A user’s guide to the modern world... according to Jacques Tati

The films of comic genius Jacques Tati take us on a tour of modern life, pitting Monsieur Hulot against the cities, buildings, cars, trains, furniture and gadgets that define our era.

David Parkinson
Updated:

Playtime (1967)

Playtime (1967)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

The modern world has it in for the characters played by Jacques Tati in the five features he directed between 1949-71. But neither François the postman nor Monsieur Hulot seems to suspect a thing, as he strides angularly between chaotic situations with the assurance of a sleepwalker.

Indeed, in Jour de fête (1949), François positively embraces modernity in seeking to speed up his round using methods employed by the US Postal Service, while the novel and the new-fangled forever fascinate (and occasionally frustrate) the guileless Hulot in Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1952), Mon oncle (1958), Playtime (1967) and Trafic (1971).

Yet animate and inanimate objects alike conspire against them at every turn, with plants and animals as likely to confound them as mod cons and motor vehicles.

Playtime (1967)

Playtime (1967)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

One of the reasons why Hulot keeps finding himself knee-deep in predicaments is the old-world civility that prevents him from questioning another person’s assertion of right, no matter how muddled or misguided it may be. Consequently, he goes with the flow and frequently gets swept along by gaggling groups of pedestrians, businessmen and tourists, who deposit him in the architectural monstrosities where his next misadventure will start.

Mon oncle (1958)

Mon oncle (1958)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

Hulot doesn’t go looking for trouble, but he doesn’t always have the nous to lie low when it finds him. And find him it does, as a travelling fair comes to the sleepy country village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre in Jour de fête and the idyllic seaside hideaway of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer is overrun by a charabanc full of holidaymakers in Les Vacances de M. Hulot. Cosy enclaves also exist in Mon oncle and Trafic, where people accept each other at face value and take life as it comes.

But the city slickers insist on seizing the initiative in Mon oncle and Playtime and Hulot quickly becomes a stranger in the strange lands of the Villa Arpel and Tativille, which were designed by Jacques Lagrange to make modernity look both grand and grotesque.

Playtime (1967)

Playtime (1967)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

Yet dotted around the latter’s soulless jungle of concrete, metal and glass are numerous lookalikes, whose distinctive uniform of soft hat, mackintosh, half-mast trousers, stripy socks and rolled-up umbrella suggest that, for all society’s attempts to impose conformity, the naively subversive Hulot is not alone.

Bicycles

Jour de fête (1949)

Jour de fête (1949)

Although Monsieur Hulot rides a VéloSoleX motorised bicycle in Mon oncle (and leaves it in his bigwig brother-in-law’s parking space at his factory), cycling is more synonymous with François in Jour de fête. With his bell tinkling, he hurtles along country lanes at such a lick that he briefly holds the lead in a cycle race until his bike becomes airborne after getting caught on a level-crossing barrier.

Accidents are never far away, as François gets trapped between a mule and its cart, misses a turning and lands in a pond, and twice crashes through the door of the village café to land, inexplicably, in the upstairs window. He even turns his cycle into a ‘helicopter’ while repairing a puncture and tries to ride the fence against which he had propped the machine during a night of carousing.

Jour de fête (1949)

Jour de fête (1949)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

But, having seen a film about modern American postal methods and been taught a new riding style by two fairground barkers on a merry-go-round bicycle, François hitches a ride from the tailgate of a passing truck and uses it as a desk to frank his letters as he furiously pedals along.

Cars

Cars prove problematic from the moment that François’s bike gets snagged on the side door of a motor passing through the village in Jour de fête. But Hulot has the most car trouble on his seaside vacation.

Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953)

Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

His rickety 1924 Amilcar CGS is first seen juddering over cobbles that expose the limitations of its suspension. But its soft top is no more roadworthy and it collapses as Hulot tries to help a fellow holidaymaker catch a missed coach. Consequently, he veers into a cemetery, where his leaf-covered inner tube is mistaken for a funeral wreath, which proceeds to deflate.

Having been towed back to the resort, Hulot trips over the tow rope and plunges into the dock. Later, while trying to repair a puncture, he accidentally places the jack under the back seats and raises his female passengers into the air before tilting the car off its axis and bumping into another vehicle, which promptly rolls down a hill.

Trafic (1971)

Trafic (1971)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

Hulot has no more luck in Trafic, as the DAF in which he sits at the motor show turns out to be a cutaway section on a rotating dais that turns him upside down.

Trains, trucks, boats and buses

Trains only feature fleetingly in the world the Institut Français d’Architecture called ‘Tatirama’, as a drunken François dozes off in a truck in a siding, while the station tannoy sends passengers scurrying between platforms as they try to board their train in Les Vacances de M. Hulot.

Trafic (1971)

Trafic (1971)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

But a truck causes Hulot plenty of problems in Trafic. It’s carrying the ingenious Altra campervan that he has designed for an exhibition in Amsterdam. However, it persistently breaks down and Hulot and his driver have to spend a night at a canalside garage, where they watch TV coverage of a moon landing (which suggests that some technology can be reliable).

