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Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot
9 October 1907
Le Pecq, Yvelines, France
|Died||5 November 1982 (aged 75)|
|Spouse(s)||Micheline Winter (1944-1982)|
Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot
9 October 1907
Le Pecq, Yvelines, France
|Died||5 November 1982 (aged 75)|
|Spouse(s)||Micheline Winter (1944-1982)|
|This article contains too many or too-lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (January 2013)|
Jacques Tati (born Jacques Tatischeff, 9 October 1907 in Le Pecq, Yvelines, France – died 5 November 1982) was a French filmmaker. Throughout his long career, he worked as a comic actor, writer, and director. In a poll conducted by Entertainment Weekly of the Greatest Movie Directors, Tati was voted the 46th greatest of all time. With only six feature-length films to his credit as director, he directed fewer films than any other director on this list of 50.
Jacques Tati was born French with Russian, Dutch and Italian ancestry. His father, George Emmanuel Tatischeff, born in 1875 in Paris (d. 1957), was the son of Dmitriy Tatischeff (Дмитрий Татищев), General of the Imperial Russian Army and military attaché to the Russian Embassy in Paris. The Tatischeffs (also spelled Tatishchev) were a Russian noble family of patrilineal Rurikid descent. Whilst stationed in Paris Dmitri Tatischeff married a French woman, Rose Anathalie Alinquant. (Russian sources indicate that she was a circus performer and that they never married).
Under suspicious circumstances Dmitri Tatischeff died from injuries sustained in a horse riding accident shortly after the birth of George Emmanuel. As a child George Emmanuel experienced turbulent times, such as being forcibly removed from France and taken to Russia to live. In 1883 his mother brought him back to France where they settled on the estate of Le Pecq, near Saint-Germain-en-Laye on the outskirts of Paris. In 1903, Georges-Emmanuel Tatischeff married the Dutch-Italian Marcelle Claire van Hoof (d. 1968). Together they had two children, Natalie (b. 1905) and Jacques. Claire's Dutch father, a friend of van Gogh, whose clients included Toulouse-Lautrec, was the owner of a prestigious picture framing company near the Place Vendôme in Paris, and he brought Georges-Emmanuel into the family business. Subsequently, Georges-Emmanuel became the director of the company Cadres Van Hoof, and the Tatischeff family enjoyed a relatively high standard of living.
Jacques Tatischeff appears to have been an indifferent student, yet excelled in the sports of tennis and horseback riding. He left school in 1923 at the age of 16 to take up an apprenticeship in the family business, where he was trained as a picture framer by his grandfather. Between 1927 and 1928 he completed his military national service at Saint-Germain-en-Laye with the Cavalry's 16th Regiment of Dragoons. Upon graduating the military he took on an internship in London where he was first introduced to the sport of rugby. Returning to Paris, he joined the semi-professional rugby team Racing Club de France, whose captain was Alfred Sauvy and whose supporters included Tristan Bernard. It was at the Racing Club de France that Jacques Tatischeff first discovered his comic talents, entertaining his teammates during intervals with hilarious impersonations of their sporting endeavours. He also first met Jacques Broido, and they would become lifelong friends.
Between 1931 and 1932 the global economic crisis reached France at the same time he left both the Racing Club de France and, to his family's disapproval, his apprenticeship at Cadres Van Hoof. Giving up a relatively comfortable middle class lifestyle for one of a struggling performing artist during this difficult economic time, he developed a collection of highly physical mimes that would become his Impressions Sportives (Sporting Impressions). Each year from 1931 to 1934 he would participate in an amateur show organised by Alfred Sauvy.
