Criterion Discovery: Mon Oncle
Background: Mon Oncle is a French comedy film released in 1958 by Jacques Tati. There are two Criterion versions; the first released in 2001 now out of print, and the second as part of The Complete Jacques Tati Criterion set in 2014 (Spine #729). It is one of three of Tati’s films (and the first in colour) centered on a lovable, bumbling mime-like character Monsieur Hulot. Mon Oncle is his most widely celebrated work, receiving both the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival among other awards.
Story: Monsieur Hulot enjoys the freedom and charm of village living and struggles to adapt to an ever-changing society obsessed with technology and modernity. His family struggles with his tendency to lay about and his impractical way of living. In an effort to set him up in life, his sister and brother-in-law attempt to help him obtain a job, romantic partner, and life goal.
The Film: Mon Oncle is a film of juxtaposition and halves. This is set up immediately upon opening where we’re assaulted by the constant pounding jackhammer noise of construction and the washed-out greys of housing being built like prison blocks. Then we are warmly escorted to the other side with the transition to the title screen— “Mon Oncle” is seen in soft, looping curves as if drawn on the old-world brick wall crowned with ivy, a meeting place for several stray dogs enjoying the freedom of their lives. A cheery score is played here and repeated throughout the film, classic French music that’s airy and pleasant. This, of course, is where Monsieur Hulot lives: across the lively market of vendors, cafes and music, up above in his bric-a-brac mishmash of an apartment building. And so, the rest of the film we observe two different worlds and how Hulot interacts with both of them—for better or worse.
Hulot is the uncle of Gerard, a boy bursting with energy trapped inside an obsessive-compulsive minimalist’s dream. An only child, he lives , along with his parents and dog, in a harsh, sterile geometric home (designed more for showing off than living in) that employs the most bizarre technology on the market. Here we return to the intrusive sounds of machinery: blenders and vacuums, electric razors and automatic steak-flippers. The home is the pride and joy of Gerard’s mother, Madame Arpel, who busies herself with ensuring the home remains spotless and suitable for visitors. Gerard’s only relief from his home comes when his Uncle Hulot arrives to take him out. Here he enjoys the fresh air and the carefree, mischievous wiles of childhood. Gerard is what links Hulot to both worlds, along with an ever-present gang of stray dogs that runs between both, a metaphor for a life lived in true freedom.
The essence of childhood is captured so well in these scenes that one can’t help but watch with a smile. Hulot follows behind Gerard as he busies himself with pranks and gags with his friends. In one of the best scenes of the film, we see the boys approach a vendor in a field making fresh crullers, smothering them in jam and sugar as the boys impatiently lick their lips. Together they run to sit in the dirt behind a graffitied barrier, united in their boredom and imagination. Here they bet their remaining coins as they whistle and scheme to watch people walk into light posts, giggling and purchasing more donuts with the spoils. Hulot’s world is warm, endearing and irresistibly charming which makes time spent with the Arpels all that more stark and boring.
Mon Oncle is a satirical comedy that heavily employs the use of gags and physical humour. There is very little dialogue in the film, and much of it is eclipsed by sound effects and ambient noise. Monsieur Hulot himself barely speaks, he’s a bit of a slapstick mime: his lanky arms and big hands exaggerated, he’s classically always in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is mistakenly chided and lectured for bad behaviour he never commits, and is totally out of place in the world of modernity both at home and work. This theme brings to mind Chaplin’s Modern Times, a more effective take on the pitfalls of progress. Surely both Chaplin and Tati are a clear influence on Mr. Bean who employs similar exaggerated physical humour. It seems such a beloved character can be found in every age. The longest and most biting running gag in Mon Oncle involves the Arpel’s awful metal fish fountain which gurgles unnaturally blue water, turned on only when guests arrive. In comparison, when Hulot is greeted by visitors, he reflects sunlight from his window on a canary which sings a lovely tune.
Critics have suggested that Tati’s satire was a vicious statement against technology and modernity—that he hated architecture, housing developments, and progress. However, Tati explains his satire is more about how those things and places are used by the people who use them. His is a message against a world of capitalism and status, a meaningless existence where “emptiness and boredom enslaves the workers.” Though critics were mixed about his message—especially due to the timing as France struggled with a housing crisis among others—the film became beloved in France and is recognized around the world as Tati’s most influential work.
Supplements: As part of The Complete Jacques Tati collection, the 2014 Criterion edition of Mon Oncle comes with a heap of interesting extras. First up is an introduction by Terry Jones followed by Everything’s Connected: a visual essay discussing the stylistic similarities between all movies featuring Hulot. The most delightful addition is Le Hasard Tati, a short interview with Tati that focuses on his dog, Chance, and the dogs seen in Mon Oncle. Disc 2 boasts a 2008 documentary, Once Upon a Time…Mon Oncle which includes interviews with Tati, David Lynch, and others. Finally, Everything is Beautiful is a three part program that explores the architecture, costumes, and furniture design of Mon Oncle. This Criterion set also includes the English version of Tati’s film which comes in about ten minutes shorter than the original French.
Overall: The 2014 Criterion edition is stuffed with supplements that greatly enrich the viewing of Mon Oncle. Though it may be less endearing than his other work, and even drags at times, there is an unmistakable charm found in this film that should be celebrated by cinema fans. Tati had a sparkle in his eye that he effectively communicated through his work, a rarity both then and now.
Criterion Grade: A
Film Grade: A-
Featured Image: The Criterion Collection