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Mon Oncle

January 8, 2011

337. Mon Oncle (My Uncle)
Directed by Jacques Tati
1958, France
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Ally
Approx. third viewing

Synopsis:

Monsieur and Madame Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie) live in an ultra-modern house in a shiny new suburb of Paris. The Arpels’ obsession with modernity and social status distances them from their young son Gérard (Alain Bécourt), who has more fun with his lovably awkward uncle, Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati).

Essential Scene:

Monsieur Hulot is bamboozled by a cupboard

Monsieur Hulot struggles with the Arpels’ futuristic kitchen. He cannot open the cupboard doors, unaware that they’re automated. When he unwittingly activates the sensor, the doors spring open noisily and startle him. A jug falls from the cupboard. That’s odd… it bounces!

Monsieur Hulot and the bouncing jug

After bouncing the jug several times, Hulot decides to test the bounciness of the cupboard’s other contents. He takes a cup and drops it. It lands with the unmistakable sound of shattering glass.

Thoughts:

Mon Oncle is the second film in Tati’s trilogy of Monsieur Hulot masterpieces*. It contrasts the rustic charm of the earlier Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) with the themes of absurd architecture and modern alienation upon which Tati expanded in Play Time (1967).

Monsieur Hulot is at home in old Paris. A collection of friendly French stereotypes happily go about their daily business. Children play pranks on unsuspecting adults, a street sweeper constantly avoids work by chatting to passersby, et cetera. The gags in these sections are based largely on human nature.

The stepping stone ballet

In contrast, the modern architecture of the Arpel house forces people into bizarre behaviours. The sleek furniture proves impossible to actually sit in. A curved garden path causes people to turn in opposite directions as they try to greet each other. Stepping stones transform a garden stroll into an awkward dance, and eventually lead Hulot straight into a pond. Madame Arpel dresses as a nurse, complete with surgical gloves, to prepare a simple boiled egg.

Automated housekeeping

At the heart of this contrast is young Gérard. The cold, empty house drives him to despondency, and he is unable to bond with his parents. His father offers him a beautifully-engineered toy train; Gérard is more amused by a simple jumping jack from his uncle. In one especially poignant moment, Gérard hears the sound of a vacuum cleaner and runs excitedly into the house expecting to see his mother, only to find an a robotic hoover in an otherwise empty room. He eventually connects with his father over an unintentional prank, but not before Monsieur Hulot — a bad influence — has been sent away.

The paradox of Jacques Tati is that, while his humour was rooted in mime and his themes were frequently nostalgic, his filmmaking was innovative. As is typical of Tati’s work, Mon Oncle is presented almost entirely in long shots, allowing one’s eye to roam the frame in search of jokes, guided by sound effects if necessary. Repeated viewings are rewarded, allowing different details to come to the fore.

As with music, translating the appeal of pure visual comedy into writing is impossible — “like dancing about architecture,” as the old quote goes. (Although, rather aptly, much of Mon Oncle will have you laughing about architecture.) Anyway, you’ll just have to trust me when I say this film is, as well as poignant and stimulating, very funny. I cannot recommend it enough.

*Monsieur Hulot appeared a fourth time, in the not-a-masterpiece-but-still-quite-good Trafic (1971).

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2011 1:22 pm

    I wish I had a fish fountain outside of my home. The kitchen sequence was excellent, as was the gag with the windows having eyes. And… well… lots of other bits, too.

    Tati’s ability to blend social commentary with humor was impeccable. And you have to love the influence that silent comics in America had on him.

    • January 8, 2011 1:29 pm

      I’d love a fish fountain too. I’d only turn it on when I had guests though…

      Yes, I love his silent comedy influences too. According to a documentary I saw recently, when Mon Oncle won the Oscar for best foreign film, Tati was offered the chance to meet any Hollywood stars he wanted — he chose to met Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett and Stan Laurel. There’s even a picture of Keaton, Tati and Lloyd together, which makes me nerdgasm. http://www.moviediva.com/MD_root/MDimages/Copy_of_Playtime3.jpg

      • January 8, 2011 1:50 pm

        That is an excellent photo. I’m dying to see “The Illusionist”.

        • January 8, 2011 2:28 pm

          I was lucky enough to see The Illusionist on the big screen, it’s a truly beautiful piece of animation and very poignant. Hope you get to see it soon.

  2. January 8, 2011 1:33 pm

    I love this film especially the sequences that show Jacques Tati going into his somewhat dilapidated apartment block. The block fills the screen and you see him enter the front door and climb the stairs at each stage, all the way up to the attic, where his apartment is. I think that whimsical scene influenced the inferior and cloy Amelie.

    • January 8, 2011 2:41 pm

      I’d especially love to see that sequence on the big screen, to get a better glimpse through those windows. It puts me in mind of Rear Window, actually.

      As for Amelie, I rather like it — but I prefer Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, which balances the whimsy with some quite horrific war scenes.

      I imagine Jeunet being influenced more heavily by Terry Gilliam than Tati. He uses more face-distorting close-ups (and “unique” faces reminiscent of Fellini), whizzy camera moves and special effects, which Tati would have considered vulgar. (I think those tricks have their place, but Tati proved you don’t *need* them.)

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