Review: Mon oncle (1958)

Mon oncle (1958)

Directed by: Jacques Tati | 110 minutes | comedy | Actors: Jacques Tati, Alain Bécourt, Adrienne Servantie, Jean-Pierre Zola, Lucien Frégis, Betty Schneider, Jean-François Martial, Dominique Marie, Yvonne Arnaud, Adelaide Danieli, Alain Bécourt, Régis Fontenay, Claude Badolle, Max Martel, Nicolas Bataille Daki, Dominique Derly, André Dino, Suzanne Franck, Édouard Francomme

When you think of the classic physical comedians in movie history, it’s probably names like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy that first come to mind. However, the Frenchman Jacques Tati, who through his six feature films and his character Mr. Hulot has managed to make immortal, certainly belongs in this list.

Tati started out on the variety circuit, specializing in visual jokes and skits. His impersonation of a dressage performer on horseback, an act known as the “centaur”, made him extremely popular with audiences and critics and showcased his great physical, comedic talent. He also made some short films, including a very nice one about a boxer. In this clip, Tati plays a handyman working near an outdoor boxing match, comically reenacting a match himself, both punching and taking.

In his full-length films, for which he took over directing (as well as many other tasks) in addition to the lead role, this non-verbal comic quality was optimally expressed, but it was not just about the funny moment in itself. The comedic antics of Mr. Hulot, a somewhat lanky man with a raincoat, umbrella, hat, and pipe as standard attributes, were embedded in films that actually had something to say about the (changing) society. Tati’s sights are mainly aimed at the far-reaching industrialization and superficiality of modernity. This is also the case in ‘Mon Oncle’, a film that was awarded the Special Jury Prize in Cannes in 1958, and a year later won the Oscar for best foreign film.

The uncle from the title is Mr. Hulot himself, who one day has to pick up his nephew Gérard from school and, through his brother-in-law, Gérard’s father, can get a job in a factory that manufactures rubber hoses. Hulot, together with Gérard, represents a rebellion against Gérard’s sterile environment, which seems to have been completely stripped of its joie de vivre and spontaneity. The neatly raked and mowed garden has a handy electric door, but the winding path and the paving stones are anything but practical. This is hilariously emphasized by the first meeting in the film between Gérard’s mother and her neighbor. From the moment the neighbor walks into the garden, she and Gérard’s mother start talking to each other, but since it is a winding path, they keep looking in a different direction. Moving towards each other almost like robots, they quietly carry on with their conversation as if nothing had happened. Also very funny is the routine way in which hubby is waved off by his wife early in the morning. He stands right on his mat in front of the door, while his wife brings his hat and gloves. Her synthetic puff dress squeaks very emphatically, which provides the situation with extra humor.

mr. Hulot is completely out of his element here. For example, one glance at the fish-looking fountain is enough for him to turn around and he finds the uncomfortable-looking designer couch, after laying it on its side, much better as a bed. And with the automatically opening and closing kitchen cupboards, he has a long fight, from which he just emerges the winner.

No, he’d better stay in his familiar chaotic, but at the same time pleasantly calm, world of chattering cafe visitors and pleasant market traders. This world is a clear contrast to the super-smooth, impersonal world of Gérard’s parents; this is an area where anything goes and every building or piece of streetscape has its own charm, no matter how messy it all seems. This world is perfect for Hulot and should not be disturbed by modern functionality.

His own apartment is in the very top left corner of a large building whose rooms, it turns out, are connected in a somewhat awkward way. When Hulot wants to get to his room, he has to walk in a zigzag fashion from bottom left to center right, to top left, always seeing part of his body appear from behind a window or opening of the house. A great find, and a lovely scene that takes its time quietly and doesn’t intend to bore the viewer with something as trivial as a plot. Also nice is the man, the local street sweeper, who we don’t actually see sweeping anything together in the entire film. We always see a pile of leaves, and we sometimes see him getting ready to sweep, but every time someone comes by, he strikes up a conversation with them so as not to have to go to work. Tati himself seems to be in constant conversation in the village, but we never actually see or hear him talk. The cafe-goers or local residents are constantly talking while Hulot nods or just makes some noises. You can see that Hulot is by nature a character that belongs in silent films, and in this film too he makes pure use of his (visual) behavior to generate humor and comment on the world around him.

‘Mon Oncle’ shows the possible absurdity of ever-evolving technology, utensils, and living environments in general. Also shows Mr. Hulot has a greater affinity with children than adults. In ‘Mon Oncle’ the children want to play mischief or just play off the beaten track. The occasionally returning dogs from ‘Mon Oncle’ also display this rebellious, free character. They “throw” trash can lids, and enter buildings where they are not allowed. However, we are already seeing a turnaround in these dogs. One of them is wearing a checked jacket, and when we see him slip through the gate of Gérard’s parents’ villa a little later, we understand why. One can only hope that the animal will not lose its tricks soon, and often, together with its mates, will bring some life to the brewery. And otherwise we always have Mr. Hulot yet.

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