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
MONSIEUR HULOT’S HOLIDAY, JACQUES TATI, 1953
Summer vacation is a time to get away, to adventure, relax, and get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Jacques Tati plays with this logic, as some of his characters make the most of their vacation, while others bring their city lives with them. At the center is the theatrical debut of Monsieur Hulot, who aligns with and is arguably the catalyst for people enjoying themselves during their time off.
From his first appearance as he is driving his meager, sputtering and backfiring, tine Samdon A3, Hulot is introduced as a different type of character. He’s odd, clumsy, sometimes uncomfortable in his own skin, and his unconventional behavior and tastes make him an outlier compared with the traditional vacationers. He barely speaks, and is the center of the comedic gags that take place. He is also the embodiment of the central theme of Tati’s film (and those to come) of tradition versus modernity. Hulot initially seems not to belong because he awkwardly interacts modern technology, but he ends up belonging in his own way.
Holiday is ultimately a comedy, and bears a strong resemblance to the silent comedies that inspired him. He does pack in quite a lot of big gags, the type of which would be familiar in a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd picture. One example is the shark scene, which was added to the 1978 version in order to satire the recently released Jaws. There are other big laughs, like in his unconventional method of tennis playing, where he trounces his opponents by playing by a different set of standards and rules, not unlike how he behaves during personal interactions.
There are plenty of little laughs as well, like him painting a boat and the paint can rolls away from and towards him without his noticing. Or the older man who casually throws away seashells as his wife collects them. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as there are countless subtle oddities that Tati throws into the scene, many of which are humorous and sometimes are hidden. He rewards people for paying attention to the details.
There are plenty of other scenes that are not funny, nor are they intended to be, and this is what separates a Tati film from plenty of other comedies. He slows things down and lets the film breathe. This is, after all, a vacation, and he conveys the sense of getting away.
Not all of the characters participate in the vacation. The businessman is constantly taking calls about his stock purchases. A young political idealist is consumed by continually talking about intellectual matters. The characters who interact the moat with Hulot, however, appear to leave life’s trappings behind them. The children take to Hulot, and they are at home away from home, caring only for enjoyment, music and treats. A number of females also take to Hulot, although not so much in the romantic sense. One young, attractive lady finds herself a dancing partner that keeps a comfortable distance. Another older Englishwoman is delighted by the klutzy Frenchman, and she embraces his quirkiness. Even the older couple adore Hulot,and they spend most of their vacation walking around quietly and peacefully.
Those who accept and enjoy Hulot get the most out of their vacation, and that’s because they challenge their comfort zone. They don’t just follow the herd of modern trappings, but they embrace being outsiders and distant from this quagmire of a society.
Film Rating: 8/10
Terry Jones introduction. The Monty Python member gives a short introduction by Criterion standards and basically highlights his favorite scenes. His presence on the disc speaks more for the influence of Tati. His influence on people like Rowan Atkinson is obvious — the Pythons less so.
Clear Skies, Light Breeze: Critical essay. This is a French critical essay by Stéphane Goudet. She talks about Tati’s art and his comedy, how he embraces the middle class and ridicules bureaucracy and technology. One example is the untillegible speaker at the train station, which people follow blindly. She compares many of these same themes to Tati’s later films.
Sounds of Silence: Interview with Michael Chion. He talks about Tati’s use of sound. The sounds in the film do not fill up spaces, but they are used to complement the space. Tati uses sound to guide our eye to the object (like the swinging door in the restaurant). It enhances the silence. There’s actually quite a bit of sound in Tati films, like the sea in Hulot and the music, and there’s lots of dialogue, but it seems to be primarily in the background.
Cine Regard. This is a French TV program where Tati watches clips from his films and discusses them. He begins by telling a funny story about how he went to a screening of Holiday anonymously, entering in the dark so that nobody would recognize him. He sits next to a man who laughs throughout the film, nudges Tati and constantly calls the director an asshole, not realizing the object of his ridicule is sitting next to him. Tati shares a bit of insight into his films, but it is clear during the discussion that he is protective of their integrity. They are like his children.
1953 version of the film. This original version is not the primary version on the disc, because Tati was a proponent of adapting and improving his films over time, which in my opinion he succeeded with Holiday. Many of the changes are cosmetic, especially with the sound. The older version is busier and slightly more political. The older version is also about 10 minutes longer. Unlike a lot of directors, Tati didn’t mind cutting things out to increase the flow, and he did the same with Jour de Fete.
Criterion Rating: 9/10
SUNDAYS AND CYBELE, SERGE BOURGUIGNON, 1962
One thing I love about Criterion is they manage to balance title releases based on popularity and credibility. Rather than just sticking to top selling auteurs for every release, they’ll often pull a movie out of obscurity and allow it to be rediscovered, even if that means it won’t sell as well as Ford or a Lynch. Sundays and Cybele is hardly obscure, having won international acclaim at the time of its release, including an Oscar win. Yet, for an early 1960s release during the height of the French New Wave, plenty of other films overshadow it. Unlike his contemporaries who enjoyed lengthy, prosperous careers, Serge Bourguignon mostly disappeared into obscurity, his career all but dead by the end of the decade.
