges interviews Tati on set. The disc also includes an interview with Tati script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot (2006, 12 min.) and audio excerpts from Tati's appearance at the 1972 San Francisco Film Festival (17 min. total) for the U.S. Premiere of “Playtime.”

TRAFIC: Criterion finally eases off the pedal with just a Trailer (3 min.) and “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot's Work,” a 1976 episode of the British series “Omnibus” in which critic Gavin Millar, after a too-lengthy overview of Tati's career, interviews the director a the Hotel de la Plage, the primary location used for “Monsieur Hulot's Holiday.” This 49 minute interview is fascinating if a bit long.

PARADE: “In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot” is a 2-part series directed by Sophie Tatischeff (103 min. total) which provides an overview of Tati's career from his earliest short films through Parade. It is fairly comprehensive if not too surprising. The portrait that emerges is one we already know: Tati as showman, perfectionist, and truly charismatic presence. And, yes, we have another Goudet visual essay, my favorite of the lot (28 min.)

And finally we have the squarebound 64-page booklet that tucks in next to the seven slim keepcases inside the box. Instead of essays on the individual films we get a broader essay on Tati's body of work by James Quandt, the essay “Composing in Sound and Image” by Jonathan Rosenbaum, a piece titled “Jacques Tati, Historian” by Kristin Ross and “Things Fall Together” by David Cairns.

Set Value:
“The Complete Jacques Tati” represents the pinnacle of cinematic achievement. Spend too much time in Tativille and you risk being disappointed by everything else. But no guts, no glory, so dive right in. You'll have to take your time though with six features (ten if you count the alternate versions), seven short films and over 15 hours of extras. I don't know if Criterion has made any strategic changes to try to differentiate themselves in a streaming world, but owning this set is something special that a hodge-podge of streaming sources can't match. This is... an experience. I was planning to finish this by calling it “indisputably the greatest boxed set of the year.” But the “Les Blank: Always for Pleasure” set has just arrived. It's that most wonderful time of the year again.

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