(1958, France) starring Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Zola, Adrienne Servantie, Alain Bercourt; directed by Jacques Tati; music by Franck Barcellini and Alain Romans. Seen on TCM, July 21, 2013. Available from these sources.
The story: Five years after his first appearance, Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot returns with MON ONCLE, a film set along the dividing line between Paris’ past and its future. Aligned (as is the film) with the former, Hulot lives in a colorful, overpopulated Parisian neighborhood and, lacking employment, spends his days waiting to pick up his adoring nephew from school, and subsequently escorting him to his parents’ ultra-modern house. Filled with gadgets, some turned on only to impress the neighbors, the house seems designed specifically to frustrate Hulot, who unwittingly disrupts its operations at every opportunity. Concerned about his future, Hulot’s relatives attempt to find him gainful employment and pair him off with a neighbor, with little success on either front.
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IN MON ONCLE, there is a silver fountain shaped like a fish that has so much screen time that it is practically a co-star. It belongs to the Arpels—Monsieur Hulot’s sister, brother-in-law, and young nephew. They live in a house so obsessively modern that it has turned them into clowns.
When Hulot’s sister switches on the fountain, which she is forever doing for visitors, it gives a strangled gurgle and spouts straight up like a geyser. You see that fountain far away, in close up, and from every conceivable angle. Is is as if Tati can’t get over how funny it is, and neither will you after about an hour.
M Hulot lives a dreamy, impractical life in a city neighborhood full of color. He tries to do what his modern relatives want—the problem being that even they cannot do what they want. They cannot be colorless for the life of them. They own a red bicycle, green plants, blue pillars, a vivid yellow rocking chair. We first see Hulot’s sister wearing a pea-green caftan and matching turban.
She buys a silver garage door with an electronic eye that terrifies the maid. But her husband buys a green, pink, and lavender car with fat white sidewalls. These are anniversary presents.
This movie hasn’t got one mean-spirited moment, because Tati never invites you to look down on these people. It’s the human comedy, he says. Look at the colors of that.
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A CHIRPY, CATCHY FRENCH TUNE is playing. Stray dogs scurry, enjoying boundless freedom on these cobblestoned streets of a town somewhere in France. Precisely where, I don’t know, but I loved the two hours I spent there.
Mr. Hulot (director/star Jacques Tati) is like those dogs. He’s a happy, harmless fellow, taking pleasure in the little things. Such as manipulating a window reflection just enough to cause a nearby canary to warble. As with the carefree pooches who delight in finding morsels in the garbage, it doesn’t much to make Monsieur Hulot cheery.
Like the seaside resort in Tati’s previous film, MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY, this is a very real-seeming place. I was immersed in the setting and its quirky, flawed inhabitants with all their very human characteristics.
There’s a street sweeper who’d rather do anything but sweep. A sweet, pretty young girl who seeks out the older Hulot’s approval. There’s a ridiculously fussy fussbudget whose prized possession is a horrid, metal fountain she activates only for worthy, impressionable guests.
There are the boys who pass the time by either making pedestrians have head-on collisions with street lamps, or causing drivers to think they’ve had collisions when they actually haven’t.
Then there’s Hulot. He lives on the very top floor of an impossibly intricate building that resembles a Joseph Cornell box. He tries, but modern gadgets and appliances make life too complicated. So what job does he take on? Well of course in a factory filled with nothing but dials, switches and complex machinery. Falling asleep at his desk on his first day, he throws the entire operation into minor chaos. But the side effect is that Hulot brightens the up-till-now dull and monotonous life of his co-workers.
At the movie’s end, the dogs are romping through the streets again. Life goes on. As with HOLIDAY, I’m sad to leave. I miss it already.
*Also recommended: Tati’s PLAYTIME and MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY, as well as the recent, animated adaptation of a Tati screenplay, THE ILLUSIONIST.
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WHEN I WATCH a Jacques Tati film, I feel as if I’ve been invited to be part of a clever, conspiratorial event.
“Come watch,” his work seems to say. “Let’s have some fun.”
So I’m drawn in, expectant, and hunkered down with an incessant grin on my face, periodically surprised by the laugh-out-loud moments. I can’t wait to see — and hear — what happens next. Visual treat after visual treat appears, accompanied by perfectly calibrated silence and perfectly hilarious sound effects. Who knew that the bzzzz of an entry buzzer or an on-again/off-again fountain gurgle could humor me for two hours? I’m still whistling the theme song.
What I love about MON ONCLE is the sense of intimacy. I’m totally in for the ride, peeking over fences, down halls, and into windows. I see what and how Tati sees, mesmerized by his sight gags and clever points of view, those long, extended shots that give me time to look around, and each masterfully composed frame that can stand alone as a piece of art.
When the characters bring their über-contemporary chairs out of doors to look into their house to watch television, I feel as if I am pulling up my own chair to sit quite happily and watch them while they watch tv.
The contemporary world that Hulot’s sister and brother-in-law inhabit is monochromatic steel gray and full of new fangled complexity. Regardless of its symmetry, it’s a world consistently off-kilter, dysfunctional, and just plain kooky. Hulot’s counterpoint neighborhood is in stark contrast, lived-in and richly toned, as comfortable as his moccasins and overcoat. It’s not a perfect world either, but people have gotten used to how things work (and don’t work) there. Hulot replaces a brick in a pile of rubble because that’s where it goes. Humans are amusing that way.
I could watch over and over again when the neighbors try to follow the curved path of the sidewalk and teeter across the paving stones in the yard, but I bet that one day they’ll start cutting straight across and make their own path, the same way Hulot’s brother-in-law veers from the standard gray option and buys a car that’s painted pink, lavender, and green.
The world keeps changing, and we figure out how to live in our particular place in time.
“C’est la vie,” Hulot says. He’s absolutely right.
Lindsay Edmunds blogs about robots, writing, life in southwestern Pennsylvania, and sometimes books and movies at Writer’s Rest. She is the author of a novel about love in the age of artificial intelligence: Cel & Anna.
Dave is a graphic designer, and proprietor of movieLuv.