DVD Mon Oncle
The work of French writer, director and comic actor Jacques Tati (who died in 1982) was in 2010 given a new lease of life in Sylvain Chomet’s (creator of Belleville Rendez-vous) animation The Illusionist. Chomet used a never filmed Tati script and accompanied it with beautifully realised animations; it was a film which did Tati’s legacy proud. However, as pleasing as Chomet’s animation may be, nothing could ever quite match the man himself. If perhaps there is something to thank Chomet for (beyond his own work), it is that he has introduced a whole new generation to Jacques Tati who may well seek out his back catalogue. One such example is the 1958 release Mon Oncle, which was the second outing for Tati’s best known character Monsieur Hulot.
Set mostly in a wealthy nondescript French suburb and its neighbouring areas, the film follows Hulot (Tati) in his various misadventures trying to get along with his sister’s family. While Hulot lives in the top floor flat of an old crumbling building in the town, his sister – married to wealthy factory executive Charles Arpel – lives in a super modern house, all sleek designs and automatic doors. The differences in brother and sister are illustrated early on by the joys they take from, respectively, making a bird tweet by angling a window so it may bask in the reflected light; and ensuring the giant fish fountain in their lavish garden is on in time to impress arriving guests.
Every attempt made by Mr and Mrs Arpel to ‘improve’ Hulot falls apart as a result of Hulot’s incompetence or lack of self-awareness – a source of much angst for the couple who feel that he must be married off to a suitable wife and found a good solid job. Hulot clearly has little interest in either. Meanwhile Gerard Arpel, Hulot’s 9-year-old nephew, clearly adores his uncle and the opportunities to explore the wastelands of the town with his friends, which being picked up from school by Hulot affords. While Gerard spends his time at home clearly bored to distraction by his parent’s clinical household, his time under Hulot’s lenient supervision offers him the freedom to act his age.
Little in the way of grand plot developments occur after this premise has been set up; the interest instead lies in the relationships between characters and the ways in which Hulot causes his brother-in-law ever-expanding anguish through his amiable refusal to take life too seriously…
The style of the film, and particularly its comedic elements, all hark back to a much earlier form of cinema. Though the music is an important factor, the film would be almost certainly just as successful were it silent. Indeed, Jacques Tati himself is, in many ways, reminiscent of some of the best silent comedians. He has Chaplin’s physicality and Keaton’s air of resigned bemusement, but where the comedies of the silent era would often resort to pratfalls and violence, Tati’s style of slapstick is altogether more subtle. His is a comedy of body language and careful choreography coupled with an eye for the absurdities of modern life.
As with other Tati films, Mon Oncle is a film which finds time to consider a preoccupation of its creator.
Perhaps the best example of the choreography of certain sequences, or at least the most apt, considering it takes the form of a kind of accidental dance, comes right at the end. To a riotous jazz score, Hulot is swept into a crowd at a train station where the bumps, pushes and stumbles of the passengers are cleverly combined to form little snippets of dance moves. Elsewhere, in the garden party scene, for instance, it is simply through the awkwardness of moving around in a garden entirely comprised of ridiculous stepping stone paths which provides the entertainment. In lesser hands, this kind of humour could very quickly get tiresome, but here it is handled with such deftness of touch that it entertains throughout.
Probably the funniest moment of all seems to reference both the gothic horror of 1920s Germany and certain elements of film noir in its stark imagery and use of darkness and light. In it, Hulot sneaks back into his sister’s garden at night to finish the demolition of a plant which was started as a cover up for his doted-on nephew’s accidental damage. Silhouetted by a street lamp and hunched over his devious work, pausing to fling the broken twigs dramatically over his shoulder, Hulot resembles some distant expressionist villain. Meanwhile, light and shadow are used within the same shot in a very different way as Mr and Mrs Arpel appear simultaneously in the two round bedroom windows, their heads forming pupils in the eyes of the house as they search the garden for the cause of the sounds which disturbed their sleep.
As with other Tati films, Mon Oncle is a film which finds time to consider a preoccupation of its creator. The modern world and all its technological trappings is clearly something which Tati finds concerning, and he critiques it rather delightfully through the absurdities of the house-proud Mrs. Arpel‘s kitchen, complete, as it is, with bouncing jugs (though unfortunately for Hulot, non-bouncing glasses) and doors which open and close of their own volition. Though it is maybe tempting to brand Tati as a traditionalist, as someone who rallied against progress for the sake of it, it is worth considering the almost absurd reliance on technology that exists within the modern world. Perhaps Tati had rather more foresight than might first appear to be the case.
For a modern audience, this film should perhaps come with a small warning. Funny though it undoubtedly is, it is a gentle kind of humour and perhaps would not match up to the comic expectations of more cynical viewers. Its charms, however, and the warmth of the central relationship between uncle and nephew should win over all but the stoniest of hearts.
See The Film For Yourself!
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