Tativille 2: “Ce ne sera plus mon film”
(it will be my film no longer)
François Truffaut had been ambivalent about Jacques Tati’s work (he’d called the director “laborious” in correspondence with Helen Scott), prior to watching Play time (1967). Having done so, he was awestruck, and immediately wrote Tati an exquisite letter to offer him sympathy for the disappointing reception, and tell him how much he had admired a film he realised was being woefully misunderstood and under-appreciated. It moved Tati deeply: such praise would have been touching at any time, but in 1968, to have Truffaut rally to one’s support was especially significant.
The appraisal of “a film from another planet, where they make films differently” was spot on. Play time is indeed one of that handful of films of which it may be truly said that you have never seen anything similar. And unlike many others in that handful – say, for example, Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) – it achieves uniqueness without compromising accessibility or entertainment value. It is one of the most original films ever; it might also be one of the most generous.
Truffaut suggested further that “Play time might be the Europe of 1968 as filmed by the first Martian filmmaker, their Louis Lumière”, who would “see what we don’t see anymore, and hear what we don’t hear anymore”. Less colourfully, he also observed that no film had ever been framed or mixed like that before. This had nothing to do with wishing to impart a particular style or affectation to the film: proof, there is nothing at all showy about Play time’s images or sound. Its aesthetic works through reduction and restraint, through an attempt at directorial self-effacement that is comparable to Hulot’s own. All at the service both of Play time’s themes of standardisation and loss of identity, and, foremost perhaps, of Tati’s perennial project of creating a “total” film, that would break the barriers of the screen and become an experience as immediate as watching a revue show – or, perhaps, life itself. Greater active involvement was expected from the audience than simply to sit back and watch.
It’s easy, then, to understand that he should not particularly care for telling stories or for plots, which, like Hitchcock, he saw as artificial constructs. (From a 1977 interview: “What you call plot in a film, it’s the director of the great company who has a son who is in love with his secretary. He refuses to allow his son to marry his secretary because she has no fortune. (…) So, for two hours it is explained to you that there is no way this can be arranged, because she has no financial means to marry the son of such an important gentleman. If, in the middle of the film, we discover that the young girl’s father has saved the great director’s life in the war, and that thanks to this, they will be able to marry, then you’ll have a dramatic construction, particularly if a dog comes and licks the couple’s hands in the end.”)
Worse than that, Tati regarded plots as restrictive goals . He wanted his audience to take the initiative of providing its own stories.  Dialogue wasn’t too important to his films, not because he was taking especial care to create purely visual cinema – there was nothing “pure” about his project – but because his ideal spectators should be more than that, and rather than sit in respectful silence, they should be able to comment on the action between themselves: look there, did you see that? In other words, he wanted to get away from the tradition of taking the public by the hand and guiding it step by step through a predetermined path (as quickly as possible, as he observed once, so that hopefully the public wouldn’t have time to remark on the commonplaces and clichés it was being fed) and present instead a universe in which spectators might lose themselves, or trace their own way, according to their desires.
Les vacances de M. Hulot (1953), the film that made Tati an international name, had been a bold step in that direction: it was near-plotless, but so entertaining that most of us only realise there was actually no story to speak of when we try to summarise it afterwards. It also earned a level of intellectual interest Tati, notwithstanding the seriousness of his ideals, had not expected: it was praised by remarkably weighty people (it was one of Ingmar Bergman’s favourite films; he acquired a copy for his private collection, and said several times that he could never tire of it) and attracted studies and appraisals of the utmost gravity. It forced Tati to up his ante; it also saddled him with the character of Hulot, which he would not be allowed to discard until his very last film, Parade (1974). 
Hulot was not a problem for the follow-up to Les vacances, as Mon oncle (1958) was built around the character and his family, but this was one of the reasons why Mon oncle itself was somewhat problematic for Tati: too much story, and too much of an anchor in Hulot. It’s tempting to see Play time as a sort of extension of Mon oncle, but Tati saw it instead as picking up, at least conceptually, from where Les vacances had left. He didn’t want to use Hulot anymore; having such a strong protagonist would clash with his cherished project of “democratising” the gag. He wanted to push this much further than in Les vacances, by dispensing with protagonists as much as possible; hopefully, altogether. Central characters were unwelcome because they would guide the spectator, whereas all persons inhabiting the frame should have their own moments, without particular rank or privilege. If Hulot had been a stock comedy character, Tati might have reemployed him over and over in different situations: Trafic would attempt a not entirely successful compromise along such lines, and it confirmed Tati’s misgivings. Developing Hulot further in terms of personality would also have been difficult, since he was more of an idea than an actual person. So much so, that Tati said more than once that he would have liked to see him appear in other directors’ films.
