by Will Ross
It’s common consensus that Soigne ton gauche is the best of the three 30s shorts to star Jacques Tati, a consensus with which I’m inclined to agree. And while it gives strong indications that Tati was growing as a writer and a screen performer, an equally critical factor in its success is René Clément, one of his only comedies and earliest efforts as director here but a competent and accomplished work nonetheless. Clément favours a rapid, highly dynamic pace through highly varied and dynamic camera angles, energetic camera movements, occasional undercranking, and rapid edits. This last point — at once the most accomplished stylistic trait of the film and perhaps its most misguided — makes itself clear as soon as the short opens: a postman cycles along the country paths and roads of rural France, zipping around corners, signaling though there’s not a soul in sight, and finally stopping in the village by simply tumbling forward off his still-moving bike. That stunt itself uses a jump cut just before the fall; it’s a rare instance in a Tati-starring film of an edit that allows a physical performance to cheat, but it works anyway, largely because the quick pace of the cuts already feels stylistically in line with the film and serves the slightly panicky, physically chaotic entrance. “Must be the postman!” exclaims a man who hears the crash but does not see it, and the postman delivers a letter to a group of men reclining by a boxing ring.
This sets up a plot similar to On demande un brute. One of the men is a star boxer, the rest help him to train, and the letter is insisting that they continue to train, as there’s a big crowd booked for their next match. They set out to training, but he’s a little too good: he knocks out his sparring partners straightaway. His manager quickly finds him a local farmhand named Roger — our Tati — who agrees, though he’s never boxed a day in his life.
This is drastically different from the tense setups of On demande un brute and Gai dimanche!, both of which involved characters forced into their actions by financial stress. Roger enters the bout willingly and knowingly. But why? Like those past films (and his future ones!), Tati plays a man unafraid to play, to imagine, to pretend. We first meet him playing with local children pretending to be a famous track star and they play the media, performing mock news reports and even pretending to film with a handmade toy camera, complete with a crank. Roger’s post-victory is cut short when he is called to work moving bales of hay near the boxing ring, where he quickly gets bored and mimes at boxing himself when he’s spotted and asked to spar. So here we have a dreamer, someone who wants to see what it means to live as other people do, and who gets his chance. He accepts not in spite of the physical danger and reality, but because of it.
But reality and imagination prove at odds with each other. As he fights, Roger looks through a little booklet of boxing advice in the ring, and every time he adopts a technique, he takes a punch, turns around, and looks through for more techniques. It’s a gag repeated again and again — with only slight variation — and while it gradually wears thin (save a lovely twist where Roger mistakes a back cover advertisement for a fencing booklet for advice on a boxing stance), it’s given more attention than any other gag in the movie, and so must have been especially attractive to Tati. Perhaps it’s because every variation is a chance for a new pose, a new bit of physical comedy for the performer whose miming act “Sporting Impressions” was in the process of making him a music-hall star across Europe. But it may also have been a moment of recognition for Tati of one of his pet themes, that of the outsider trying to understand the proper way to emulate a social behaviour and inevitably failing and watching chaos ensue around him.
And so chaos does, for after the pro boxer unknowingly connects one of his punches to the postman, the latter stomps off to find people to help him retaliate, and finds two tough-looking farmers who don’t take kindly to people who attack helpless postmen. Soon five men are in a fistfight on the ring, whose cheap structure gives way and leaves them finishing the fight in a broken down shambles of a wooden frame.
While the cutting is at times a little too brisk for the leisurely pace of the plot and the truly graceful acting that Tati delivers, the short is well-crafted and offers a coherent artistic vision. Tati-esque touches abound in general. We may easily mistake the overeager postman for Francoise, the subject of Tati’s L'École des facteurs and Jour de fête; likewise, Roger resembles a slightly more sullen Hulot, curious, befuddled, and entirely good-natured. Unlike the earlier shorts, both of which used faster pace musical scores to create a frantic soundscape, Jean Yatove’s for Soigne is mostly more relaxed. Rather than a driving underscore, the soundtrack’s jovial, fair-like atmosphere is more in line with Tati’s eventual musical modus operandi, even if it seems likely Tati had no direct hand in influencing it. Consistent with that convivial tone, there is no villain here: Roger’s opponent is patient, indulgent, friendly even, and the brawl that destroys the ring is instigated by an accident. And like the Royal Garden restaurant in Playtime, when it collapses, it becomes an entirely new structure that is now better suited to Tati’s character than those around him, and he quickly claims a KO and a decisive victory. While the satirical import and mind boggling complexity of that late masterwork certainly aren’t present here, one can leave Soigne ton gauche with a far better-formed impression of the artist than Une brute or Gai dimanche!. The final image, more than any one moment before it, bears Tati’s unmistakable signature in its wistful ode to the imagination: a wide shot of the kid with the toy camera as he rushes to film the postman cycling away down a long road.
Other Essays in This Series