It is an honour for me to write about Jacques Tati, for whom I have felt unconditional admiration and affection since childhood. The only films for which I remember my father showing enthusiasm were Tati’s masterpieces Jour de fíªte (1949), Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), and Mon Oncle (1958). They enjoyed some mainstream success in British cinemas back in the days before our culture turned curatorial and they became pages in the annals of cinema history. (Amazingly, Jour de fíªte found a distributor here before it did in France.) I believe that these comic visions of rural, seaside, and suburban France respectively were, for my father, a nostalgic link with his francophone youth. Their deployment of speech as sound rather than communication must give them a special resonance for anyone growing up in a foreign-language culture. I came to realise that my father’s fondness for the comedy of gesture with wordless sound, of misunderstanding, and of the absurd banal, were Tati-underpinned. These innocent forms of humour have long tended to seem dated: one would court embarrassment if one tried to enact the first, especially, in sophisticated company today. But the work of the master Tati defies cultural change and can still make cynical 21st-century metropolitans laugh like delighted children.
Parade is very different from Tati’s other films. It is ostensibly a real-time documentary record of a circus performance in a Swedish cinema. The performance that Tati shows us is not only that of the circus artists but also that of the audience, whose lurid hippy clothes are nicely captured on fuzzy colour-saturated film stock (mainly videotape, it appears). As filmmaking, Parade is surprisingly shoddy for a meticulous craftsman like Tati. His preference for dubbing sound afterwards (shared by many great filmmakers) is a key element in the art of his other films, but here is bodged. Eclectic techniques are employed. A camera weaving through backstage comings and goings is reminiscent of Altman or Tati’s friend Fellini. The ‘real’ members of the audience are mingled with planted performers and cardboard cut-outs. A freaky rock group is filmed with wild abandon, which is surprisingly apt, though expressive more of bewilderment than excitement. In general, the blurring of the image, the crude editing, the abrupt switches from one kind of deteriorating film stock to another, from blazing to faded colours, all buy spontaneity at the price of coherence. In its whimsical, chaotic mood, its self-consciously studio-bound character, its visual punning and love of the incongruous, and its variety-bill structure, Parade is more reminiscent of anarchic British TV comedy like Do Not Adjust Your Set than of any cinema film.
Tati is the compí¨re, benign presiding presence and modest star. He offers us five mime routines, dating back to his music-hall act of the 1930s. At the age of 65 he still executes them brilliantly. Although Parade cannot stand comparison with Tati’s best loved works, there are moments of genius in the film that amply justify its existence.