Pasolini promptly stepped up to oblige, but his Hulot would have been quite a different character that he proposed to feature in Porcile (1969), if one can judge from his stated wish to make Hulot look somewhat like Hitler. Once again, it would be Truffaut who would get it done (with Tati’s costume designer and regular double Jacques Cottin) in Domicile Conjugal (1970), which can rightly be called Tatiesque even without Hulot’s intervention; even with dialogue as a key element and a clear protagonist in Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) – himself a continuing character and director’s alter ego – the lovingly rendered block of apartments where Doinel lives with his wife Christine (Claude Jade), complete with lively, carefully orchestrated garrulous neighbours, could have been transported without change to Mon oncle’s St. Maur.
Much later, Brazilian architects Isay Weinfeld and Marcio Kogan would include a Hulot cameo in the sole feature they have directed to date, the little seen but lovely Fogo e Paixão (1988). This is a dream-like coach tour through a São Paulo reinvented by an aesthetically precocious 9-year old child (or two extremely playful architects), a semi-surrealist tribute to Tati which combines little bits from more or less all the Hulot films with plenty of jokes about the public personas of the cast. These are of course almost impossible to translate, but most of them work at more universal levels too.
Never mind how keen Tati was to see Hulot all over other people’s films: we know he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about seeing him in Play time. On the other hand, he would never have found a way to sell the project without Hulot. The compromise he found was much better than if he had got his original wish: since Hulot could not be absent, and Tati had already welcomed others to spread him un peu partout anyway, very well then, he would be everywhere indeed. The “real” Hulot, still incarnate and bumbling along under Tati’s traits, is joined by a multitude of “false” ones, who are constantly confused with the original.
Only after four false sightings, and only after being twice misidentified (and once sternly denied: “I’m not Hulot, what are you talking about?”), do we get to see the M. Hulot, who first appears as he alights from a bus – and crosses paths with another Hulot.
Just like the original, his “copies” are often busy disrupting the organised, regimented business of daily life (and at least one of them, it would seem, does so out of mischief), so that Hulot might indeed be seen as a type rather than an individual, or even something like a virus. (A benevolent strain of Ionesco’s Rhinocéros maybe?) And like someone carrying a virus, Hulot contaminates others around him with his off-the-grid, unwittingly Situationist behaviour. True, the analogy isn’t perfect: unlike the original, who still holds together whatever Play time has to offer in terms of centre and thread of narrative (whatever it has to offer in terms of narrative itself, in fact), the false Hulots are seldom more than fleeting appearances who do not necessarily have to do anything; just as often, they are simply passers-by.
And, of course, to chime with the various ghostly visions glimpsed through various glasses faintly of a former Paris, there is a fleeting appearance by the ghost of Hulot himself.
Glass is the key element of Play time. It’s what Tativille is made of, and it is given plenty to do: few other films will be able to boast such range and variation of gags involving glass. Tativille’s glass doors, as we’ve seen, conjure ghosts; perhaps in the same way that cinema itself captures its ghosts through a set of glasses (and, in 1967, another set of glasses was their only way back out), though this is perhaps going one concept too far for Tati, who, as he never failed to remind everyone, was “not an intellectual”. But ghosts are conjured, nevertheless.
So: glass conjures, glass is a screen, for projections and between people; it connects and it separates, it creates labyrinths, it confuses, disorients and misleads: what you see before you may be something else,
or somewhere else, what looks like it could be a window, from the way people sit facing it on either side, is a wall (albeit with back-to-back incrusted glass windows – into TV-land); if it looks like an open space, it’s a glass wall or a glass door; if it looks like a glass door, it’s nothing – though everyone keeps pretending the door is still there, even as its broken pieces are swept away; and you think those are ice cubes? From glass to glasses, these also amuse: their lenses flip, they get bent, mangled, broken, but are still worn afterwards. Glass is comedy.
Glass is magic, too: we speak of ghosts, and sometimes, what is before you may be behind you in time, a memory of an idea that is no longer there. In the end, when the virus has taken over, there is magic of a less melancholy kind: by flipping a window pane, the cleaner sends the tourists on a rollercoaster ride.
And glass is beauty: Tativille is made of monoliths, but those monoliths are made of glass. That is to say, the monoliths merge with everything around them, the surrounding world fuses into them. And if what surrounds the buildings is the sky, as in the opening credits, then we get a building full of clouds.
