Nº 257

Ein Produkt französischer Fantasie

Jacques Tati as design critic

… where you miss the colour, a person breaks

ranks, is unsilenced …

from: Paul Celan, Playtime (1968)


The five feature-length films made by scriptwriter, director and actor Jacques Tati – “Jour de Fête” (1949), “Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot” (1953), “Mon Oncle” (1958), “Playtime” (1967) and “Trafic” (1971) – have become part of the cinematic canon. In each, Tati uses exaggeration and situational comedy to satirise aspects of contemporary society in a way that is every bit as relevant today. Dysfunctional and function-overladen products, buildings and services play a leading role – as do their reappropriations.


Function doesn’t follow


If there’s one constant in Jacques Tati’s films – aside from their main protagonist Monsieur Hulot, played by Tati himself1 – it’s the presence of objects and services that either don’t work or don’t work as they should, be they case handles that fall off, station announcements that baffle passengers, or collapsible boats that fold up at the wrong moment. Not even mass production is immune: at the start of Trafic, Tati’s fifth and last major release, we see a car factory in which body panels are not only pressed but dented too – which, in other words, turns out scrap from the start. It’s these ironically comic, often almost slapstick situations that typify his films. What’s more, his characters are mostly unequal to their designated tasks. From the postman in Jour de Fête to the architect or the waiter in Playtime, they frequently seem ill-suited or simply not up to their jobs. Trafic offers a prime example, in the shape of Monsieur Hulot and his team, comprising van driver Marcel and PR executive Maria, whose task is to get a newly developed camper van from the outskirts of Paris to a motor show in Amsterdam.2 It’s a journey that goes from bad to worse. Hulot – who seems to be either the vehicle’s designer or the planner of the motor show stand or possibly both; the film leaves the viewer guessing – is a man with catastrophic time management skills, something that lays the foundations for the failure of their mission. Marcel is not much use either: he runs out of petrol, thus getting them stranded on the motorway, and neglects his responsibilities, be it changing a tyre or going to fetch petrol, leaving Hulot to do all the work. Nor are Maria’s contributions particularly constructive; quite the opposite, in fact: by driving straight through a border checkpoint and also causing a mass pile-up, she plays a major part in the team’s failure to get the Altra, as their Renault 4 van-based vehicle has been named, to Amsterdam until the motor show stand is already being dismantled. It’s an outcome that is foreseeable not only to regular Tati watchers but also to the protagonists themselves. The representative of Volvo on the neighbouring stand thus seizes the opportunity one morning and, with the consent of the show’s director, rolls his own vehicles onto the unused Altra stand3. This later culminates in a debate over whether Altra has to pay the 300,000 francs in stand fees, during which the outraged Altra manager Bostel exclaims: “Cette voiture est le produit de l’imagination française!” [“This car is the product of French fantasy!”]. For all their incompetence when it comes to their actual jobs, Tati’s characters at least demonstrate a real talent for mastering unexpected situations. Maria, for instance, has an uncanny ability to suddenly have the right outfit for and hence blend into every situation. She starts the journey dressed in black leather, looking very much the roadster driver (and PR exec), only to appear in flat cap and pullover when the team gets to a truck stop. When they are stopped by the police, she carefully studies an officer in a white policeman’s tunic and selects a white coat of her own; and while on the boat belonging to rough-around-the-edges mechanic Tony Knepper, she is suitably attired in leather jacket, washed-out jeans and sneakers. She undergoes a similar transformation in character during the course of the film, metamorphosing from arrogant PR exec to helpful and friendly colleague, even ending the film arm in arm with Hulot. Likewise, van driver Marcel reveals his true strengths as the story progresses. Having shown himself to be something of an expert on the new camper at the police station and thus the perfect Altra salesman, he then comes into his own outside the now empty exhibition centre, explaining the vehicle’s qualities to passersby, handing out brochures, and thereby belatedly ensuring that sales director Maisongrosse (!) does go home with orders in his book after all.

