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.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'