Jacques Tati, France’s Answer to Charlie Chaplin

The French director, who passed away 40 years ago, democratized and modernized American comedy. He enjoyed widespread acclaim in the United States, where he won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1959 for My Uncle, a satiric take on contemporary society in the grips of newfound modernity and Americanization. Malcolm Turvey is a professor of film and media studies at Tufts University and has had a lifelong admiration for the filmmaker, who is the subject of his book Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism. According to him, Tati is the Tramp without Chaplin!
Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, 1953. © Specta Films C.E.P.E.C./Les Films de Mon Oncle

France-Amérique: What led you to write a book on Jacques Tati?

Malcolm Turvey: Growing up in the U.K., I was introduced to Tati’s films as a teenager by my parents at a repertory theater, and I have loved them ever since. My parents weren’t highly educated or sophisticated, but they loved cinema and they delighted in exposing me and my sister to films and art more broadly. When I started studying film in graduate school, I realized Tati was held in very high esteem by film scholars as well as cinephiles. This is what drew me to writing a book about him. On the one hand, he appeals to people like my parents – lovers of cinema, to be sure, but not educated cinephiles with any knowledge of elite film culture. On the other, he is almost universally hailed as one of the greatest postwar European filmmakers by film critics and scholars. There are very few filmmakers who are embraced by both constituencies, and my book is in part an attempt to explain how and why this happened.

Is he that significant in the history of contemporary cinema and for American audiences?

I don’t think Tati’s work has had much direct influence on contemporary filmmaking – although British comedian Rowan Atkinson has reportedly acknowledged that his character Mr. Bean is indebted to Tati. Nevertheless, his films remain beloved. In a 1996 list of the greatest directors by Entertainment Weekly, Tati is ranked number 46, and his movie Playtime (1967) numbered 43rd in Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll of the greatest films ever made. Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) was made, according to the director, partly in homage to Tati, and David Lynch selected My Uncle (1958) to screen as one of five “masterpieces” that had “inspired” him the most at the American Film Institute festival in 2010. There are frequent exhibitions and retrospectives of Tati’s work, such as the Cinémathèque Française’s Jacques Tati : Deux temps, trois mouvements in the spring of 2009. All six of Tati’s features, along with his surviving shorts, have also been released on DVD and Blu-ray in Europe and the United States. Documentaries continue to be made about the director, such as The Magnificent Tati (Michael House, 2009), and one of Tati’s unrealized scripts was made into a feature-length animated film called The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010). Most importantly, a number of Tati’s films have been restored and rereleased, including a glorious 70-millimeter restoration of Playtime that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002.

Jacques Tati in New York, October 1958. © Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

You describe Tati as part of comedic modernism. What do you mean by that?

Basically, what I mean is that Tati was very self-conscious about the fact he was making comic films in the wake of one of the greatest traditions in the history of cinema. This was the tradition of comedy that flowered in the silent era in the films of the great French comic Max Linder, of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and many others, and then continued into the early sound era with the Marx Brothers, Mae West, and so on. Like many artists who arrive on the scene belatedly, Tati questioned whether he could make an original contribution to this tradition. His answer was that he could by modernizing it (hence “comedic modernism”), by making it more “democratic.” He felt that the focus of traditional comic films on the “star comedian” was an anachronism in the modern, post-World War II world and he therefore, among various other innovations, tried to include as many other characters as possible in the comedy of his films.

Tati admitted he was influenced by U.S. comic actors like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Would you say he was the French Harold Lloyd or the French Charlie Chaplin?

He was certainly influenced by Keaton and Chaplin. However, he also wanted to be original, and in interviews he frequently differentiated his comic style from theirs. For example, he claimed that his comic character, Monsieur Hulot, whom he played in four out of his six feature films, “didn’t invent anything,” while Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, “is always inventing something.” By this, he meant that the Tramp often performs virtuoso gags, such as the dance with the bread rolls in The Gold Rush (1925). Tati’s comic character Monsieur Hulot, by contrast, never performs gags. Instead, Tati argued, he is always causing humor “unwittingly.” Comic incidents, with a few exceptions, befall Monsieur Hulot by chance, and Tati wanted his viewers to see Hulot as somebody very ordinary, just like themselves. He remarked that Hulot “behaves exactly like any man from Paris or even the provinces,” and he said that “what happened to Monsieur Hulot [in his films] could happen to a lot of people. There are many Hulots in life.” His point was that we are all Hulots, that comic incidents happen to all of us, every day. We don’t need a special, skilled comedian such as Chaplin or Keaton (or Tati himself) for comedy. Instead, if we observe our surroundings closely, we will see comedy happening all around us all the time. This is what I mean when I say that Tati sought to modernize comedy by democratizing it. He felt that comedy should not be dependent on a comic star such as Chaplin, but instead that we can and should find our own comedy in everyday life. Indeed, I call his comedy “the comedy of everyday life” in my book.

