Mon Oncle: Trapped in Modernity
Mr. Hulot ventures into suburbia… and disrupts… disassembles… and demolishes with his very subtle satire.
Some people consider this to be Jacques Tati’s masterpiece, the one film where he fuses his Chaplin-esque slapstick with criticism against the follies of modern society the most effectively. Not being a huge fan of the director, I’ll settle with praising him for his ingenious ideas and ability to make viewers feel like they’re having coffee with a dear old friend who may not excite you much but still makes sure your moments together are pleasant enough.
When we meet Monsieur Hulot (Tati) again for the first time since Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) he’s unemployed and a constant source of embarrassment to his sister (Adrienne Servantie) and her husband, Charles Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), who’ve made enough money to have an ultramodern house built in the Parisian suburbs. Every day, Charles goes to work while his wife stays at home. Both of them are immensely proud of the house, an architectural triumph in one way, but utterly void of any practical use. They have a boy, Gerard (Alain Becourt), who isn’t allowed to play at home like a normal kid would. The relationship to his uncle is much better than that to his parents who think Hulot’s traditional, carefree lifestyle sets a bad example. That is about to change though as Charles is setting up a job for Hulot.
Tati’s first film in color is beautifully shot and arranged. The ridiculously modern home of the Arpels was designed by co-writer Jacques Lagrange and it is amusing to note all the details that make it virtually impossible to live in; everything is meant to be stylish but the chairs are uncomfortable, the garden complicated, the garage a death trap and the rest of the house deeply impersonal. Yet the Arpels don’t mind; what matters is that every stranger who comes to their home is impressed with the technological sophistication of the building. The absurdities of the Arpels’ lives is contrasted with Hulot’s existence. He has no money, but he’s a much appreciated fixture on the streets of his community where life goes on pretty much the same way as it has for centuries; the kids are playing pranks on the adults, a local vendor is selling beignets out of a cart, the street sweeper rarely gets the job done because there’s always a reason to talk to whoever’s passing by, etc. Whenever Hulot goes to visit his sister’s family he’s a stranger in their sterile world and when he does get that job Charles arranges for him, it is equally lifeless and mechanical. The slapstick is often silent, but Tati frequently uses funny sounds as well as actors with distinct appearances; they’re all part of small skits that are worked into the script and then repeated on several occasions, the most effective being the one in the cute final scene that offers an opportunity for Charles to find his inner child together with Gerard.
Don’t expect any big laughs; Tati takes his good ideas and stretches them to the point where you feel like the film isn’t progressing anymore. It’s a shame, because there is so much here that is thoughtful, creative, ambitious and respectful of the cinema greats that preceded him. If Tati had learned how to say “assez est assez”, Mon Oncle might have been a 90-minute masterpiece.
The YouTube clip shows a scene with Hulot.
Mon Oncle 1958-France. 126 min. Color. Produced and directed by Jacques Tati. Screenplay: Jacques Tati, Jacques Lagrange, Jean L’Hôte. Cast: Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot), Jean-Pierre Zola (Charles Arpel), Adrienne Servantie (Madame Arpel), Alain Becourt (Gerard Arpel).
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film.
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