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Jacques Tati's architecture: how his films are a reflection on the architecture and design of his time

Part 1 Dissertation 1998
Joanne Desyllas
Newcastle University | UK
In this dissertation I examine two films of Jacques Tati and their relationship with the architecture, design and events of his time. Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967), were chosen because of their urban location and particular richness in architectural imagery. I attempt to show that Mon Oncle and Playtime provide a valuable reflection and commentary on contemporary developments and debates and play a role in "...the reception, criticism and dissemination of architectural ideas".

Tati has been referred to as "L'architecte-cineaste" because of the importance of architecture in his films. His comedies are based on astute observation and deal with common realities. He had a suspicion of modern technology, politics and architecture and was particularly distressed by the alienation of individuals caused by modernisation and mass production.

Mon Oncle, made during 1956-58, took much inspiration from the rapid post-war urbanisation of Paris and her suburbs. Tati was saddened by the steady destruction of old Paris and its replacement by angular, modern architecture such as the infamous Les Sarcelles project (1959-66). The film also addresses issues such as the gulf between technology and older, more humane ways of life and uses the juxtaposition of two opposed worlds to show this point. The references to 1950's design and aesthetics are frequent. Tati also illustrates the mentality and spirit of this consumerist age and shows the trend towards assembly line, mass produced items and the consequent wastage. The availability of new domestic products and labour saving devices is also shown, reflecting the post-war return of women to the home.

Playtime elaborates a number of themes of Mon Oncle. The film was, however, particularly inspired by the ambitious La Defense project which involved the clearing of some of Paris's poorest suburbs and their redevelopment into an impressive office development So astute was Tati in predicting the architectural forms and the problems, it has been suggested that, "(Tati) built La Defense before La Defense existed". The prophetic quality of his film also extends to predicting many of the arguments of the 1968 student revolution. Amongst Tati's many comments, he addresses the idea of internationalism and criticises the uniformity of design. His beautifully constructed set, uses much glass, the material which Tati felt was representative of the contemporary world and modern architecture. As with all his films, Playtime has an air of optimism and he shows how the individual slowly adapts to his initially alien modern environment and reacts against his sterile environment.

Finally, having examined all these issues I aim to quash some of the misconceptions about Tati's intentions and views. Although he was criticised for being nostalgic, condemnig evolution and ridiculing the architectural profession I believe he merely recognised the qualities of the past and strove for a fusion between the two worlds and for a technology that respected the sense and pleasure of life. He criticised thoughtless modernism not modernism per se. Indeed, like James Harding, I believe him to be somewhat of a visionary, "... He knew very well the direction the world was taking". His films address serious issues within contemporary society with a comic gentleness, and are as relevant today as they were then. Jacques Tati is a valuable commentator on the tastes, trends and views of his time.


CHION Michel
Jacques Tati
Paris: Cahiers du Cinema 1987

The Films of Jacques Tati
London: The Scarecrow Press/Metuchen, 1977

DANEY Serge, HENRY Jean-Jacques, LE-PERON Serge, BOLAND Bernard, SCHEFER Jean-Louis
"Jacques Tati"
Cahiers du Cinema, No 303, Septembre 1979, p5-31

"Playtime: Comedy on the Edge of Perception"
Wide Angle, Vol 3, No2, 1979, p18
Joanne Desyllas

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