Mon Oncle [DVD]
Screenplay : Jacques Tati
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1958
Stars : Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot), Jean-Pierre Zola (M. Arpel), Adrienne Servantie (Mme. Arpel), Alain Becourt (Gerald Arpel), Lucien Fregis (M. Pichard), Betty Schneider (Betty, Landlord's Daughter), Yvonne Arnaud (Georgette, Arpel's Maid), Dominique Marie (Neighbor)
Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle is visually structured around two disparate sections of Paris, which Tati uses to illustrate his contempt for what he saw as the increasingly sterile and lifeless trajectory of modernization.
The first section of Paris, a rough-hewn working class neighborhood, is home to Tati's cinematic alter ego, the gangly, unemployed bachelor Monsieur Hulot, to whom we were introduced in Tati's second film, M. Hulot's Holiday (1953). The second section, the upper-middle-class suburb dominated by hard-edged modern architecture and electronic gates, is home to Hulot's well-to-do sister, Mme. Arpel (Adrienne Servantie), and her husband (Jean-Pierre Zola).
Hulot--along with a pack of stray dogs that, like his rattling car in M. Hulot's Holiday, functions as a visual stand-in for the intrepid hero--moves back and forth between the two sections of Paris. Of course, being Tati's alter ego, he is clearly more at home in the former than the latter. Sometimes he takes his young nephew, Gerald (Alain Becourt), along with him, much to M. Arpel's consternation because he feels Hulot is a bad influence on his son.
Much like M. Hulot's Holiday, Mon Oncle is largely lacking in the formal mechanics of a plot structure. Rather, it is a series of loosely connected situations and events that include a large cast of characters. The film's connecting thread is Tati's critique of the modern world, a theme that would also structure his later Hulot films, Playtime (1967) and Trafic (1971). His satire here is sharp and incisive, but it is always maintained within the boundaries of Tati's unique brand of gentle, elegant slapstick. In his third outing in the director's chair, Tati's skills were at this point honed to near perfection, with his use of a static camera and long takes functioning perfectly to both underscore and, at times, undermine his precisely choreographed gags.
Repetition of visual and sound gags is a key to Tati's work, and Mon Oncle is full of it. The primary running gag in the film involves an atrocious metallic fish sculpture that dominates the center of the Arpels' perfectly manicured front garden. Sitting in the middle of a small pond, the fish is arched backward with its face toward the sky, a single stream of water jetting upward out of its mouth. It is the most inelegant thing you've ever seen or heard, yet it becomes a ridiculous status symbol, as Mme. Arpel runs to turn it on every time someone rings the bell at the front gate, completely unaware that it is obvious to whoever is outside that the fountain has just been turned on. Tati gives us one hilarious shot outside the gate where we hear her scamper to the control panel, hear the fountain sputter to life, and then see the single, awkward jet of blue-dyed water spurt upwards, just over the top of the gate. The fish fountain becomes a controlling visual device whenever we are at the Arpels' house (which is about half the film's running time), and the relative importance of their visitors is measured by whether or not they turn it on.
Another running joke involves a game played by a group of children in Hulot's neighborhood, in which they whistle at pedestrians and attempt to distract them so they will run into a light pole. It is exactly this kind of shenanigan that M. Arpel doesn't like Hulot exposing Gerald to, which is exactly why Tati uses it with such affection. Tati always had an innate affection for, and trust of, children, which is why they tend to represent the joys of life in his films, as juxtaposed with adults who are too busy with their social and economic statuses to enjoy the little pleasures of harmless pranks. For Tati, pranks like this one are the great equalizer, something that reminds us that we are all human and all subject to embarrassment, rich or poor.
Mon Oncle is oddly humorous, yet it also has profound things to say about the way we live in modern society. Unlike the gentle, black-and-white realism of M. Hulot's Holiday, Tati uses bold color photography and a larger budget to expand the boundaries of his satire to include excess and exaggeration. Some of this comes in the form of his visual compositions, such as his depiction of men driving to work in the morning in perfectly horizontal groupings of three cars across, a perfect symbol of conformity and dull repetition. He also has a delightful moment in which the two round windows that dominate the second story of the Arpels' house become like cartoon eyes, watching Hulot as he fumbles with the front gate.
Mon Oncle also benefits from its fantastic sets, which create the perfect visual juxtaposition between Hulot's world and the world of his sister and brother-in-law. The Arpels' ultramodern house is a studied exercise in modernist vacuousness, its "spare" design, aesthetically pleasing but unusable furniture, and unrelenting focus on hygiene and cleanliness are at once both hilarious and depressing. This also extends to the factory in which M. Arpel works as a business manager--it's a stark, joyless place in which rubber hose is manufactured. Hulot's neighborhood, on the other hand, while certainly romanticized in the way that only movies can do, is a place of life and vitality. Children play, dogs run free, horse-drawn carriages and street venders are not out of place, and cleanliness means general neatness, represented by the always-busy street sweeper, as opposed to Mme. Aprel, who literally follows her husband's car out of the driveway each morning shining the chrome bumper.
Of course, central to everything is Mon Oncle is Tati's Monsieur Hulot. Still the genial clown we remember from M. Hulot's Holiday, he is often relegated to the periphery of many sequences, yet he is somehow always present. Often the instigator of slapstick situations, he remains generally detached from everyone around him, as if he lives on another plane of reality.
One would think this would make him distant and unsympathetic as a character, but Tati's wonderful, almost wordless performance ensures that Hulot remains a lovable sort, a believable everyman who acts as a cinematic stand-in for the audience, always involved in what's going on, but removed enough to be an effective observer. Tati achieves this delicate balance of identification beautifully, and Mon Oncle remains one of his greatest achievements, a hard-edged satire that is both funny and beautiful, entertaining and thought-provoking.
|Mon Oncle: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Video introduction by Terry Jones|
L'école des facteurs: 1947 short film directed by and starring Jacques Tati
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Mon Oncle, which was Jacques Tati's first color film, has been given a beautiful new digital transfer in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Transferred from a 35-mm interpositive, the visual quality is excellent throughout, with a sharp, detailed image and robust color palette that displays only the slightest hints of fading in a few sequences. Dirt, nicks, and scratches are virtually nonexistent, and black levels are generally solid, although there is some grain apparent in the darker sequences. Overall, the transfer does justice to this gorgeously composed film.|
|As with Tati's other films, the sound design of Mon Oncle is as complex and multi-layered as the visual design, if not more so. Criterion has done an excellent job with the Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack, which maintains the depth and fidelity of the sound design without any hissing, distortion, or other artifacts.|
| As part of the new Janus Films Directors' Introduction Series, Mon Oncle is introduced in a brief segment by Terry Jones, former Monty Python member and director of several films, who talks about his general admiration of the film and also discusses a few key sequences in-depth. |
Also included on this disc is L'école des facteurs (The School for Postmen), a 1947 comical short film directed by and starring Jacques Tati, in which he plays the mustachioed Francois, a determined but somewhat inept mail carrier. This was one of Tati's most successful short films, and it was the basis of his directorial feature debut, 1949's Jour de fête. L'école des facteurs is presented in a good, if not particularly spectacular, transfer (it was previously available on Criterion's laser disc edition of Jour de fête).
©2001 James Kendrick