Alienation and appropriation


Just as people in Jacques Tati’s films get the chance to follow their true calling, so the objects, too, often gain new and sometimes more suitable functions. Tati is a master of such appropriations. The loading bay of a lorry is thus transformed into a mobile workplace for the postman François, while the thresher becomes a means of delivering letters (both in Jour de Fête). A floor lamp serves as a grab rail in an overcrowded bus and a roundabout morphs into a carousel that seems to only start moving again once money has been inserted into a parking meter4 (both in Playtime). And in Trafic, the spare wheel housing of her roadster provides Maria with a perfect hat box. Tati parodies evidently nonsensical products such as the Paris-branded sunglasses that flip up to allow the wearer to apply make-up5 as well as examples of ostensibly good design. The impractical chair that appears in various forms throughout Playtime6 is strongly reminiscent of contemporary designs such as Ilmari Tapiovaara’s Kiki Lounge Chair (1960) and, perhaps more relevant for Tati, Pierre Guariche’s FG2-Courchevel for the Sièges Témoins range (1959/1960). One of the most celebrated postwar French designers, Guariche was born in 1926 and, in 1953, founded Atelier de Recherches Plastiques (ARP) together with Michel Mortier and Joseph-André Motte. It may be just a coincidence (albeit a pleasing one) but, five years later, Tati gave the successful plastics manufacturer in Mon Oncle the name Arpel. What we can say for sure is that Pierre Guariche also made numerous lamps for Atelier Pierre Disderot, a studio established in 1947, that Pierre Disderot is the name of one of the exhibitors at the homeware show in Playtime, and that the film incarnation of the firm does indeed sell lamps – though it is otherwise notable only for the two ladies referring to its stand as the lighting department and wanting to have a faulty lamp repaired.7 Art historian Gislind Nabakowski refers here to the “defaming” of design and offers the following analysis of the reinterpretation of the divan in Mon Oncle: “Jacques Tati’s production designer Henri Schmitt renders the divan, a classic of period furniture, as a chunky, vulgar-looking item whose contoured green upholstery is trimmed with coarse white cotton tassels. […] The resulting design is distinctly third-rate at best and looks supremely uninviting in its intended state, but this doesn’t stop the family making it the centrepiece of their decor. Uncle Hulot, though, performs a simple transformative trick, repurposing it as something altogether comfier. Hulot’s night-time appropriation cleverly takes the 1950s idea of movable multi-functional furniture and gives it an almost farcical twist. Tati didn’t just use anyold design object for this radical change of form and function, choosing a piece whose chunky design is a trivialising echo of an aristocratic classic and thus offering a most damning indictment of the conceit and ineptitude of the nouveau riche.”8 The odder a situation, it seems, the better it can be appropriated for different means. Here, people are encouraged to intervene and take things into their own hands. The Royal Garden restaurant in Playtime, for example, with its unpleasant furniture and non-functioning air-conditioning system9, quickly falls apart due to the haste with which it was cobbled together and is spontaneously turned into a private club by its customers. Here, as elsewhere in Tati’s films, the message seems to be that a virtue (the reappropriation of design) can be made of the necessity to work together. Architectural theorist Graham Cairns sees parallels between this “architectural misuse” and the “détournement of buildings” theory propagated by groups such as the Situationists, with the crucial difference that Tati’s cinematic reappropriation is far less politically motivated.10




On the subject of architecture: for Playtime, Jacques Tati had a 15,000-square-metre film set built close to Bois de Vincennes on the edge of Paris, complete with streets, mocked up office blocks, movable façades, fully functioning lifts and its own power plant. Such was its vast scale that the set became known as Tativille and earned its very own place in cinema history.11 Designed by Jacques Lagrange, Tativille epitomises the modern global cityscape. Historic Paris can still be made out on the horizon, but otherwise appears only in the form of illustrations, as reflections in the glass façades of office blocks, or as a motif on tourists’ shawls. References to the old city include the florists’ stand that seems to have come from another era and the green-and-white, three-door (Chausson) buses, which, in contrast to the (Berliet) tourist buses with their comfortable seating, are mostly horribly overcrowded – a foretaste of a future in which the old city has become congested and outdated. With the same kind of high-rise blocks seen all over the world, urban centres can no longer be identified via their architecture. Instead, the travel agency posters have to differentiate using historic architecture (Mexican Aztec pyramids), national costumes (Holland) or traditional objects (red double-decker buses in London). Ultimately, this uniform architecture also means a building’s occupants can no longer be sure exactly where they are, with an airport terminal looking barely any different from a hospital, hotel or travel agency. Another such instance of confusing interior typologies features in Tati’s earlier Mon Oncle. If we watch Madame Arpel in her kitchen, for instance, neither the viewers nor her visitors are entirely sure whether this isn’t, in fact, a laboratory or perhaps a dental surgery. The furnishings, equipment, indicator lamps and rubber glove-wearing hostess all serve to blur the lines. In the closing scenes of Mon Oncle, the exasperated Charles Arpel makes sure his troublesome brother-in-law leaves the city, personally escorting Hulot from the area in his new 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Sedan. As he does so, we see workers with sledgehammers and hydraulic drills demolishing a building. Hulot’s departure, one is tempted to conclude, is the greenlight for the demolition of the old neighbourhood. What remains is a deserted place visited only by stray dogs. Among them the Arpels’ dachshund Daki – that’s something at least, you might think, although it’s a strange kind of consolation.

