Today: May 26, 2024

Mon Oncle

Anyone who has actually visited Paris will know that it bears little resemblance to the shabbily charming playground depicted in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie.

Anyone who has actually visited Paris will know that it bears little
resemblance to the shabbily charming playground depicted in
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. As beautiful and evocative as
Jeunet’s tattered apartments and loveable outcasts may have been, they were
really little more than a recreation of the nostalgic and reactionary way in
which middle-class France sees itself. Every culture possesses a myth of a
golden age and while the British myth involves village-green cricket, vicars on
bicycles and country pubs, that of France involves charmingly run-down
apartments filled with warmth, passion and authenticity. Celebrated as the heir to such
silent-era deities as Buster Keaton
and Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati used a combination of
gentle comedy and visual inventiveness to explore the changing face of French
society. Produced by Tati himself using the money and prestige generated by the
legendary Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot,
Mon Oncle tells the story of a
battle for the soul of France.

Mon Oncle is set in a city of two
halves: One half is a charming slum filled with iconoclastically authentic
characters living in near poverty while the other half is an over-manicured
modernist nightmare packed with effete snobs and ugly architecture. Trapped
between these two worlds is the charmingly ineffectual Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) who leaves his
beautifully shambolic neighbourhood through a hole in the fence in order to
visit his sister (Adrienne Servantie)
and nephew (Alain Becourt) in the
starkly modernist Villa Arpel. Built by the successful industrialist Arpel
(Jean-Pierre Zola), the villa comes with a garden of multi-coloured gravels, a
fountain that spurts blue water, furniture you cannot sit on and a kitchen
whose sophistication is rivalled only by its decibel level.

The plot of the film revolves
around a battle for the soul of Arpel’s son Gerard who adores his uncle despite
the fact that Hulot has no job, no ambition and no material possessions outside
of his hat, raincoat and pipe. Realising quite early on that Hulot appears to
be have an undue influence on his son, Arpel attempts to lure Hulot into his
life of bourgeois consumerism first by fixing him up with a wealthy neighbour
and then by offering him a job in his hose pipe factory. Tati chronicles these doomed
attempts at embourgeoisement with a good deal of charm and inventiveness as Hulot
brings chaos to dinner parties, family meals and the workplace. Hulot turns
gardens into building sites, hosepipe manufacture into sausage making and expensive
sofas into unfashionable beds. Like a virus with hat and pipe, Hulot spreads
authenticity wherever he goes resulting not in his elevation to the bourgeoisie
but the collapse of his in-laws into the same happy slum where he (and by
implication most French people) live their daily lives.

Mon Oncle is essentially an argument
for abandoning all attempts at reform, progress or modernisation. For Tati, a
life of near-poverty is preferable to a life of modernist sophistication when
the inner life of the poor and shambolic is so obviously superior to that of
the wealthy and ambitious. As simplistic and reactionary as this argument may
be, there is little room for doubting either the technical brilliance of Tati’s
delivery or the ambition displayed by his attempt to make this kind of argument
in the context of what is basically a silent comedy.

The most striking thing about Mon
Oncle is neither the brilliance of its art-direction or the panache of its
mise-en-scene; what really startles is quite how much information Tati manages
to convey without the use of dialogue. Indeed, this is a film with less than
fifty lines of dialogue and yet it contains both complex characters and a
sophisticated metaphorical representation of the challenges facing French
culture in the late 1950s. After a summer season littered with films that
delivered their ideas in the form of poorly-written speeches, there is real joy
to be had in seeing how much Tati gets across without words or musical cues. However, as compelling as Tati’s vision
may be, the film’s humour feels dated and under-cooked by the standards of 21st
Century cinematic comedy. Tati is frequently spoken of as one of the great
comic directors but in truth, his talents as a visual storyteller far outweigh
his capacity to generate laughs.

Re-realeased as a dual-format
package, the BFI edition of Mon Oncle includes a short booklet of largely
unremarkable essays and a complete copy of the bizarrely anglicised version of
the film that replaced berets with bowler hats before appearing in British

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