Mon Oncle (1958)

Jacques Tati | 1hr 57min

Villa Arpel looks far more like a modern art instalment than a welcoming home, but nevertheless, it is in this stylish, blockish structure where Monsieur and Madame Arpel plant their roots. Everything, from its clinical, square-cut angles to the white path curved perfectly across their manicured garden, carries an air of high-class posturing, but the design alone isn’t enough for Jacques Tati in his send up of post-war France’s consumerist culture. On top of the comical pretence of it all, the efforts of high-flyers to make the world more efficient through automated contraptions and sleek designs has only made it clunkier. Something as simple as a rocking garden chair makes for a nice piece of décor, but its height, tiny backrest, and imbalanced rocker rails makes for a hilariously awkward experience trying to sit on it.

Geometric shapes and angles at nearly monochromatic Villa Arpel, “ultra-modern” in its stylish décor but barely practical for everyday living.

This “ultra-modern” home is the setting for much of Mon Oncle, even though our main character, the non-verbal oddball Monsieur Hulot, lives a rather different life to Madame Arpel, his sister. His rundown apartment complex might almost look like a ramshackle Dr Seuss cartoon in its winding passages and angles, but just like everything else in this world, it is still entirely made up of geometric blocks. When Hulot first enters this architectural oddity, we sit in a long shot as he passes by windows, giving a glimpse into the convoluted path he takes which winds through seemingly every room until he reaches his flat at the top. Living in this old-fashioned, decrepit building isn’t any easier or harder than living in a fashionable, automated home, but it at least doesn’t hide its messiness behind any polished, deceitful designs. Furthermore, the windows in both residences are always being used to visually sever individual body parts from the inhabitants, whether it be a low opening focusing on Hulot’s feet, or two adjacent, eye-like portholes in Villa Arpel making its owners’ heads look like pupils. It is a material culture that these characters dwell in, and by cutting them up into segments Tati frames them as objects, dehumanised by the very constructions they live inside.

Tati’s intricate dioramas reflecting their eccentric inhabitants.
The magnificent sets of Mon Oncle comically diminishing the stature of his characters, turning them into dehumanised products of their own material surroundings.

This perfectionistic approach to blocking actors like models in meticulously arranged dioramas would go on to inspire such modern auteurs as Wes Anderson and Roy Andersson, but in terms of those who impacted Tati, Charlie Chaplin must get a great deal of credit. It isn’t very often one can point to Chaplin’s influence as a director (his influence as an actor is an entirely different matter), but Tati is a true acolyte of the silent comedian, as he similarly constructs his film out of vignettes and running gags, all of which formally build on the larger satire at play.
 
Chaplin’s comedy Modern Times looms largest of all, particularly as Monsieur Hulot finds himself in a factory job he just isn’t cut out for. Though he is tasked with managing some sort of long, red tube that keeps pumping out of an engine at an unyielding pace, what exact purpose it serves remains purposely vague. As Hulot loses control, the tube starts warping, and despite there being nothing logical or meaningful about this absurd production process to begin with, he quickly becomes the laughing stock of the workplace.

Clean precision turns to controlled chaos in Tati’s factory scene, throwing back to Chaplin’s Modern Times.

The precision with which Tati blocks visual gags doesn’t just reveal itself in these large set pieces, but even in movements as small as the way a group of party guests pick up all the furniture in a garden party to get away from a water leak, carry it around winding paths, stepping-stones, and platforms, only to arrive back at the same spot that they originally left. Along the way as they move down a small flight of steps, the table tilts, and a jug sitting on it pours itself into a cup in what may be the smoothest motion we see from any inanimate device in this film. How hilariously ironic too – any high-tech contraption whipped up to serve the same purpose wouldn’t do half as good a job as this accidental occurrence.

Through his performance as Monsieur Hulot himself, Tati reveals that his understanding of slapstick comedy goes beyond his direction, as he turns himself into a comic object buffeted about by overly complicated paths and mechanisms. There is just as much of Buster Keaton’s deadpan in his manner as there is of Chaplin’s scrappy Tramp, though the figure that he strikes is entirely unique. The crushed hat which slopes down over his face, the long pipe hanging out of his mouth, the tan trench coat and pants that sit high above his striped socks – unlike his well-to-do sister and her bullish husband, he does not dress to impress for garden parties or white-collar offices, but he rather opts for an outfit that seems both thrown together and completely distinctive. Looming tall over everyone else while springing about on his long legs, he bears the physicality of an overgrown child out of step with his surroundings. Perhaps this is partly why his nephew, Gérard, is so drawn to him over his real father. While Monsieur Arpel brings home a toy locomotive manufactured by his company, Hulot gifts him a dangling, paper clown, and it is clear which one he prefers.

One of the great silent comedic characters, bridging the gap from Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp to Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean.

How curious it is that this film is titled Mon Oncle (My Uncle) as if Gérard is telling us this tale, even though we spend many scenes without him. To narrow our focus though, this title is most tenderly captured in the simple motif of Gérard grabbing onto his uncle’s hand while he is distracted, followed by the two sharing a tender moment of affection. In these moments, we share Gérard’s innocent perspective, and then carry that appreciation of Hulot through the rest of the film, defining him by his status as a funny, endearing paternal figure. While the world is rattling along a jagged path of arbitrary progress, the actual future of the world, the children, are left behind. In the end the only hope that this world isn’t as superficial, self-centred, or tangled as it seems is this playful, eccentric man, who finds himself just as lost among the madness as them, yet always finds joy in its strange curiosities.

Mon Oncle is available to stream on the Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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