One of the greatest icons of cinema history – tall, trilby-wearing, pipe-smoking, bumbling and melancholy – is about to resume work, 27 years after the death of his creator, Jacques Tati.
An exhibition and film season which opened in Paris this week launches what could amount to a Tati, and Hulot, revival in 2009.
The classic 1953 movie Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Monsieur Hulot's holiday) – on many lists of the funniest films ever made – will be a star attraction at the Cannes film festival next month. The explosive impact of the well-meaning, umbrella-wielding M. Hulot on a quiet, seaside town in Brittany will live again, digitally restored by Hollywood technicians to modern cinema standards.
The implausibly slanting walk and jutting pipe of Jacques Tati will also be seen in a completely new film later this year – albeit in animated form. A cartoon movie, based on an old, unused Tati screenplay, with a Hulot-type character in the lead role, will appear in the autumn.
Other Hulot events include the re-creation of the set of another classic Tati movie, Mon Oncle, which won the Oscar for best foreign film 50 years ago. The futuristic, but maddeningly inefficient, house and garden which are the centrepiece of the film have been rebuilt in life size and can be visited in Paris until November.
A permanent Tati museum is also about to open in Saint-Sévère-sur-Indre, the village where the mime comedian, actor and film director made his first full-length movie, Jour de Fête, in 1947.
Why the sudden Hulot revival? The curators of an excellent Tati exhibition at the Cinémathèque in Paris joke that it is 102 years since the film-maker's birth: the imperfect, perfect moment to celebrate the centenary of a character who specialised in making clumsy, abrupt entr-ances in his own movies.
"In truth, several things have come together," said one of the exhibition's curators, the cinema critic, writer and Tati expert, Stéphane Goudet. "There is the forthcoming cartoon movie, based on a Jacques Tati screenplay (The Man with the White Rabbit, due out in the autumn). There is the half-century since Tati's Oscar for Mon Oncle. But there is also the growing interest in Tati as a very modern film director, someone who is studied and admired by cutting-edge directors like Wes Anderson and David Lynch."
In a short essay for the catalogue to the Paris exhibition on Tati's life and career, Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited; The Royal Tenenbaums) says that Tati, as actor and comedian, stands comparison with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. "He has a silhouette that you can make into a cartoon; just his walk is a great creation," he says.
As for Jacques Tati's importance as a film-maker, both Anderson and David Lynch (Twin Peaks; The Elephant Man) point to his unconventional and pioneering use of sound. This may seem surprising. There is hardly any dialogue in Tati movies. Much of his humour seems to be visual, based on elaborately devised gags developed from his early days as a stage comedian and mime artist. (Tati was also, as a young man, a talented professional rugby player, a second row forward for Racing Club de Paris in the French first division.)
Anderson says Tati's elusive use of snatches of half-heard conversation and the repetition of strange or suggestive noises were decades ahead of their time. Lynch points out that a large part of the humour and oddly melancholy atmosphere of Monsieur Hulot or Mon Oncle are created by soundtracks that audiences scarcely notice. Jacques Tatischeff was born into a Franco-Russian family in Paris in 1907. His mother was of Dutch origin, something which, he claimed, shaped his meticulous approach to comedy. "It is almost impossible to make the Dutch laugh," he once said.
He began his career as a comedian by performing sketches at rugby club dinners. He went on to become a mime artist in the Parisian music hall in the 1930s. He spent the war hiding with a group of friends in a village in central France and returned there in 1947 to make his first movie, Jour de Fête.
The film tells the story of a country postman who tries to adapt his bicycle delivery round to "efficient" American methods. It introduces the themes which dominate Tati's six, surviving movies: the desperate, or over-optimistic, but always comic efforts of mankind to cope with empowering, but belittling, modern devices, buildings and lifestyles.
Serge Toubiana, the head of the Paris Cinémathèque (the equivalent to the National Film Theatre in London) says that there is a natural progression in Tati's films from the mocked but adored countryside, to the stifling dullness of suburbs to the crushing inhumanity of mega-cities and roads (in Playtime and Trafic). "His work represents the great migration of people and objects from the countryside to the city, from the ancient world to the modern world," Toubiana said.
The curators of the exhibition at the Paris Cinémathèque have tried to recreate the experience of a Tati film. The show is a maze in which you are amused, or assaulted, by exhibits ranging from garish neon signs to Tati's jumbled film notebooks. These suggest that the smallest gag from Les Vacances de M. Hulot – such as the kayak which terrorises bathers by folding accidentally in two to resemble a shark – were minutely choreographed by Tati.
The exhibition also has some advance rushes in black and white from the animated movie, based on a Tati script, which will appear later this year. L'homme au Lapin Blanc (The man with the white rabbit) is the story of a hopeless magician, a kind of Gallic Tommy Cooper. It is being made, partially in Scotland, by the French director Sylvain Chomet, who made the globally successful film about the Tour de France, The Triplets of Belleville, in 2003. Judging by the extracts on show, the film will be a return to earlier, more playful Tati style of Monsieur Hulot's Holidays.
As Lynch points out in his contribution to the exhibition catalogue, Tati the satirist of modernity finally fell victim himself to techno-addiction. His darker, later films – especially Playtime – made use of all the gadgetry and the grandiose sets of the modern cinema. The movie cost a fortune and flopped.
Lynch says that Tati, at his best, was "extremely modern ... a blend of innocence and technical invention".
"He has a unique sense of humour," Lynch says. "He can zoom in on the absurdity of life without losing his love for human beings."
The exhibition and festival of Tati films at the Paris Cinémathèque runs until 2 August.