Links and literature (selection)

· openstarts.units.it

· designartefact.com

· artnet.de

· Graham Cairns, The Alien Occupation of Space in Playtime: Parallels between Jacques Tati, Henri Lefebvre and The Situationists. Proceedings of the Conference held at the University of Brighton 2 to 4 July 2009. Occupation: Negotiations with Constructed Space.

· Michael Glasmeier, Heike Klippel (Eds.), Playtime – Film interdisziplinär. Ein Film und acht Perspektiven. Münster, 2005.

· Gislind Nabakowski, Bildtheoretische Betrachtungen zu einer Kunstfigur: Jacques Tatis Lifestyle-, Urbanismus und Designkritik der 50-/60-/70er Jahre, Dissertation Lüneburg: Universität Lüneburg, 1995.

· Winfried Nerdinger (Ed.), Die Stadt des Monsieur Hulot. Jacques Tatis Blick auf die modern Architektur. Architekturmuseum der Technischen Universität München, 2004.


1 Tati first introduces his Monsieur Hulot persona in “Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot” (engl.: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday) and plays Hulot in all of his subsequent films. It’s only in his debut picture “Jour de Fête” (engl.: The Big Day) that the character of François the postman, also played by Tati, features as the lead role.


2 An example of Tati’s attention to detail: the last digits of the registration plate (92) of the truck reveals that the firm Altra is based in the département Hauts de-Seine, in other words on the outskirts of Paris, whereas the PR manager is, of course, from central Paris, as shown by the ending of


3 Volvo literally means “I roll” in Latin.


4 Also the music only restarts once the meter has been fed.


5 When Hulot shakes the Umsa factory owner’s hand and breaks his glasses, they end up looking like a pair of these make-up sunglasses, much to the amusement of the passing Barbara.


6 In the film, the chair forms part of the 603 office range of manufacturer Behin Mobil. It is suitable either for commercial or home use and comes in various different versions, with a closed or open back, and with chromed or painted black legs.


7 As an aside, Atelier Pierre Disderot’s real-life logo, which differs from that seen in the film, was designed by Bruno Pfäffli of Agentur Adrian Frutiger. In 1986, the firm merged with lamp manufacturer Soka, becoming Soka Disderot.


8 Gislind Nabakowski, Bildtheoretische Betrachtungen zu einer Kunstfigur: Jacques Tatis Lifestyle-, Urbanismus- und Designkritik der 50-/60-/70er Jahre, dissertation, university of Lüneburg, 1995, page 222/223.


9 Even the model aeroplane at the bar drops its wings and only recovers when the air turns cooler again.


10 Graham Cairns, The Alien Occupation of Space in Playtime: Parallels between Jacques Tati, Henri Lefebvre and The Situationists. Proceedings of the Conference held at the University of Brighton, 2 to 4 July 2009. Occupation: Negotiations with

Constructed Space.


11 Tati spent nine years working on the film, production lasted three years. Despite being critically well received and winning various awards, it was a box office flop. Tati never recovered from the disastrous financial consequences. He did go on to make Trafic, also in difficult financial circumstances, but was subsequently forced to file for bankruptcy.


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