Although he had likely played music hall engagements before, his act was first mentioned in 1935, when he performed at the gala for the newspaper Le Journal to celebrate the French victory in the competition to set the transatlantic crossing record from Normandy. Among the honourable spectators was the influential writer Colette. Tati's act also caught the attention of Max Trebor, who offered him an engagement at the Theatre-Michel, where he quickly became the star act. After his success there, Tati tried to make it in London, playing a short season at the Finsbury Park Empire in March 1936. Upon his return to Paris in the same year, he was immediately hired as top billing at the ABC Théâtre alongside the singer Marie Dubas, where he would work uninterrupted until the outbreak of the Second World War. It was for Tati's performances of his now finely-tuned Impressions Sportives at the ABC that the previously impressed Colette wrote,
"From now on no celebration, no artistic or acrobatic spectacle can do without this amazing performer, who has invented something quite his own…His act is partly ballet and partly sport, partly satire and partly charade. He has devised a way of being both the player, the ball and the tennis racquet, of being simultaneously the football and the goalkeeper, the boxer and the opponent, the bicycle and the cyclist. Without any props, he conjures up his accessories and his partners. He has suggestive powers of all great artists. How gratifying it was to see the audience's warm reaction! Tati's success says a lot about the sophistication of the allegedly "uncouth" public, about its taste for novelty and its appreciation of style. Jacques Tati, the horse and rider conjured, will show all of Paris the living image of that legendary creature, the centaur."
During the 1930s he also performed at the Scala in Berlin between 1937 and 1938, and began to experiment with film acting in the following shorts:
In September 1939 Tati was conscripted back into his 16th Regiment of Dragoons which was then incorporated into the 3rd Division Legere de Cavalerie (DLC). He saw action in the Battle of the Meuse, in May 1940, when the German Army marched through the Ardennes into northern France. The 3rd DLC retreated from Meuse to Mussidan in the Dordogne where the division was demobilised after the Armistice was declared on the 22nd of June, 1940.
Returning to Paris, Tati resumed his civilian profession as a cabaret performer, finding employment at Léon Volterra's Lido de Paris, where he performed his Sporting Impressions from 1940-42.
At the Lido de Paris he met and fell in love with the young Austrian/Czech dancer Herta Schiel, who had fled Vienna with her sister Molly at the time of the Anschluss. In the summer of 1942 Herta gave birth to their daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel. Due to pressure from his sister Nathalie, Tati refused to recognise the child and was forced by Volterra to depart from the Lido at the end of the 1942 season. In 1943, after a short engagement at the ABC, where Édith Piaf was headlining, Tati left Paris under a cloud, with his friend Henri Marquet, and they settled in the Village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre. While residing there they completed the script for L'École des facteurs (The School for Postmen) that would later provide material for his first feature, Jour de fête.
Herta Schiel would remain in Paris throughout the war, where she would make acquaintance with the physician Jacques Weil when he was called upon to treat her sister Molly for the then-incurable tuberculosis (TB). Through Weil, second in command of the Juggler network of the SOE F Section networks, both sisters were recruited into the French Resistance.
In 1944, Tati returned to Paris and, after a brief courtship, married Micheline Winter.
Considered as a possible substitute for Jean-Louis Barrault in Les Enfants du Paradis, he played the ghost in Sylvie and the Ghost (Sylvie et le fantôme) (Claude Autant-Lara appeared as Sylvie) and also appeared as The Devil in the same film. Here he met Fred Orain, studio director of St. Maurice and the Victorine in Nice.
In early 1946 Jacques Tati and Fred Orain founded the production company Cady-Films, which would produce Tati's first three films.
With the exception of his first and last films, Tati played the gauche and socially inept lead character, Monsieur Hulot. With his trademark raincoat, umbrella and pipe, Hulot is among the most memorable comic characters in cinema. Several themes recur in Tati's work, most notably in Mon Oncle, Play Time and Trafic. They include Western society's obsession with material goods, particularly American-style consumerism, the pressure-cooker environment of modern society, the superficiality of relationships among France's various social classes, and the cold and often impractical nature of space-age technology and design.
On October 23, 1946 Tati fathered his second child, Sophie Catherine Tatischeff.
René Clément was first approached to direct "L'École des facteurs", but as he was preoccupied directing La Bataille du rail, directing duties fell to Tati, who would also star in this short comedy of rural life. Encouragingly, L'École des facteurs was enthusiastically well received upon release, winning the Max Linder Prize for film comedy in 1947.
