David Trotter: Charlot v. Hulot

Charlie Chaplin​ had already starred in 41 films before he became an icon, universally recognisable by his appearance, mannerisms and pattern of behaviour. A lot happens in these films, mostly having to do with the hero’s pursuit of basic needs (food, money, sex, status) through the exercise of a kind of flighty, Zen belligerence. In Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), a cameraman’s efforts to film the proceedings attract the attention of a passer-by dressed in an ill-fitting hat, jacket, trousers and shoes. A moustache adds a fleck of maturity to his youthful features, and a cane a bit of panache. The icon had been sketched. A year later, The Tramp, Chaplin’s 42nd film, filled out the silhouette. The Tramp’s rescue of blonde, pensive Edna Purviance from a gang of hoodlums results in a brief spell of employment and the promise of romance before her fiancé shows up. But there’s a further twist. As a dejected Charlie beats a melancholy retreat down the road, his disappointment bottoms out. A skip punctuates the trademark waddle, followed by a twirl of the cane. It was the combination of quicksilver lèse-majesté with a tug at the heartstrings that drew audiences worldwide into the ebb and flow of the Little Man’s campaign against oppression and neglect. Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot in ‘Les Vacances de M. Hulot’ (1953).In the decades after the Second World War, another supremely accomplished mime artist with a lively sense of the possibilities of film emerged as a plausible successor to the Tramp. Jacques Tati, born in 1907 and raised in one of Paris’s grandest suburbs, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, had by then broken sufficiently with family tradition to establish himself on the European music hall circuit, where he specialised in sporting impressions. Colette, who saw him perform in 1936, wrote admiringly of his centaur-like ability to play the parts at once of cyclist and cycle, tennis player and racket. But Tati understood, as he approached forty, that success on the stage was not going to be enough, in the long term, to satisfy the requirements either of a young family or of his own considerable ambition. Why shouldn’t the next Charlot be French? After all, Chaplin’s dandyish sangfroid owed a good deal to the first great French screen comedian, Max Linder, who replaced him at the Essanay film company in 1916 and went on to make several Hollywood features. Linder’s spoof of The Three Musketeers, The Three Must-Get-Theres (1922), supplied the perfect Gallic riposte to Chaplin’s belligerent charm. Dart-In-Again’s foes encircle him, rapiers poised for the kill; as they lunge, he ducks, so that they impale each other symmetrically, leaving him to step out of the neat ring of corpses as if signing off on a Symbolist poem. Chaplin, at any rate, was the filmmaker whose example – though not his comic technique – Tati sought to emulate.After a largely uneventful war, Tati began to make contacts in a French film industry struggling to reassert itself against Hollywood’s now much enhanced global hegemony. In 1946, he got lucky. Fred Orain, a young engineer who had run the only major film facility in the non-occupied zone of France, and overseen the production of Marcel Carné’s epic Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), liked Tati’s idea for a series of comedy shorts. The two men set up Cady-Films, named after Orain’s dog. Their first feature, Jour de fête (1949), is about the visit of a travelling fair to the small town of Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, located at the heart of the mythical territory of la France profonde. A cinema booth set up in the main square shows, as well as a Hollywood Western, a documentary on the ultra-efficient US postal system, which inspires François, the town’s gullible, accident-prone postman, to try to speed up his delivery round. The predictably disastrous consequences include a brush with two American military policemen in a jeep and a culminating headlong plunge into a river. François, the scapegoat for modernisation, is too indeterminate a character to inject much zest into a feeble allegory. In his excellent critical biography of Tati, published in 1999, David Bellos points out that less than three years before he began shooting the film (in May 1947) the Gestapo still had an office on the main square of Sainte-Sévère. And now American movies and military policemen are the problem?Many of the best scenes in Jour de fête are a homage to Buster Keaton, who had developed a technique unfamiliar, for the most part, to allegorists and slapstick comedians alike: rigorous understatement. The protagonist of The General (1926), seated side-saddle on a locomotive’s coupling rod, is too caught up in his own woes to notice that he has begun to rise and fall rhythmically as the wheels ease into motion. The scene makes a gentle point about the perils of self-absorption with a minimum of fuss. From the start, Tati knew how to understate. François decides to freshen up between rounds by taking advantage of the facilities in the town’s Bureau de Poste. The washroom is an annexe to the main office, where his unreconstructed colleagues are at work. A barrage of noise is soon identified as a plumbing malfunction on the floor above. François clatters up and down the stairs. There is a sound of glass shattering. François appears carrying a broom. He stands the broom on tiptoe on its own bristles in the centre of the office, and then retires. For a second or two, the broom remains bolt upright, a janitorial exclamation mark. François emerges once more to reclaim it, and so completes the enigmatic pas de deux. His little dance of self-exculpation, so graceful in its redundancy, is all the confirmation we need that he’s not cut out to be an apostle of progress.Chaplin operated within a factory system and once he’d perfected his formul
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