Interestingly for a film that derives so much from glass, no use is made of mirrors. In fact, mirrors may be absent altogether. Even Tativille’s polished metallic surfaces are non-reflective: the sets were covered with photographic prints of metallic surfaces, so as to make sure no crew or equipment might ever be caught by accident. (We know very well that there are no accidents in Tati films.) Perhaps mirrors are absent because, as Borges might have said, in a riddle whose answer is “mirror”, what’s the only forbidden word?
But even without mirrors, Hulot multiplies; and, as nearly everything about this film, this multiplicity admits of almost opposed readings. The seed of an idea that propagates despite an unfavourable environment, the seed of an idea that gently destabilises the environment, or a further dilution of individuality: can the outsider remain so once there’s an army of his equals parading around? As nearly everything about this film, it’s likely a mixture of the above. If a mixture, the seed still looks to be the stronger element, in view of the film’s progress and Tati’s keen populism. On the other hand, Hulot may be an outsider but he is hardly a nonconformist. In fact, he fails to say goodbye to Barbara precisely because, obedient to even the silliest convention to the last, he is unable to face up to a petty official ordering him about in the shop.
But this is not a problem: he manages to deliver his farewell present through a surrogate Hulot. 
More than some melancholy, bittersweet or potentially maudlin touch, Hulot’s entrapment in the rigid (and senseless) ways of the shop – a return to the regimented ways in which characters negotiate Orly airport in the beginning – is a political touch, encouraging us to break the rigidity of pre-established paths and find our own ways around. Tati spent much of his career urging his audience to do just the same, by providing as little as possible of the usual guidelines of plot, central characters… or directive framing. On just such ideological grounds, he hated close-ups, and avoided them for most of his career. (They would appear in Trafic and Parade. With a twist, however: both films mixed staged and documental shots, and the close-ups are always documental.) In Play time, there are not even medium close-ups; there is absolutely no framing to enhance detail. Tati populates the screen and leaves us to decide what we’ll follow.
He begins slowly, but already equivocally (we are in Orly Sud, but it might as well be a hospital), with only a few characters walking along wide corridors. Soon, however, the frame fills up.
Tati liked to say that Play time’s plot was a movement from straight lines to curves. Movement in Tativille is reasonably organised to begin with: people tend to walk down regular paths and turn at sharp angles. And indeed, the entire environment is constructed to maximise organisation.
Happily, however, the drive towards organisation cannot quite keep up, and as it progressively falters, so do the denizens of Tativille unwind. (This movement is accompanied by a gradual increase in vibrant colours.) Of course, the freedom Tati’s self-effacement as a director gives to the spectator is only made possible by the strenuous directing he has done; if we can decide for ourselves what to follow in each setting, it’s because each such setting has been as painstakingly and thoroughly choreographed as a Broadway dance number. We are left to our own devices only to the extent that we are allowed to choose from what Tati has provided us with. Granted, I’m not saying a lot here – it stands to reason that this must be true of all cinema, even that which incorporates improvised or accidental material; the dog in Pauline à la plage might conceivably have wandered in front of the camera of its own accord, but if so, allowing it to remain there will still have been Rohmer’s decision. (Not to mention printing that take rather than doing another one.) Even so, in a film that looks at some of the underhand ways in which freedom of choice may be restricted even while it is apparently stimulated, this is a paradox worth noting.
Tati’s origins were in music hall, and he spent his career trying to bring that kind of connection with the audience to the screen. You could say he was trying to create “live” cinema. He did come close to it in 1961, when he revived Jour de fête (1949), his first feature film, as part of a complex intermingling of music hall revue and cinema at the Olympia. Asked by his friend Bruno Coquatrix to help fill in a gap caused by Édith Piaf‘s ill-health, he used the opportunity to present a revised, partially hand-coloured re-issue of Fête which would literally come out of the screen. The first half of the show was given to a variety spectacle in the form of a village fair, with various performers playing, singing, and miming – including Tati himself, performing onstage the cycling lesson sketch from L’école des facteurs, his 1947 short which had introduced François, the protagonist of Fête. The screening of Fête itself took up the final half.
Throughout, film and live action merged: Jean-Claude Carrière described how “you would see a man onscreen walking down the street with a double bass, very, very hurried, very late, crossing the boulevard des Capucines, coming in through a door. You would then see him, perfectly matched, walk for real into the auditorium and take his place in the orchestra.” But the musician would have already been shown onscreen, stuck in traffic, at the point when a song had to be interrupted precisely because he was absent. And the traffic warden sorting out the traffic jam would turn out to be onstage. Similarly, Pierre Étaix would remember how “in the second half, theoretically reserved for the film, the fanfare would come out of the screen and appear onstage; the cyclist would cross the stage”. In anticipation of Play time, Tati planted several “false” Hulots among the audience, to be seen to walk out just in time for Tati to appear onstage. Once again, the randomness of life was reproduced through the most careful orchestration and exacting performance.
