Attempting to adapt Jacques Tati’s 1967 masterpiece is courageous, maybe even reckless. Often classed among the greatest ever films, it has a flimsy plot, long shots of moving crowds and minimal dialogue. To add to the challenge there’s Tati’s own performance as Monsieur Hulot, rendering exquisite moments of physical comedy and mime.
The miracle of Valentina Ceschi and Thomas Eccleshare’s production is that it works, at least in the first half. Under their direction, the drama is given a cutesy romance and quirkiness. The film’s gags work well theatrically and the characterisation contains clowning beyond Monsieur Hulot alone – everyone’s trousers are a few inches too short.
We follow an American tourist around Paris, to an office, expo and restaurant, before returning to the airport. The first half is packed with fun and imagination. Terry Jones regards Tati’s film as a story of “mankind lost in structures of his own contriving” and the visual gags here progress ideas around hypermodernity and urban alienation. The exhibition, in which state-of-the-art gadgets are advertised, contains great comedy on consumerism, and there is a lovely flight of fancy between would-be lovers flying in the sky.
The cast excels in mime, fluid in their movements, which are set against muzak save for a few lines of dialogue in a babel of languages and garbled French sounds. They double up as lovers, commuters and lost souls, every one of them entertaining, but Yuyu Rau and Martin Bassindale are especially delightful to watch, while Enoch Lwanga’s Hulot has a Chaplinesque naivety.
It is a shame when the second half loses its way, with a baggy restaurant scene of strained comic mayhem that takes up most of the second act. In the film, this set piece has magnificent 70mm cinematography to beguile us; here, it leaves a vacuum.
The last scenes reset the atmosphere with two original songs, one by Chilly Gonzales and Pierre Grillet, the other a croony number by Martha Wainwright. But in its final portrait of Paris it reverts to a bygone city of baguettes and bonhomie rather than Tati’s harder futuristic version.
This production could be a storming success if better structured in the second half, but it still offers up enough joy to keep us entertained.
At the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until 17 September