Tati's first major feature, Jour de fête (The Big Day), tells the story of an inept rural village postman who interrupts his duties to inspect the traveling fair that has come to town. Influenced by too much wine and a documentary on the rapidity of the American postal service, he goes to hilarious lengths to speed his mail deliveries aboard his bicycle. Tati filmed it in 1947 in the village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre where he had found refuge during the war. Due to the reluctance of French distributors, Jour de fête was first successfully released in London in March 1949 before obtaining a French release on 4 July 1949, where it became a great public success, receiving the 1950 Le Grand prix du cinéma français. The film was intended to be the first French feature film shot in colour; Tati simultaneously shot the film in black and white as an insurance policy. The newly developed Thomson colour system proved impractical, as it could not deliver colour prints. Jour de fête was therefore released only in black and white. Unlike his later films, it has many scenes with dialogue, and offers a droll, affectionate view of life in rural France. The colour version was restored by his younger daughter, film editor and director Sophie Tatischeff, and released in 1995. The film won a prize at the Venice Film Festival.
1949 was also the year of the birth of Tati's son, Pierre-François Tatischeff, alias Pierre Tati. Both Pierre and Sophie would go on to work in the French film industry in various capacities, beginning in the early 1970s. Notably, they both worked on Jean-Pierre Melville's last film, Un flic, (1972).
Tati's second film, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot's Holiday), was released in 1953. Les Vacances introduced the character of Mr. Hulot and follows his adventures in France during the mandatory August vacation at a beach resort, lampooning several hidebound elements of French political and social classes. It was shot almost entirely in the tiny west-coast seaside village of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer in the Loire Atlantique region. The hotel in which Mr. Hulot stays (l'Hotel de la Plage) is still there, and a statue memorialising the director has been erected on the beach. Tati had fallen in love with the coast while staying in nearby Port Charlotte with his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lemoine, before the war, and resolved to return one day to make a film there. The film was widely praised by critics, and earned Tati an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, which was shared with Henri Marquet. Production of the movie would also see the reintroduction of Jacques Lagrange into Tati's life, beginning a lifelong working partnership with the painter, who would become his set designer. Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot remains one of the best-loved French films of that period. The film's comic influence has extended well beyond France and can be found as recently as 2007 in the Rowan Atkinson comic vehicle Mr. Bean's Holiday.
"Tati could easily have made lots of money with sequels featuring his comic character of the little rural mailman. He chose instead to wait for four years, and, after much reflection, he revised his formula completely. The result this time was an extraordinary masterpiece about which one can say, I think, that it is the most radical innovation in comic cinema since the Marx Brothers: I am referring, of course, to Les Vacances de M. Hulot."
Various problems would delay the release of Tati's follow-up to his international hit. In 1955 he suffered a serious car accident that physically impaired his left hand. Then a dispute with Fred Orain ensued and Tati broke away from Cady Films to create his own production company, Spectra Films, in 1956.
Tati's next film, 1958's Mon Oncle (My Uncle), was his first film to be released in colour. The plot centers on Mr. Hulot's comedic, quixotic and childlike struggle with postwar France's obsession with modernity and American-style consumerism, entwined with the relationship he has with his nine year old nephew Gérard. Mon Oncle quickly became an international success, and won that year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, a Special Prize at Cannes, as well as the New York Film Critics Award. In Place de la Pelouse stands a bronze statue of Tati as Monsieur Hulot talking to a boy, in a pose echoing the movie's poster designed by Pierre Etaix.
On receiving his Oscar, Tati was offered any treat that the Academy could bestow on him. To their surprise, Tati simply requested the opportunity to visit Stan Laurel, Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton at their nursing homes. Keaton reportedly said that Tati's work with sound had carried on the true tradition of silent cinema.
As guest Artistic Director at AFI FEST 2010, David Lynch selected Tati's Mon Oncle alongside Hour of the Wolf (Dir Ingmar Bergman), Lolita (Dir Stanley Kubrick), Rear Window (Dir Alfred Hitchcock) and Sunset Boulevard (Dir Billy Wilder) to be screened in his sidebar program, explaining that,
"I picked these particular films because they are the ones that have inspired me most. I think each is a masterpiece."