Sundays and Cybele is almost the antithesis of a French New Wave film, which may explain why it is such an outlier in the movement. It is slower, more poetic, less spontaneous, and more deliberate. It has more in common with Bresson than Godard, and it dabbles into a darker and less fanciful theme than most would care to engage.
Pierre (Hardy Krüger) is a shell-shocked veteran of the Indochina War, racked with guilt for possibly killing a young girl civilian. He has amnesia and struggles with a return to ordinary life. His former nurse Madeline (Nicole Courcel) becomes his lover and caretaker, yet he his progress with her has limits. It’s through a chance encounter at a train station with Françoise/Cybèle (Patricia Gozzi) that he finds his anchor. She is a 12-year old girl, abandoned at the boarding school, basically an orphan, and he poses as her father to visit her every Sunday. What follows is a friendship and, in a unique way, a romance, yet does not quite reach the level of pedophilia.
The film is visually stunning, thanks to some unconventional shot selections and the camerawork of Henri Decaë (who oddly enough had made his career shooting New Wave films). Most of these shots were visual representation of the disconnection with society and the haziness within Pierre’s persona. For example, there’s one tracking shot that shows the reflection of the street through a vehicle side mirror. As the vehicle climbs a hill, we eventually see Pierre walking, and the shot continues with the driver getting out of the car. There is another excellent shot when Pierre is having lunch with Madeline and her friends, when he gets up and wipes a circle in the fogged up window, where two horse riders are interacting on the other side of a pond. Not only were these shots gorgeously photographed, but they were precisely choreographed. These were but two of many that likely took a lot of thinking and staging, and the execution resulted in a strikingly original looking film.
There are several motifs throughout the film, but the one that impressed me the most was the use of glass, mirrors, and how it interacted with the photography. Glass objects are used as props, and at one point in the lunch scene, the camera takes Pierre’s perspective as he looks at his companions through a wine glass, again showing his distorted worldview with filmic elements.
The relationship between Pierre and Cybele is complicated. He is continually infantilized. Even Cybèle playfully observes that “deep down you’re like a lost child.” She unmistakably loves him in a romantic way, at least as much as she understands of love at her age. His responses are affectionate, yet he stops short of vocally acknowledging her interpretation of their relationship. She is his conduit to his inner self, and he is possessive of her affections, yet is actual intentions are unclear the audience, as they likely are to himself. She daydreams of marrying him when she is 18 and he is 36, which might have happened if the relationship were able to progress. To further complicate matters, he finds himself romantically impotent towards Madeline. Cybèle is the one who fulfills him, while his lover leaves him empty.
Even though this is a gorgeous film with richly drawn characters, it has some storytelling problems getting to the final act. The film plods when Pierre disappears and Madeline recruits Bernard to help find him. The finale is temporally out of synch, as we learn of the outcome before we see it. While that results in an effective scene, with Madeline’s reaction seamlessly cutting to Cybèle’s, it is makes the ending less impactful and somewhat unsatisfying.
Film Rating: 7.5
Serge Bourguignon interview. Much of the time is spent discussing the film and it’s themes, but I thought the most interesting aspect of the interview was hearing him explain why his career ended. He seems to think it was due in large part to the jealousy of the New Wave filmmakers for his American success and the Oscar. It sounds like there were some disagreements, and he acknowledges that some of the problems may have been his own fault.
Patricia Gozzi interview. Her experience is also interesting because she was such a young actress, and this was her first significant role. She also disappeared from acting approximately a decade later, yet she does not give her reasons (I believe it was for marriage). Her relationship with Krüger was a close friendship, and that translated to the screen. I wonder if she grasped the taboo nature of their relationship during the filming. That’s another topic she doesn’t address.
Hardy Krüger interview. Krüger is undoubtedly the most successful of those involved with this project, having gone on to do major American pictures like Hatari, Flight of the Phoenix, and Barry Lyndon. He remembers the production fondly. Even though they initially wanted Steve McQueen in his role he made it his own and was proud of the movie and its success. He was living in Africa at the time of the Oscars, so had to learn of the win via a telegram, but the excitement was not lost on him.
Le sourire: This documentary short won the Palme d’Or and ultimately launched Bourguignon’s theatrical career. It is a 20-minute short about Buddhists in Burma. You can see here how his slower, poetic approach to filmmaking originated. The film displayed the physical beauty of the temples and the people, while conveying their spirituality and purity. Having lived in Thailand when I was younger, this was quite familiar to me. In a way it felt like a trip to the past, so my rating might be a little biased, but I absolutely loved the short.
Criterion Rating: 9/10