by Will Ross
In Jacques Tati: His Life and Art (Panther), David Bellos mentions an anecdote in which Tati would claim the early shorts he wrote and performed in were funded entirely through his work in music-hall performances. As Tati told it, he would save some money, buy a few meters of unexposed film, and repeat the process. Bellos points out that his early shorts were either too expensive to entirely jibe with this shoestring funding story or made before he had any music-hall income to speak of. Given that these early shorts were such collaborative efforts (with directors, co-writers, producers, etc. working in what seems to have been a horizontal production structure), perhaps they represented a pooling of resources that had each party dredging up cash in their own ways, and one of Tati’s tasks was to purchase the footage. Whatever the truth of the matter, the anecdote stresses that these shorts were not cynical or merely desperate attempts to escape the challenge of making a living as a live performer in depression-era France; by all appearances they seem to have been labours of love.
While On demande une brute is by any standard a thoroughly clumsy work that neither conforms clearly to Tati’s pre-filmic mime act nor the tastes and interests he would come to display as the world’s pre-eminent master of cinematic high comedy, Gai dimanche is both an unmistakably formative work and a far greater success. The short centers on two homeless grifters who one day decide they’d like a day in the country, and set about to realize it by stealing a rickety 10-seater charabanc and charging tourists for a leisure tour, complete with meal and entertainment. The setup foregrounds the modus operandi that came to define Tati’s approach: breakdowns of human behaviour across class that show up the absurdity of social programming and how it pervades spaces of work and of leisure.
In an early scene, as the pair of con men search a car lot for a workable ride, one nearby jalopy seems to start up all its own; when they open the lid, they find a kid in the empty compartment, blowing against his lips and making believe that he’s an engine as he holds a steering wheel in front of him. They wordlessly close the lid and leave him alone. While the gag isn’t especially complex or surprising, its use of sound without a clear originating source — what Michel Chion called “acousmatic sound” — foreshadows Tati’s obsessive play with the source, perspective, and audience assumptions attached to sounds in his films, and the way that our expectations of sounds play into our instilled sense of proper behaviour. The reaction is equally telling: as we’ll see time and time again in his Hulot films, the typical reaction of onlookers to an outsider’s well-meaning transgressions is to ignore it. That reaction is often more absurd than anything done by the unwitting interloper, and it’s there that Tati finds the core of his humour, both in its famously gentle observation of foibles and its acclaimed satiric intelligence.
That gag, while formally interesting, is nonetheless slight; mildly clever but lacking in elaboration or depth. Much the same can be said for the rest of Gai Dimanche, whose best gags either have a ring of familiarity from silent comedies by Sennett, Chaplin, Keaton, and others, or from their development into far superior forms in Tati’s features. Indeed, while his personality is on clearer display, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Tati is less impressive than his co-star and co-writer (and close friend), Rhum. The scarce dialogue given to Tati is delivered with a positively leaden lack of energy, and while his physical performance once again shows the clear skills of a uniquely talented mime (particularly in a sequence where the two con artists make a spirited attempt to attract customers to their tour, then gradually deflate into dejection when nobody shows interest), Rhum is his near equal that regard, and his skill with rat-a-tat verbal delivery make him the de facto star of the short.
After the disastrous excursion plays out in scenarios both funny (a passenger’s legs breaking through his seat, forcing him to jog along the pavement as the charabanc drives on) and unfunny (a large woman has trouble getting up into her seat), the final gag shows Gai dimanche’s most Tati-esque side as well as its still-unformed comic voice: after a train obliterates the charabanc, the drivers and passengers walk back to the city on the road in the exact same formation as before, with Rhum pointing to the side and guiding the sightseeing tour as Tati grasps the detached steering wheel in front of him. It’s an amusing-enough articulation of people’s desire for routine and normalcy, and the paradoxically absurd results of that attitude. At the same time, the complete lack of indignation from even the most well-to-do of Tati’s and Rhum’s customers feels unconvincing. Tati would eventually recognize the resistance people tend to have to paradigm-shattering playfulness and endow it with a sense of pathos that elevated his Hulot comedies from amusements to masterpieces, but the partial gestation of his worldview visible here — especially when assisted by competent direction and far more involved sound design — makes for a fun Sunday viewing.
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