I've never fallen for any director's work quite as hard as I fell for Jacques Tati. Back when I was still giving myself a crash course in film history, and working through as many famous titles as I could, willy nilly, I had no idea what I was in store for when I borrowed the "Mon Oncle" Criterion disc and popped it into my DVD player.
What followed was my introduction to the delightful, comical, slyly satirized universe of Mr. Hulot, a slightly rumpled Frenchman who was a bit out of step with the hustle and bustle of encroaching modernization. Tati played the role in all of the films that the character appeared in, putting his background as a mime to good use for the physical comedy. A doer of odd jobs, a friend to small children and dogs, and a natural at getting himself into ridiculous situations, Mr. Hulot was the French equivalent of Chaplin's Little Tramp or Keaton's Great Stone Face. And more than that, it often felt like he starred in the sort of films that the old masters of silent comedy would have made if they had figured out how to deal with sound and color, and were French, and did their best stuff in the 50s and 60s.
So what a disappointment for me to discover that Jacques Tati only made six films during his career, and only four of them with Mr. Hulot. I went through all of these in roughly the space of a week, then polished off a trio of Jacques Demy musicals for good measure, and still wanted more. But as luck would have it, I'll be able to see Mr. Hulot again later this year, upon the release of "The Illusionist," which was just picked up for distribution by Sony Picture Classics. It turns out that Jacques Tati wrote the unfilmed script in 1956, between "Mon Oncle" and "Play Time," and it found its way into the hands of a few enterprising filmmakers. Fans might be skeptical, because though the main character is not specified to be Mr. Hulot, it's pretty certain that if Tati had ever produced the film, that's who the lead would have been. So how could anyone hope to bring "The Illusionist" to the screen without resurrecting the beloved director, who passed away in 1982, to play the part?
By going to the preeminent French animation director, Sylvain Chomet, best known for "The Triplets of Belleville" and "The Old Lady and the Pigeons," both wonderful, sentimental, and seriously off-kilter, cartoon creations that nabbed an Academy Award nomination each. The thought of the melding of the creative forces of Tati and Chomet has me more excited for the results than any other film on the horizon right now. I've been following the production of "The Illusionist" since it was announced, through the years of development purgatory, through delays and setbacks, and Chomet moving the production to different countries, to the film finally premiering this year at the Berlin International Film Festival. And now it's finally coming to theaters.
I have been absolutely giddy with each new still and snippet of video from "The Illusionist." When one clip featured the hero striking the same pose Mr. Hulot did in "Mr. Hulot's Holiday," I could have died and gone to heaven. Fanboys this week are salivating over the impending release of "Iron Man 2," while I'm geeking out that I get to see a cartoon feature about a French film icon from the 60s in limited release sometime in the fall. I think I may have outgeeked the geeks.
But no matter. It's the love that counts, which is no doubt what got "The Illusionist" made and brought Mr. Hulot back for another outing. I'll be very glad to see my old friend again - it really has been much too long.