by Will Ross
As the oldest surviving film to feature Jacques Tati, this provides an interesting ground zero for his talents, even if it's a pretty lousy cast-off of a comedy. Here, Tati co-wrote with Alfred Sauvy this short about a young, lanky actor named Roustabat, who has trouble getting cast, and whose domestic partner is constantly insulting him and his vocation. Meanwhile, a low-level fight organizer is having trouble booking an opponent for a wrestling match he's already sold out (nobody wants to fight his infamously brutish star fighter), and so he publishes in the newspaper a vague call for men "specializing in violent roles". You can probably fill in most of the blanks from there.
This makes direct show of Tati’s love of silent comedy — most obviously, in the fight sequence, Chaplin and his City Lights — but unlike his features that evolved a more open-ended structure to scenes, each vignette here takes on a clear comic premise by way of a sitcom-y point of tension. The use of sound is also not especially crucial to anything in the movie. In fact with the dialogue removed and a few intertitles added, On demande une brute would work as a silent. In some ways, it might even be better off in such a form: the music, a first-time score by Marcel Landowski, frequently competes with the dialogue, and heavily punches up most of the slapstick gags, leaving hardly any work to be done by sound effects.
On the other hand, one of the most effective moments of the film comes when short, pathetic little crunch as the scene fades out. It’s a very Tati-esque use of sound by the director Charles Barrois, and one wishes he displayed the same light touch and attention to the most effective points of comic focus throughout the film. Sadly, he often drops the ball in this respect; not only are many of the cuts to reverse shots and close ups awkward and disorienting, but Barrois will frequently miss major opportunities for laughs. For example, just before the fight, as the announcer is still addressing the audience, someone accidentally hits the gong, and Roustabat’s opponent mindlessly charges the poor man in the middle of the ring, leading to a moment of chaos where several men have to pull it off. It’s a perfect moment to indulge in a closeup of Tati’s worried face as the punchline, but that fairly clear chance for a payoff never comes. Not that Barrois’s work has nothing to recommend it. Now and then a shot or series of cuts will show an interesting sense of staging or strangeness (as when Roustabat is hung upside down near the end of the ring and sees a face next to his ringside, and a series of cuts flip quickly between his POV and a right-side-up view of the man). But in the main it’s a visually disinterested, burdensome comedy, both stylistically anonymous and quite poor at emphasizing comedy.
I don’t want to give the impression here that Barrois fails because he fails to highlight Tati’s great performing ability, since Tati’s performance itself here is, shockingly, kind of lousy. While he shows some of the precise control over his body that would make him one of the most graceful physical actors there ever was, his sense of how to exploit little changes to the angles of his limbs, affect an entire personality in his gait or lean or cock of the head, or use tiny changes of facial expression to worldlessly communicate a universe of inner thoughts... well, that sense simply isn’t visible here. Instead, it’s a performance with a fairly game willingness to emphasize Tati’s stick-like figure and a lot — a shocking amount, really! — of mugging.
After Roustabat upsets the fight and wins (by cheating), he, his friend Mérandol (who smashed the other fighter’s head with a lead pipe), and his now-admiring wife head to a car outside. After the three disappear behind the vehicle, it drives off and leaves his formerly-nagging wife behind. It’s a surprisingly mean-spirited ending for the future auteur whose own films would only gently mock the vices and pretensions of others. It may be one of the best-staged gags in the movie, but that ought to lend you a sense of how low the bar is set here. It’s a mostly good-natured and well-intentioned film (short of the caustic depiction of its only female character and a scene that makes rather cruel use of a live fish). That it was made by a combination of upstart professionals and rank amateurs to film (the latter category including Tati himself) accounts for its issues, though when viewed an early attempt for the destitute-at-the-time Tati to break from the music-hall into motion pictures, there are hints of his future output’s ethos, in particular a sympathy for the dim, hapless, and incurably uncivilized but thoroughly well-meaning outsider.
Other Essays in This Series