Competing in the “national documentary” category of Fipadoc, “Jacques Tati, fallen from the moon”, by Jean-Baptiste Péretié tells us with infinite elegance the success and fall of Jacques Tati. Back in five points with the director on the unique journey of the author of “Playtime”.
You have to imagine the documentary filmmaker Jean-Baptiste Péretié in full confinement, immersed in Ali Baba’s cave in the Tati archives, where the spirit of the filmmaker of Celebration day. ” A real joy “, remembers the author of Jacques Tati, fallen from the moon, who came out of this “organized mess” the inspiring material of a portrait “all in Tati”, as the saying goes “everything in archive”. This place reminiscent of the poetic universe of Monsieur Hulot teems with stage photographs, costumes, decorative elements (such as the fish-fountain designed for My uncle), Oscar (received for the same film), letters, abundant documentation on the production of Playtime (1967) — from early scouting photos, to newsreels celebrating his release, to footage of set construction, filming and even mixing, which show the filmmaker exhausted and biting his nails.
Cheerfully drawing from this gold mine made available to him by Macha Makeïeff and Les films de Mon oncle, Jean-Baptiste Péretié has composed a documentary which opens and closes on the mad enterprise of Playtime, his dazzling artistic success and equally obvious commercial failure. It tells the story of a singular filmmaker, who devoted himself entirely to the practice of his art, but also reveals a poetic relationship to modernity which subtly rubs off on this documentary of great graphic and musical elegance. — madly “tatiesque”, in short. And from which Jean-Baptiste Péretié says he came out more than ever in love with this visionary of unparalleled talent.
1 – Buster Keaton’s Legacy
“By working in 2015 on Buster Keaton, a genius broken by Hollywood, I discovered how much Tati appreciated the filmmaker of Cameraman. When the author of My uncle (1958) made the trip to America to receive the Oscar for best foreign film, he was offered to meet the big stars of the moment. He prefers comic artists, who are no longer at the center of the Hollywood game: Stan Laurel, Harold Lloyd… and Keaton. I love the photos that show them chatting like two kids. In a way, Tati’s cinema pays homage to Keaton’s. Like him, he comes from the music hall. Their comedy, both, passes above all through the expression of the body. This is why Tati only films wide shots; the close-up does not interest him, not allowing him to grasp the body in action.
But if Celebration day (1949) is still closely linked to the universe of burlesque, his following films move away from it, to assert more and more a style that belongs only to him. François Truffaut, who had not been kind in his criticism of My uncle, taxing him with “reactionary”, expressed his enthusiasm in the letter he wrote to her after his discovery of Playtime : “It’s a film that comes from another planet, where films are shot differently. […] The Europe of 1968 filmed by the first Martian filmmaker ! »
His use of the wide shot also allows him to disseminate gags inside the frame, offering viewers the possibility of seeing different things in the same image. This audacious idea is part of a very modern and disconcerting conception of staging. One of the great differences of his cinema compared to burlesque is due to its eminently sonic dimension. Keaton would also have asked Tati to add sound to his films – which ultimately did not happen. »
2 – The cumbersome Monsieur Hulot
“Tati was more interested in his work as a filmmaker than in his work as an actor. If he owed a large part of his success to his character, it weighed on him to the point that he sought to get rid of it. He said he wanted Hulot to come out of his cinema, to be able to circulate in other films, for other filmmakers to take it over. In 1970, François Truffaut moreover gave a nod to Hulot, by making him appear in Marital home, in the guise of Jacques Cottin, Tati’s costume designer since Postman School (1947).
After the bitter commercial failure of Playtime, in which Hulot disappears from the screen for about forty minutes, Tati is asked to put him back in the center of Traffic (1971). However, that didn’t stop him from trying to shoot him at the beginning of Confusion, which he wrote at the end of his life and could not turn. Federico Fellini could have taken him out of his character, toying with the project of having him play Don Quixote in an adaptation of Cervantes which never saw the light of day. There is indeed something very quixotic about Tati. »
3 – An eye on America
“His work can be understood as a French look at the United States. And this, from Celebration day, which recounts the arrival, in a Berry village, of American methods of mail delivery. Although he is deeply rooted in the French terroir, Tati’s gaze is open to elsewhere. I am particularly sensitive to the way he evokes the Americans. If he makes fun of them a lot in Playtime, he does it by always remaining very tender and very funny. After the success met across the Atlantic by Mr. Hulot’s Holidays (1953), not to mention the triumph he experienced there My uncle, much of its audience is in the United States. So he hoped that Playtime walk there to enable it to recover, to escape ruin. But it found no takers in America. »
4 – A modern critic
“It’s too easy to define Tati as an anti-modern who attacks progress. The truth is more subtle. Admittedly, he takes a very critical look at the cult of technology, particularly in My uncle, where it hinders communication even in families. Reading the script Confusion — a very surprising and even visionary document — one can imagine how it would have made us reflect on our relationship to screens and on the way we evolve in the city, our noses plunged into our telephones. But he was no more anti-progress than hostile to the spirit of his time. He had also decided to entrust the music for this film to the Sparks, who collaborated with Léos Carax on Annette. What he criticizes is not the technology itself, but the use that is too often made of it; our propensity, not to use it wisely, but to find ourselves used by it.
Tati’s films testify to great technical rigor and a desire to take advantage of the latest discoveries, as when he aims to direct Celebration day in color, with a new process called Thomsoncolor. He also corresponded with Stanley Kubrick on technical matters at the time of Playtime, shot in 70 mm as, at the same time, 2001, a space odyssey. »
5 – Great ethics
“I find his refusal of the Medal of Arts and Letters very touching, expressed in very funny terms. I also like this archive, in which he says that one may be tempted to shoot an advertisement to afford a bathroom, but that he prefers to put aside his personal interests to put his films in the foreground; even if it means having to mortgage his house as he did to finance Playtime, whose failure forced him to produce advertisements for automobiles, yoghurts and pasta. It’s all the more sad that these little films have nothing extraordinary about them.
His work ethic comes straight from the music hall, where you repeat a number until you reach perfection. A quest that leads him to sometimes shoot more than twenty takes of the same shot, and earned him the nickname of “Picky” by his team. It also leads him to consider his films as never quite finished. Even after they came out, he sometimes resumes editing them, being able to retouch them twenty-five years later, as he did for Mr. Hulot’s Holidays. That said, while being absolutely precise, it has this completely “off” side, like “falling from the moon”, for example never knowing what time it is. I find this alliance very beautiful.
His cinema, basically, is a school of the gaze. He teaches us to keep a smile for all those things that annoy us on a daily basis and that Tati understands like no one else. The word “observation” comes up very often in his interviews. When we have seen his films, we look at life a little differently. Knowing how to laugh at it with a critical sense not devoid of indulgence, we find ourselves a little less attacked by the world as it is. »
U Jacques Tati, fallen from the moon, documentary by Jean-Baptiste Péretié (France, 2021). 60 mins. Unpublished, to discover in Biarritz, within the framework of Fipadoc:
> Wednesday 19, 2.30 p.m., at the municipal casino
> Saturday 22, 9:30 a.m., at the Colosseum
(Fipadoc, international documentary festival, until January 23, Biarritz).