Altra’s publicist bunks down in a boat, but Hulot has less luck with a sea kayak on his holiday, as he gets trapped inside when it folds itself in half and is mistaken for a shark by the people on the beach.

Many of them arrived by bus and the tourists in Playtime find themselves heading back to the airport in a coach that becomes stuck in a traffic jam that circles a roundabout like a giant carousel.

Playtime (1967)

Playtime (1967)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

Doors and windows

Few things cause Hulot more grief than doors and windows, even in cosy old buildings like his seaside hotel. He lets a gale blow through the lounge while fetching his luggage and forever pops his head out of his garret skylight to check he is not being pursued after his latest mishap.

Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953)

Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

Doors at a neighbouring guest house and a hiking hut also get the better of him and he fares no better in Mon oncle, as he manages to pull the Villa Arpel’s electric gate off its hinges and uses its eye-like upper windows to dry his socks after stepping into the fountain pond. His sister and her husband also get stuck behind their new automatic garage door. But, back at his rundown digs, Hulot uses his window to reflect sunlight on to a caged bird to encourage it to sing.

Mon oncle (1958)

Mon oncle (1958)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

However, he shows no such delicacy at the Royal Garden restaurant in Playtime, as he smashes the glass in the main entrance and later pulls down part of the ceiling above the dance floor.

Hosepipes and water features

The first gag in French cinema involved a hosepipe and Tati regularly pays homage to Louis Lumière’s L’Arroseur arrosé (1895). François falls into a hole while holding a hose in Jour de fête and the jet cascades upwards. Hulot desperately needs a hose after letting off a shed full of fireworks in Les Vacances, but has to make to do with following a rotating sprinkler with a watering can.

Mon oncle (1958)

Mon oncle (1958)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

But the battle is only fully engaged in Mon oncle. During a garden party at the Villa Arpel, Hulot plants a pesky spiked holder into the gravel, only to puncture the pipe feeding the aluminium fish fountain. He tries to stop the gushing jet with his foot, but succeeds in soaking the other guests, which he does again by tinkering with the on/off switch after Arpel orders his assistant to dig down and repair the leak.

Mon oncle (1958)

Mon oncle (1958)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

Worse is to follow, after Hulot’s sister persuades her husband to give him a job at his factory and Hulot allows a machine churning out piping to put kinks into the red plastic so that it resembles a long string of sausages, which proves very tricky to dispose of after hours.

Mon oncle (1958)

Mon oncle (1958)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

Gadgets

Although he could easily live without them, gadgets intrigue Monsieur Hulot. Consequently, he takes the opportunity to sample some hot jazz on the record player at the seaside hotel, only for the volume to prompt one of the other guests to turn it off in disgust. When the same disc blares out later in the picture, an indignant throng piles into the anteroom to give Hulot a ticking off. But the culprit is a young boy, who also enjoys watching Hulot dance at the sparsely attended masked ball.

A radio broadcasts grim news throughout Hulot’s stay. But, while he never pauses to listen, he does take the chance to watch a little television in both Playtime and Trafic, with the screen in the former being set against a party wall, so that it looks from a distance as though the neighbours are watching each other’s lives for their evening amusement.

Playtime (1967)

Playtime (1967)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

The architecture in this sequence recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s equation of windows and screens in Rear Window (1954). But Hulot’s contretemps with the automatic kitchen doors in Mon oncle owes more to Charlie Chaplin or Stan Laurel, especially when he breaks a glass when testing if it bounces off the floor like a plastic water jug.

Such mod cons come in for further mockery in Playtime, as Hulot tours an ideal home exhibition showcasing flip-lens make-up glasses, pedal bins resembling ancient Greek columns, and doors that slam in golden silence.

Furnishings

Mon oncle (1958)

Mon oncle (1958)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

Comfortable furniture simply don’t exist in Hulot’s world. He sinks deep into the first chair he tries on the Arpel patio and insists on eschewing its modishness for something with a flat seat and a straight back. Similarly, when he crashes out for the night after taking his nephew for a walk, he turns a trendy sofa on its side so that it better suits his long, angular frame.

The padding of the black chairs catches his attention in the glass waiting room in Playtime, with the hissing sound the PVC makes as each buttock imprint recedes being of particular interest. But the backs of the crown-shaped chairs make even more of an impression on the diners’ jackets at the Royal Garden, while their sharp points tear the clothing of the waiters squeezing through the narrow gaps between the tables. Nothing has been well designed here, with the serving hatches being too narrow for platters to pass through and the heating being turned up so high that a model aeroplane behind the bar begins to melt.

Trafic (1971)

Trafic (1971)
Credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

By contrast, the gadgets that Hulot has created for the campervan in Trafic are much more user-friendly, as he has put people before aesthetic posturing and this artless humanity is the key to appreciating Tati’s cinema.

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