Friday, March 4, 2011

Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot

Many of you are probably familiar with Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, now known in many homes after Oscar night as "that other film besides Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon."  The Illusionist was inspired by a script by Jacques Tati, the creator of the iconic comic character, Monsieur Hulot.  You may not be familiar with the controversy that Chomet's film has sparked for some of Tati's descendants, which is covered here in a letter from Tati's grandson to Roger Ebert.  Regardless of your feelings about The Illusionist, both sides of the controversy agree that Tati's original Hulot films are among the greatest film comedies ever made.  If you're not familiar with Tati's work, three of his classics are streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly.

Mr. Hulot's Holiday (Jacques Tati, France, 1953, 87 minutes)
Netflix: Jacques Tati follows his acclaimed directorial debut Jour de FĂȘte with this gentle satire that introduced Tati's alter ego, Monsieur Hulot. When Hulot spends a holiday at a seaside resort, he accidentally wreaks good-natured havoc wherever he goes. Falling all over himself to impress a beautiful girl, Hulot inadvertently crashes a funeral, topples a priceless vase and ignites fireworks with his pipe -- all to hilarious effect. Netflix link.

If you're not familiar at all with the work of Jacques Tati, a good biographical sketch is available at the Senses of Cinema website's Great Directors page.

Mon Uncle (Jacques Tati, France, 1958, 115 minutes)
Netflix: Jacques Tati plays Monsieur Hulot, a self-absorbed chucklehead wrestling with neoteric gadgetry -- and losing -- in this satirical masterpiece that makes sport of mechanization, class distinctions and modernity. While visiting his sister's surreal, ultra-trendy home, Hulot finds himself incessantly at odds with newfangled contraptions that get the better of him. The tongue-in-cheek French comedy garnered a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Netflix link.

I was surprised how engaged my then-young nephews were when I had them sit down and watch Mon Oncle with me.  Perhaps they identified with the young boy with a strange, eccentric uncle.  In any case, language was not a barrier as Tati is a master of visual gags and storytelling.  I'd be curious to hear from other folks who have shared these earlier Tati films with younger viewers.

Playtime (Jacques Tati, France, 1967, 124 minutes)
Netflix: The celebrated Jacques Tati directs and stars in this brilliantly eccentric ode to humanity. Tati plays Monsieur Hulot, a Parisian who's befuddled by the changes he witnesses in his beloved city, which has grown increasingly touristy. As Hulot roams the uncomfortably modern Paris with a group of American tourists, his story epitomizes the struggle of modern man to maintain a soul in the face of an impersonal world. Netflix link.

Playtime ranks with the great films of all time, not just the great comedies.  I recommend watching it on a larger screen, because the image is packed with little gags in different parts of the frame, especially when the action moves to the opening night of a modern Parisian restaurant.

I look forward to hearing feedback and responses to these films, especially from first-time viewers.  --JLK

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