The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of the French screenwriter, director, and actor Jacques Tati (born Jacques Tatischeff, 1907–1982) features newly struck, gloriously restored 35mm prints of his six feature films—Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Playtime, Mon Oncle, his long-dreamed-of colorized version of Jour de fête, the revelatory Traffic, and the little-seen Parade—along with three short sketch films. One of cinema’s greatest comedians, Tati was also one of its most radical modernists. His experiments with sound, color, and image, and with language, design and technology, are a fundamental, if often overlooked, bridge between the innovations of Buster Keaton and Max Linder in the silent era, those of his contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard, Marguerite Duras and Robert Bresson, and filmmakers today who owe much to his style and humor, from Roy Andersson to Wes Anderson, Otar Iosselliani to Elia Suleiman, Takeshi Kitano to Sylvan Chomet.
As many critics have observed, Tati plays the straight man to an absurdly comical world, with his loping, springy gait—where is he, a man with no discernible ambitions, heading with such purpose?—always at the ready with his raincoat and highwater trousers, his pipe and hat, and a fishing rod or umbrella in hand, and always alone in a crowd, whether at a seaside resort or in a steely modernist office building, stuck in a traffic jam or returning to his salad days of pantomime on the circus stage. Tati’s mise en scène has been compared with that of a Breughel painting (Raoul Dufy is equally apt): through long-take, deep-focus, all-over tableaux, a Babel of languages, and the burbling eruptions of machines gone haywire, he creates an entire cosmos, a meticulously choreographed chaos in a Cartesian world, and a singularly new, transformative, and democratic way of experiencing the moving image. In this way, as in so many others, Tati celebrates the importance of being playful.
Organized by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film. The exhibition is presented in association with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Les Films de Mon Oncle, Janus Films, and Culturesfrance.