Criterion: Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati, 1958
Jacques Tati can be an absolute riot at times, and in my opinion, Mon Oncle is his funniest effort. While he does not relax his recurrent theme of tradition versus modernity, he has more fun with these characters, and the material is ripe for comedy with big laughs. Playtime also has some scenes with big laughs, but is a little quieter, slower paced, and takes the theme a little further. The latter is my favorite of the two, yet Mon Oncle is one I could see myself watching more frequently just because it’s a lighter and more pleasurable experience.
The fact that the movie is bookended by dogs running around randomly without a care in the world is no accident. The dogs are contrasted by the silly adults who spend the majority of their effort on appearances, trying to show off their nifty little gadgets and elaborate architecture. The Arpel family are pre-occupied with exemplifying their higher class, while the dogs care less – and that includes the house weiner dog. Even though he wears clothing that would only come from an upper class family, the dogs are seen as equals. They run together where they wish and do not discriminate, nor do they care about such symbols.
The behavior and attitude of the dogs are similar to that of the children. The young Gerard Arpel is dressed in a fine suit representative of his class, yet when he goes out to play with the lower class children that wear patchwork sweaters, he is treated as an equal. Like the dogs, they collectively gallivant around, have fun, and engage in whatever mischief they can find. This can be doing cruel things to others, like pushing on cars to make people think they were in an accident, or whistling from hidden locations and placing bets whether people will hit the signpost. Gerard cares nothing of the technology back at home. He would prefer to eat a cruller with jam and sugar rather than a technologically advanced boiled egg.
Gerard looks to his uncle, Monsieur Hulot, as a mentor and influence. Hulot is from an older, traditional France. Like with Villa Arpel, his home is a maze of sorts, but his is out of necessity and not intent. His is run down and he has to go through a variety of different paths in order to reach his loft apartment. The path to his door is not aesthetically crafted and manufactured like the Arpels. He has no fish fountain. Instead he finds that a bird sings when he opens the window enough to let the sunlight shine on it’s cage. This he does for his own amusement, and not to impress others.
Villa Arpel is another matter entirely. Their house is the height of design. They have a winding S-shaped pathway to get to the front door. There is a small pond with a gigantic fish standing vertically with mouth in the air, which will erupt with blue water when the correct button is pressed. The courtyard has small square pads for walking, surrounded by gravel, grass, or some other brand of landscaping, requiring people to walk carefully if they venture off the main path. The house is modern even for today, with two large portholes that can appear as eyes in some scenes (which Tati uses for great comic effect!).
The house is ostentatious if not completely ridiculous. It is actually quite nice. What is ridiculous is the behavior of the Arpels that inhabit it. They are only concerned with what the neighbors think. The most obvious example of this is that they wait for the doorbell before turning on the fish fountain. If the visitor is a deliveryman or anyone else from a lower class, including Hulot, they immediately turn it off. It is not meant for the lower classes. If it is for a neighbor, co-worker, or any other guest, then the fountain continues to flow as long as the guest is present – or if the fountain breaks, which is another hilarious scene.
There are two worlds in this movie: The Arpel’s world and Hulot’s world. In one of the supplements, Francois Truffault is quoted as saying that one world is 20 years in the past, while the other is 20 years in the future. The old France is the traditional France. The colors of the town are muted and drab, mostly earth colors, with clutter and disarray everywhere. There is one notable pile of garbage that remains in the middle of the street for the entire film. There’s even someone who is sweeping (a reference to the postman in Jour de Fete), but he is doing his job as slowly and inefficiently as possible. The Arpels, on the other hand, are immaculate and obsessed with cleanliness. Mrs. Arpel goes so far as to wipe off her husband’s car to make it as shiny as possible as he is departing for work.
A lot can be said about the contrast between old world, pre-war values and the coming modernization and Americanization. It is no secret that the shiny cars that Arpel and others of his class drive are all American. Mr. Arpel drives a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. By contrast, those in the old France usually walk or ride bicycles. The plastic factory is another statement of modernization and industrialization, and the film mocks how they are merely making plastic hoses. Hulot is so out of touch with this world that he cannot even make a simple hose, and ends up making what looks like sausage links.
Did I mention this movie was funny? There are a few scenes that had me roaring with laughter. The Arpels’ dinner party scene was a riot, and I loved that one of the guests (one from a lower class) couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness as it took place. Another funny scene was when they mistake a neighbor for a rug salesman, but she was just trying to impress them with flashy clothing.
After all of this poking fun of modernity and technology, the dogs are shown running around. The ending is perfect, and reminds us yet again that this artificial world, the high tech gadgets, and the attention means absolutely nothing in the big picture.
Film Rating: 9/10
Terry Jones Introduction. Jones was disappointed with the film at first, and then came around and it became his favorite Tati film. He thinks that the main titles speak to the primary theme just like anything else in the film with hand-created nameplates showing the production credits amid heavy industrial background.
My Uncle. This is the English-language version, which was filmed concurrently with the French version. There are English signs and dialog, which was dubbed in later. The background voices are still French, but that does not matter since the audio is unintelligible. The spoken language version does not make much of a difference because so much of the film is silent, at least not spoken, and the sound effects are all the same.
Once Upon a Time: My Uncle. This featurette talks about the production and puts it into historical context. There are many interviews, including some archived with Tati. Pierre Etaix speaks a great deal as his assistant. He talks about how well Tati choreographed each character’s movement down to the smallest detail.
“Lines, Signs and Designs.” This is a short feature about the architecture behind the house. They talk to different architects about the house, who give their opinions about the designs. Many of them agree that the design was a little much, but they do not overly criticize. Some of them get a little defensive. One architect says that Tati would have slammed his early work.
“Fashion.” This feature talks with a fashion designer about the outfits. She said the apparel was very 1950s. She singles out the rug lady that resulted in funny misunderstanding, all because she was trying to outdo Ms. Arpel. Back in the 1950s, there was a lot of attention to matching colors. One instance where this is seen in the film is with the dog’s vest matching Mr. Arpel’s scarf.
“Have a Seat.” Some designers reproduced the rocking chair, the “kidney” couch and the two cylinder couch. The latter is not very comfortable until people relax in it, and experiment with different ways to use it. This was not mentioned in the feature, but the entire house is reproduced here.
Everything’s Connected. Visual essay and critical analysis by Stephane Goudet. This is the most conventional plot of all his films.. Tati is not against modern archictecture, but the way people use it to show off. It is more of a class contrast. She compares it to other films, like in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday where Hulot becomes a role model for the kids, but not what the parents probably want. That’s the case with the Arpels. He is more of a role model for Gerard and the child adopts Hulot’s values more than his parents.
With walking on the water lilys into the pool, Tati’s character enters water just like in his two previous films, but this time he is not submerged because the water is not deep enough. This provides continuity between the films and his world, but this instance of water is distinctly artificial whereas the others are real.
This was subtle and probably not noticeable to non-French speakers, but the name Hulot is mixed up with “hublot” on at least one occasion. “Hublot” means means porthole. There are many portholes in this movie, such as the holes in the garage, the holes upstairs as windows (or eyes), and the porthole in the interview scene.
“Le Hasard de Jacques Tati.” In this TV special, Tati talks about all the dogs in the film and his relationship with them, including Chance the mutt, his own dog. The dogs for the film were obtained from the pound, and afterward he put out an ad for people to adopt the “stars” of the film. He wishes he had 30-40 dogs because he could have found homes for all of them.
Criteron Rating: 9.5/10