Jacques Tati's last film (1974)—his least-known work, shot mostly on videotape for Swedish television—is seldom shown, but it's a far greater achievement than most accounts would lead you to expect. Ostensibly nothing more than a series of circus and music-hall acts (including several of Tati's most famous pantomimes) hosted by Tati and performed for an ordinary family audience, it is in fact a powerful testament that further develops the radical formal and social ideas of his masterpiece Playtime
in more modest terms without sacrificing any of that work's revolutionary implications. It's literally impossible to determine when one "act" ends and another one begins, because of a complex process of displaced emphasis and a graceful dovetailing of details; it's equally impossible to tell from the brilliant and deceptively simple mise en scene how much is straight documentary and how much contrived fiction. All this proceeds so naturally and effortlessly that one might misread the film as nothing more than minor light entertainment (although it certainly succeeds on that level). But Tati is clearly after much more—a vision of spectacle, of dexterity versus awkwardness, of seeing versus being seen that carries the filmmaker's antielitism to the point of dissolving all distinctions between stars and stargazers, performers and spectators, accomplished acrobats and children at play. It's a sign of this film's greatness that the enormous sadness that accompanies the final leave-taking of the circus interior is a good deal more than the conclusion of an unpretentious evening's entertainment; it's a sublime and awesome coda to the career of one of this century's greatest artists. In French with subtitles. 85 min.
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In the films of Jacques Tati, even system failure can be sublime.