The futuristic home of the Arpel family in the film My Uncle (1958) is an allusion to the works by famous architect Le Corbusier, in vogue in the 1950s. © Specta Films C.E.P.E.C./Les Films de Mon Oncle
This scene from Playtime (1967) mocks the standardization of society and individuals, showing four men dressed the same way getting into exactly the same car at the end of their workday. © Specta Films C.E.P.E.C./Les Films de Mon Oncle
Playtime's final scene ends with the non-stop carousel of cars and buses on a roundabout in Paris. © Specta Films C.E.P.E.C./Les Films de Mon Oncle

America is present throughout Tati’s work. In his first movie, Jour de fête (1949), a French mailman decides to become as efficient as his U.S. counterparts and meets GIs on his rounds. Would you say Tati was anti-American, which was a common ideology in France at that time?

I think Tati’s attitude toward the United States was complex. Like other French artists and intellectuals of his generation, he was concerned that the influx of American movies, advertisements, books, popular music, and other consumer items into France after the war was a form of American cultural imperialism that erased cultural differences. In his films, especially in My Uncle and Playtime, there is a recurring theme of a standardized, Americanized, international culture that is the same everywhere and particularly evident in modern architecture. In Playtime, for instance, you see posters for a variety of tourist destinations – Hawaii, Mexico, Stockholm – and each feature the same modern building in the international style, as if there is no longer any difference between these places. At the same time, Tati was influenced by American culture, especially the films of Chaplin, Keaton, and so on, and his films often feature American characters or products that disrupt the homogeneity of the modern environment. In Playtime, a rowdy American businessman encourages the rigid, supercilious French to let their hair down and have fun in the restaurant. In My Uncle, an American car, a pink and lime green 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, introduces color and playfulness into the uniformly black, gray, and white French carscape we have seen throughout the film. Tati was, I think, ambivalent toward the United States, as were the French more broadly. He drew on American culture even while he was critical of its dominance. As the historian Richard Pells, who has written a wonderful book on this subject, puts it, “even when Europeans did borrow American ideas or imitate American patterns of behavior, the ideas and behavior were modified to suit the special requirements of France.” This is certainly true of Tati, who, like the New Wave filmmakers who came after him (Truffaut, Godard, etc.), borrowed a largely American genre (the comedy of Chaplin, etc.) while modifying it to suit his culturally specific concerns.

I rather see Tati as a nostalgic observer of the cultural Americanization of France. He regrets the good old world, but he believes there is no way to escape the U.S. approach to housing (My Uncle), working (Playtime), and driving (Traffic). Would you agree?

Yes, I agree, but with one caveat. His films do not represent or espouse any resistance to what you call cultural Americanization. Indeed, the French in his films by and large embrace it. This suggests that he was realistic, and that he realized there was no stopping it, even though, as I mentioned before, this does not mean he simply copied American culture. Tati and the French in general, it seems to me, “modify” (as Richard Pells puts it) American culture to suit their culturally specific needs. The caveat is that, as I argue in my book, Tati felt cultural modernization and Americanization drained the fun out of life. He wanted his viewers to realize that even the most dreary and drab modern environments could become playgrounds. Hence, at the end of Playtime, a traffic circle is transformed into a merry-go-round, while in My Uncle people seem to be dancing in an airport parking lot and Monsieur Arpel and his son have fun together for the first time. Joy is still possible in the modern world, Tati seems to be suggesting, as long as you adopt the right attitude.

Jacques Tati with Shirley MacLaine (left), Sophia Loren, and Dean Martin at the Academy Awards ceremony, in Hollywood, on April 6, 1959. © D.R.

The French are mostly unaware that Tati received an Oscar for My Uncle. What did the Americans like in this movie? Was it a precursor to Amélie with clichés about an eternal France? My Uncle was a big hit in the U.S., which does not happen often with French movies.

Yes, My Uncle received the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1959. (Tati accepted it in person from Cyd Charisse and Robert Stack at the awards ceremony!) Why did it win? During his acceptance speech, Tati said that “Hollywood was the beginning of film comedy,” and I suspect that My Uncle won because it was part of a recognizable Hollywood genre, no matter how much it departed from that genre. The modernization that it satirizes was also being experienced by Americans in the United States. Like Tati’s films in general, it offered a concrete, humorous representation of the disorientation caused by the pace of postwar transformation, which was felt by people in the U.S. just as much as in France.

Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism
by Malcolm Turvey, Columbia University Press, 2019.

The Definitive Jacques Tati, Taschen, 2019.


Interview published in the October 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.