Of Tati, Lynch would add in a conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum, "You know, I feel like in a way he's a kindred soul... That guy is so creative, it's unbelievable. I think he's one of the all-time greats."
Considered by many his masterpiece, Play Time (1967), shot in 70mm, was to be the most ambitious yet risky and expensive work of Tati's career. "After the success of Mon Oncle in 1958, Jacques Tati had become fed up with Monsieur Hulot, his signature comic creation. With international renown came a growing dissatisfaction with straightforward scenarios centered around one lovable, recognizable figure. So he slowly inched his way toward a new kind of film, a supremely democratic film that would be about “everybody”. It took nine years to make, and he had to borrow heavily from his own resources to complete the picture. "At the time of its making, Playtime (1967) was the most expensive film in French history." "Playtime is the big leap, the big screen. I'm putting myself on the line. Either it comes off or it doesn't. There's no safety net." On the outskirts of Paris, Tati famously built an entire glass and steel mini-city (nicknamed Tativille) for the film, which took years to build and left him mired in debt.
In the film, Hulot and a group of American tourists lose themselves in the futuristic glass and steel of commercially globalised modern Parisian suburbs, where only human nature and a few reflective views of the old city of Paris, itself, still emerge to breathe life into the sterile new metropolis. Play Time had even less of a plot than his earlier films, and Tati endeavored to make his characters, including Hulot, almost incidental to his portrayal of a modernist and robotic Paris. Play Time was originally 155 minutes in length, but Tati soon released an edited version of 126 minutes, and this is the version that became a general theatre release in 1967. Later versions appeared in 35mm format. In 1979, a copy of the film was revised again to 108 minutes, and this re-edited version was released on VHS video in 1984. Though Play Time was a critical success (François Truffaut praised it as "a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently"), it was a massive and expensive commercial failure, eventually resulting in Tati's bankruptcy. "Tati had approached everybody from Darryl F Zanuck to the prime minister Georges Pompidou in a bid to get the movie completed. His personal overdrafts began to mount, and long before Playtime was finished," Bellos notes, "Tati was in substantial debt to the least forgiving of all creditors, the Collectors of Taxes." When he failed to pay off his loans, his films were impounded by the banks". Tati was forced to sell the family house of Saint-Germain shortly after the death of his mother, Claire Van Hoof, and move back into Paris. Spectra Films was then placed into administration, concluding in the liquidation of the company in 1974, with an auction of all movie rights held by the company for little more than 120,000 francs.
In August 2012 the British Film Institute, polled 846 critics, programmers, academics and distributors to find "The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" and Play Time was voted 42nd in the list  In the corresponding “Directors Poll” by the BFI, Playtime was awarded the accolade of being seen as the 37th greatest film of all time by his fellow directors.
Steven Spielberg has said he was paying a "very slight homage" to Play Time in his 2004 film The Terminal, adding, "I thought of two directors when I made Terminal. I thought this was a tribute to Frank Capra and his honest sentiment, and it was a tribute to Jacques Tati and the way he allowed his scenes to go on and on and on. The character he played in Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle was all about resourcefulness and using what's around him to make us laugh".
While on the set of Play Time, Tati made a short film about his comedic and cinematic technique, Cours du soir (Evening Classes, 1967), in which Tati gives a lesson in the art of comedy to a class of would-be actors.
In 1969, with reduced ambition, Jacques Tati created a new production company, CEPEC, to oversee his opportunities in movie and TV production.
In 1971 Tati “Suffered the indignity of having to make an advert for Lloyds Bank in England”  in which he depicted the bank of the future as being dehumanized with money dispensed from a computerized counter. “The message of the advert was that however modern Lloyds are, technology isn’t everything and you’ll always be able to speak to a “friendly member of staff or understanding manager” in their branches” . In 1972 trademarked as Cashpoint, Lloyds introduced the first modern ATMs, the IBM 2984 into UK high street banks; they had similar functions as today's machines.