He took to assembling elaborate framing devices for his film screenings: external decorations for the cinemas, balloons, mime acts onstage preceding the show, brass bands parading in front of the cinema, but he would never achieve such a total effect again: the closest he would come to it, in terms of cinema, would be in Parade, which, like Jour de fête, is Hulot-less, thus bookending Tati’s career without the character that made it (even if Fête, unlike Parade, did not lack a protagonist). It is tempting to describe Parade as simply a filmed circus performance, except that the boundaries between performers and audience are thoroughly compromised before long, and it soon becomes clear that we cannot really tell what is and isn’t performance. All of Tati’s films contain something of Jour de fête: he never really left the village fair.
And, of course, Play time’s Tativille does eventually turn into a village fair, complete with modernised market stalls and a merry-go-round. People derail urban spaces and structures, disregarding their intended uses and substituting their own inventions: the transformation that began at the Royal Garden has spread to the whole city. Tati was presumably hoping that illustrating possible effects of the Hulot virus might inspire his spectators to carry it out of the screening room, and propagate it further. Situationism without the philosophy, politics without politics. Perhaps this was what he ultimately meant by the “democratisation of the gag”.
Play time’s projected closing sequence would have involved the transformation of all the characters, back at Orly, into their own silhouettes, which would then spill out into the auditorium, effectively merging the audience with the film and fulfilling Tati’s wish that “the film [should] begin when you leave the screening room!” He said this during a 1976 episode of Omnibus, so that he might not necessarily have been thinking of Play time only; this was, after all, the aim of everything he ever made.
 This is not a million miles away from Peter Greenaway’s thoughts on the misuse of cinema as mainly a storytelling device, which Greenaway feels is better left to books; but Greenaway’s project – deeply aestheticised, profoundly indebted to painting, concerned with visual literacy – couldn’t be further away from Tati’s. While it can be argued that both make the viewer very aware of the need to read an image attentively, Greenaway is nothing if not professorial (brilliantly so, and his films are all the better for that), whilst Tati, rather than telling viewers how to look at his pictures, preferred to let them figure it out by themselves.
 It got to a point where, still smarting from having been forced to make Hulot once again the protagonist as a condition for the financing of Trafic (1971), Tati made sure to kill Hulot right at the start of Confusion, the intended follow-up project. (As things turned out, Parade got made first.) He invited Sparks to collaborate in Confusion, and both Ron and Russell were supposed to play television professionals in it. The mind boggles. Alas, fortune did not smile; not much happened in terms of initial discussions and only a few songs the Maels wrote for the project eventually surfaced: the would-have-been title track, on Big Beat (1976), and a couple of others as a bonus on its 2006 reissue.
 From Les vacances de M. Hulot through to Trafic, Hulot’s relations with the opposite sex show a quaint progress: in Vacances, there is no question of Hulot even coming close to truly manifesting his interest; Mon oncle skips the issue, by including no love interest of any kind, although at one point Mme Arpel does try to make a totally inappropriate match; in Play time, Hulot ultimately fails to make his statement in person, and it’s not entirely clear whether Barbara realises straight away who has sent her the gift. In Trafic, Hulot’s farewell, he finally gets to walk away with the girl at the end, although not precisely into the sunset (it is raining, and they enter a Métro station).
Quotes & Links Jacques Tati and François Truffaut quotes taken from Play time by François Ede and Stéphane Goudet, ed. Cahiers du Cinéma 2002, Jacques Tati by David Bellos, ed. The Harvill Press 1999, Jacques Tati by Jean-Philippe Guerand, ed. Gallimard Folio Biographies 2007, Jacques Tati by Michel Chion, ed. Cahiers du Cinéma 2009, and François Truffaut Correspondance, ed. Hatier / 5 Continents 1988. Translations mostly mine. I am indebted to all of the above.
Tags: architecture, cinema, Claude Jade, Confusion (Tati project), Fogo e Paixão, François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Isay Weinfeld, Jacques Tati, Jean-Claude Carrière, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jorge Luis Borges, Jour de Fête, L'École des Facteurs (short), Les vacances de M. Hulot, Márcio Kogan, Mon Oncle, Parade (film), Peter Greenaway, Play Time, Sparks, The garden of forking paths, Trafic