A filmmaker of great visual sensibility, Jacques Tati still can, decades on, just through images, make us question our modern ways and values. And the most extraordinary part is that he does that through humour, humour that is almost entirely visual. He remains one of cinema’s most inventive stylists. His films, especially Mon oncle (1958) and Play Time (1967) were not just funny, they were comic yet profound. They did not criticise modernisation, but the inhuman side of modernisation. What he opposed was this: modernisation just for the sake of change. His films were not against progress, but were a plea for a sense of proportion and humanity against the automation of everyday life, against the consumer society that threatened the authentic and unaffected old ways of life and hailed a culture whose only concern was for status and appearances. Jacques Tati’s main concern was for people to remain human.
He directed his satire against uniformity and the crush of individuality and the rapid disappearance of an earthy way of life. Against a world that is slightly off, a clinical modernity that is concerned with controlling every action and emotion and blocks out any feeling or living out of impulse and spontaneity. Against a world that chases wealth and forgets how to enjoy life, showing how automation, supposedly designed to improve the quality of life, works against comfort, relaxation and pleasure. He opposed the inhuman efficiency of modernisation for instilling deafening routine in people and for annihilating freedom of the mind and of having fun, for triggering mechanical and passive behaviour in people, for baffling the senses, for fostering anonymity, alienation and a lack of communication. He brilliantly revealed the imposing ways of modernisation by showing the rituals of everyday life.
It seems to me that his concerns are picture clear of many wrongs of our modern day society. Maybe we should at least do a little exercise and every once in a while do what Jacques Tati so brilliantly did in his films: give every single object of modern existence (with the proper adaptation to the present day) – television, car, supermarket, phone – new form as a comic object. We may learn something from this experience and I believe that, in the time of Alexa, gadgets and digital-everything, it’s imperative that we guard our ability to judge the benefits and disadvantages of technology, especially during this crisis when we are prone to see only the good parts that it brings us.
The book Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism, by Malcolm Turvey, is a beautiful and incisive piece of writing that offers a substantial and academic view, but a perfectly accessible one at that, on the filmography of Jacques Tati and places it in the context of the times.
Here is another exercise. First, a few depictions from the Arpels’ life in Mon oncle: Neither of the Arpels plays with their son and Gérard is usually positioned in shots away from his parents in the background or off to one side, forced to amuse himself. Nor do they say much to him except to harangue him about tidying his room and staying clean, and at one point, when Gérard runs into the house to talk to his mother, he is confronted by a loud, automatic vacuum cleaner. When they give him a gift, his father places it in front of the boy and immediately walks away. We are living critical times, so especially now maybe the lines written above will give us reason to reflect when it comes to our modern-day and present-day relationship with our children. Jacques Tati’s films have a unique, comic yet heartfelt, way of mirroring life and contemporary society that, all these years later, continues to feel relevant. Maybe it’s time we revisited them.
“The trouble is the top people have forgotten
to leave room for adjustment and for spare time.”
“I feel sad because I have the impression
that people are having less and less fun.”
“What I condemn in the ‘new’ life is precisely
the disappearance of any respect for the individual.”
“My job is not to criticize, but to bring a little smile.”