Books: From clown to cinematic icon

Jacques Tati by David Bellos Harvill pounds 25
The loping, lugubrious Monsieur Hulot is a hardy perennial of French screen comedy. He starred in four deliciously oddball films by Jacques Tati, and was allegedly modelled in part on General de Gaulle. Idiot beanpole comics were nothing new in 1950s France, but the Hulot combination of springy stride and quizzically peering gaze was unusual. Tati's bumbling alter ego endures in Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean and the giraffe-like contortions of John Cleese.

Tati (ne Tatischeff) was a cocktail of European origins. His Russian grandfather had been a Tsarist ambassador to Paris; the Tatischeffs also had Dutch and Italian pedigree. Tati's patrician Slav ancestry invited comparisons with Vladimir Nabokov, who had the same dandified poise and donnish, sloping gait. Tati was no intellectual, though. Born in 1907 to the French upper middle-class, he was conscripted into the household cavalry and later joined his father's antique picture- frame business. Young Jacques was a pleasant, if apparently rather dim chap with a talent for rugby. How did he blossom into a mimic of comic genius?

As a child, Tati had been electrified by the tomfool acrobatics of a British dwarf entertainer named Little Tich who had toured France soon after the Great War, thrilling audiences with his scampish slapstick. Little Tich may have inspired Tati to try his own solo mime routines based on famous sports figures: French rugby clubs were particularly amused by them. Emboldened, Tati took his funny-man act to gala dinners and charity reviews - in 1936 performing in London at the Finsbury Park Empire. Several of Tati's pre-war sketches were then made into short films.

Tati's war-time record was far from glorious. The French comic was not immune to the anti-Semitism in Europe and entertained Nazi officers in Paris music-halls. Tati's first feature, Jour de Fete, betrays a suspiciously pro-Vichy undertow. Released barely two years after the defeat of the greatest evil France had ever known, the movie ridicules the liberating American troops. Beneath Tati's wickedly well-observed evocation of small- town France lay an apparently backward-looking, even reactionary sensibility.

Yet, as David Bellos points out in this fine new biography, Tati was a studiously apolitical director. He avoided gauchiste debates on culture and remained loftily disengaged from 1960s student activism. His first great movie, the gloriously silly Mr Hulot's Holiday, nevertheless was a radical experiment that invented a new kind of "aural adventure", says Bellos, in comic cinema. Dialogue was reduced to mere background noise and replaced by witty sight and sound gags. Hulot's pipe, an "interdental impediment", thwarts all hope of coherent speech in the twittish monsieur (through clenched teeth his name sounds like "U-O"). Preposterously, given the firm's surrealist inarticulacy, Mr Hulot's Holiday is still a staple for French language learners abroad: the irony is quite Tatiesque or Hulotian.

Bellos provides a marvellous toothcomb analysis of Tati's six feature films and passionately argues for their greatness. Impishly, he links Tati to Samuel Beckett. Waiting for Godot was premiered in France at the same time as Tati's Hulot-on-holiday burlesque. Both works abandon conventional plot for a vaudeville comedy. Moreover, like Beckett's educated tramps, Hulot has nothing - no wife, no words, no known abode or work. So Monsieur "U-O" is an absurdist nowhere man of the early 1950s. The confessedly philistine Tati would have flinched from Beckett's stern modernist example, yet was consistently feted by the French intelligentsia. The third Hulot adventure, the slightly dull Playtime, was adopted by left-wing Situationists as a critique of 1960s consumer society. To his bafflement, Tati was co-opted into the French "new wave" cinema and hailed as a saboteur of French petit-bourgeois manners.

Tati took this egghead adulation in a Hulotian spirit of fun. Throughout this superbly written book, Bellos punctures the image of Tati as a fogeyish, anti- modernist director. Playtime does indeed poke fun at bleeping household gadgets, but it's full of wonderment too at France's emerging skyscraper culture and the glittery allure of high-rise steel and sheet glass. Tati was neither a rear-guard nor an iconoclastic spirit: he wanted only to entertain. His charming, if occasionally mawkish, satire of bourgeois pretension, Mon Oncle, provided comic relief from France's war in Algeria and the street fighting that marked de Gaulle's dramatic return to power in 1958.

The director's last years were spent in wretched penury after the box- office failure of Playtime and mounting debts. Grouchy and often haughty, the bankrupted Tati tried to keep financially buoyant with TV appearances for Danone yoghurt and Lloyds Bank. Advertising was a sorry come-down, though; the Tatimania that began in 1953 with Mr Hulot's Holiday had fizzled out by the early 1970s. Disgruntled, Tati requested that his dead body be stuffed in a bin-liner and put out with the rubbish. The creator of Hulot had never thought much of himself. Jacques Tati died in 1982. He was one of cinema's great maverick innovators.