Jacques Lagrange

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Play Time Review

Studios have largely given the practice up, but there was a time when blockbusters were advertised with such slogans as "Ten Years in the Making!" Following was the cost of the film, a figure falling on the profligacy scale somewhere between "unseemly" and "obscene." Studios must have thought they were luring patrons with slogans like these or they wouldn't have used them. But what they were really doing was providing a kind of early warning system. In Hollywood it's not possible for a filmmaker to stay true to a vision for a span of ten years and have the finished product resemble what he originally envisioned: by that time too many writers will have been brought in, too many concessions made, too many leads will have accepted, demanded rewrites, and bowed out. It's possible for a studio to stay committed to a project that long; but the only possible reason it could take ten years for a studio to finish a project is that the project is in deep trouble. Two examples spring to mind of films thus advertised: Cleopatra and The Hindenburg, and with those I rest my case. Rare indeed is the film artist who has the tenacity to stick to a vision through ten years of production without compromising his ideals.

Jacques Tati was such a man, and his Play Time is the fruit of ten years of concerted effort, an effort that left the popular French filmmaker bankrupt, homeless, without much by way of future projects, and without the rights to his previous films. Play Time was to be the follow-up to Tati's successful Mon Oncle, the 1958 comic vehicle featuring the filmmaker's beloved screen persona Monsieur Hulot. (M. Hulot first appeared in 1953's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, a title that perhaps remains France's best-loved comedy.) Tati, always an adventurous director, was tired of the character, though, and longed for something larger - a movie, as he said, about "everyone." He accordingly developed an ambitious idea for a comedy that focused not on one person, but on dozens; the film was to be essentially plotless, dealing in a circuitous way with the search for a human heartbeat in the steel and glass of modern society. By 1959 he had formulated enough of an idea that contracts with his studio were signed and the quest for Play Time had begun.

Continue reading: Play Time Review

Mr. Hulot's Holiday Review

Director Richard Lester once famously described the 1953 Jacques Tati comedy Mr. Hulot's Holiday as the best movie ever made. Looking at Lester's work -- especially his classic A Hard Day's Night -- you can read Tati's influence all over it: it's there in the film's loose structure, casual running jokes, and rich supporting roles. But the closest homage Lester pays to Tati is in A Hard Day's Night tone: its gentle, humanist slapstick is very directly derived from that of Tati. Even in Chaplin, that quiet, radiant quality of Tati's finds no close screen equivalent. It set his films apart, and it's that quality -- together with Tati's oddball timing -- that renders his work unique.

Tati was France's most treasured screen comedian, and Mr. Hulot's Holiday is widely considered his masterpiece. His major films centered on his screen alter-ego, the goofy, accident-prone M. Hulot, who smoked a pipe, walked with a Groucho-like gait, and wore a signature trenchcoat long before that garment bore any relation to flashers or, later, gun-wielding teens. As a plot, Mr. Hulot's Holiday recounts this character's summer vacation at a seaside resort. But the plot, in Tati, is just a skeleton upon which the gags are hung, and in Holiday these gags occur with Naked Gun-like frequency.

Continue reading: Mr. Hulot's Holiday Review

Mon Oncle Review

Very Good
We always hold it against the French that they love Jerry Lewis -- it's a valid complaint -- but their taste in homegrown screen comedians is light years better than their taste in imports, and their favorite there has always been Jacques Tati. In his best movies, Tati played a character named Monsieur Hulot, an awkward, likable bachelor invariably attired in a sporty hat and trenchcoat, who clenched a pipe in his teeth at all times and took an interest in anyone or anything that passed his way. For Tati, Hulot embodied all that was warm and human in his homeland: he frequented the kind of small café that Paris is famous for, bought food from vegetable carts, lived in a Mansard-roofed walk-up, and knew all his neighbors and all his neighbors' pets. In Hulot's France friendly dogs play the day away in packs, laundry hangs from balconies, and the girl downstairs has a taste for sweets.

But in 1958 there was another kind of France wending its way into the Old World, and in Mon Oncle ("my uncle") Hulot's young nephew lives there. Attained by crossing over a broken down fence, this French neighborhood is ultra-modern and its architecture is automated and inhumanly chic. The plot of Mon Oncle, almost in its entirety, is that the young nephew prefers his eccentric uncle's company to that of his mother, who makes a frantic practice of keeping up with the Joneses, or his father, who works (where else?) in a plastics plant. But, as with all Tati, the jokes are in the details and not in the story.

Continue reading: Mon Oncle Review

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