The Dutch-funded Trafic (Traffic), although originally designed to be a TV movie, received a theater release in 1971 and placed Monsieur Hulot back at the centre of the action. It was the last Hulot film, and followed the vein of earlier works that lampooned modern society. In the film, Hulot is a bumbling automobile inventor traveling to an exhibition in a gadget-filled recreational vehicle. Despite its modest budget, Trafic was still very much a Tati film, carefully staged and choreographed in its scenes and effects.
Tati's last completed film, Parade, a film produced for Swedish television in 1973, is more or less a filmed circus performance featuring Tati's mime acts and other performers.
In 1977, he received an honorary César from the French Film Institute for his lifetime contribution to cinema.
In 1978, Tati began filming a short documentary on Corsican soccer team SC Bastia playing the UEFA Cup Final, "Forza Bastia", which he did not complete. His younger daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, later edited the remaining footage, which was released in 2002 after her own death from lung cancer in 2001.
Weakened by serious health problems, Tati died on 4 November 1982, of a pulmonary embolism, leaving a final scenario called Confusion that he had completed with Jacques Lagrange.
In Paris Match, Philippe Labro reported the death of Jacques Tati under the heading, "Adieu Monsieur Hulot. On le pleure mort, il aurait fallu l'aider vivant !" ("Goodbye Monsieur Hulot. In death we cry, in life we did not help!")
Before his death Tati had plans for at least one more film. Confusion, a planned collaboration with pop duo Sparks, was a story about a futuristic city (Paris) where activity is centred around television, communication, advertising, and modern society's infatuation with visual imagery.
In the original script an aging Mr. Hulot was slated to be accidentally killed on-air. Ron Mael and Russell Mael would have played two American TV studio employees brought to a rural French TV company to help them out with some American technical expertise and input into how TV is really done. While the script still exists, Confusion was never filmed. What would have been its title track, "Confusion", appears on Sparks' 1976 Big Beat album with the internal sleeve of its 2006 re-mastered CD featuring a letter announcing the pending collaboration, as well as a photo of the Mael brothers in conversation with Tati.
Catalogued in the CNC (Centre National de la Cinématographie) archives under the impersonal moniker ‘Film Tati Nº 4’, written in the late 1950s, the treatment was to have been the follow-up to Tati’s internationally successful Mon Oncle. It tells the bittersweet tale of a modestly talented magician — referred to only as the Illusionist — who, during a tour of decaying music halls in Eastern Europe, protectively takes an impoverished young woman under his wing.
The semi-autobiographical script that Tati wrote in 1956 was released internationally as an animated film The Illusionist in (2010). Directed by Sylvain Chomet, known for The Triplets of Belleville, the main character is an animated caricature of Tati himself.
In 2000, the screenplay was handed over to Chomet by Tati's daughter, Sophie, two years before her death. Now, however, the family of Tati's illegitimate and estranged eldest child, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel, who lives in the north-east of England, are calling for the French director to give her credit as the true inspiration for the film. The script of L'illusionniste, they say, was Tati's response to the shame of having abandoned his first child [Schiel] and it remains the only public recognition of her existence. They accuse Chomet of attempting to airbrush out their painful family legacy again.
Tati's former colleagues at the Lido de Paris were appalled at his caddish behaviour and shunned him. As a result he moved first to Berlin then to the village of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, which later inspired his hugely successful film, Jour de Fête.
Chomet has a different opinion about the film's origins, although acknowledging that he "never got to meet Sophie, or even speak to her about the script." Chomet said, "I think Tati wrote the script for Sophie Tatischeff. I think he felt guilty that he spent too long away from his daughter when he was working."
Pathe Pictures appears to contradict Chomet's view with its own summary:
"The film is based on an unproduced script that the French mime, director and actor Jacques Tati had written in 1956 as a personal letter to his estranged eldest daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel in collaboration with long term writing partner Henri Marquet between Mon Oncle and Play Time. The main character is an animated version of Tati animated by Laurent Kircher. The plot revolves around a struggling illusionist who visits an isolated community and meets a young lady who is convinced that he is a real magician. The film is set in Scotland in the late 1950s. "It's not a romance, it's more the relationship between a dad and a daughter..."