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Jacques Tati: Critiquing Modern Life Through Comedy

Jacques Tati, the creator of the lovably bumbling comedic character Monsieur Hulot, inspired a style of visual comedy that was part slapstick and part social critique. Capturing the growing obsession with consumerism, Tati channeled his anxieties about changing social relationships and the isolating effect of cities being transformed by technology and ultra-modern design.

The films of Jacques Tati are as entertaining as they are thematically intriguing. On one level, the amusing antics of Tati’s character Monsieur Hulot employ a comical series of mishaps – many of which also interrogate issues of modernisation, urbanisation and the synthetic relationships that develop as a result. The films of Jacques Tati prove not only revolutionary in the comedy canon of international filmmaking, but also essential in exploring themes of technology, commercialisation, and the rise of a consumer class with a deftly humorous touch.

Jour de fête (The Big Day), filmed in 1947, was Tati’s first feature length film in which he also directed. As a precursor to Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character, Jour de fête told the story of a comically bumbling and incompetent postman who is distracted from his professional tasks by a visiting fair that arrives in his town. Setting forth a pattern that Tati would continue to follow, Jour de fête employed carefully interspersed sound effects with theatrical acting to create a rollicking comedy of errors. The film not only served as its director’s formal introduction to the international film circuit, but also established his control and natural comedic gifts as a cinematic storyteller.

Around this time, the character of Monsieur Hulot took shape. Tati’s pipe smoking, raincoat sporting comically bumbling persona, remains one of films’ most iconic roles and makes appearances in all but two of Tati’s films. In 1953, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday introduced movie-going audiences to the sweetly endearing but woefully inept figure of Monsieur Hulot on a beach holiday. Nominated for a ‘Best Writing, Story and Screenplay’ Academy Award in 1956 following its international release, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday continued in the mold of comedic brilliance that Tati first displayed in Jour de fête.

Through the 1950s and 60s, Tati continued to develop narratives featuring Monsieur Hulot. Mon Oncle (My Uncle), the story of Monsieur Hulot’s ill-fated attempted to adapt to the technologically advanced lives of his sister and her family let to Tati’s winning the coveted ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ Oscar. Tati’s concluding duo of directorial efforts in feature length films, 1967’s Playtime and 1971’s Trafic (Traffic), follow Mr. Hulot on his final hilariously catastrophic adventures.Whilst Tati moved away from feature length films after Trafic, he continued to act, produce and make short films until his death in 1982.Through Monsieur Hulot, Tati introduced a comedic style that particularly reflected the post-war period of 1950s and 60s Europe.