Thursday, 10 May 2018

AFS Screening: Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)

While spending time with his nephew Gerard, M. Hulot (Tati) finds himself at odds with the ultra-modern home of his in-laws.

The story of a simple man in world moving too fast for his liking, Mon Oncle is the second film to feature Jacques Tati's character M Hulot (played by Tati himself). It is also the first Tati movie I have seen. And after watching this, I'm keen to check out more of his movies.

This movie took a little while to get used to - because the movie's basically based on physical gags I was expecting grander set pieces - but once you get on its wavelength it is a joy.

There is not much in the way of plot or character - on top of being a comic picture in the mould of a silent comedian like Chaplin or Keaton, Mon Oncle is also an instalment in a series, based around an iconic archetype: M Hulot.

Hulot is no acrobat, but physicality is key to the role. He is not even that clumsy - there is an understatement to Tati's performance that was a breath of fresh air to a layman familiar with the more extroverted hijinks of other physical comics (Keaton, Carrey, Lewis). Hulot is a simple soul who has an affinity with children and dogs and is justifiably confounded by the futuristic technology that his in-laws, the Arpels (Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie) insist on using.

I felt there were some thematic similarities with the work of Frank Tashlin, who is famous for his satirical views of fifties consumerism, but I frankly laughed harder at this movie. The key difference is that Tati's style is mostly physical and not tied to specific contemporary references (Tati is also less inclined to mug like Tashlin's frequent leading man Jerry Lewis).

While it is funny, the subtext if this movie is terrifying - Hulot is an outsider in a mechanised where every human (inter)action has been reduced to empty ritual. Hulot's brother-in-law works for a company that makes plastic. In one scene, a company man brags about their plastic homes (including lawns).

The Arpel's house is a cubist nightmare of metallic grey and harsh angles. For a family home, it looks like a child's play-set or a mockup for an atom bomb test. The lack of music during these scenes plays a big role in evoking the sterility of this environment. All diegetic sound has been done in post-production, making it feel stark and distended from the image - footsteps and giggles echo unnaturally, making this place feel like a tomb.

By contrast, M. Hulot's home in the outside world is more earthy and lived-in - there are people everywhere, rubbish clutters the streets and there are few vehicles. The colour palette is also the inverse of the Arpels' home: worn browns, yellows and greens. Unlike the cold, sterile future-house, Hulot's space is bustling and chaotic, a mess that no one can be bothered to clean up. Life seems to carry on regardless (by contrast, when something goes wrong at the in-laws' house, everything grinds to a halt). 

Despite the film's favour for this environment, Tati makes plain it is not impervious to change: everywhere, there are signs of that this world is under threat - in the background, old buildings are being destroyed to make way for the new, clean empty future.  

The film's best gags are based around the cash between old and new - change is inevitable, but Tati has great fun ridiculing the Arpels' self-satisfied belief in the efficiency of modern technology. Rather than catalysts of order, this tech - the Arpels' new car; the garden fountain; the garage door - are agents of chaos that do not work for the people they are designed for. They are needless complications, making the simplest tasks more arduous.

In contrast to the Arpels, the film's genius lies in its simplicity: my personal favourite set piece was the protracted standoff between M Arpel's car and an old man trying to cross the street. Captured in an overhead wide shot, the scene goes on for a few minutes, and just gets funnier and funnier as it goes along.

I could go on, but there is something kind of horrifying about dissecting why something is funny. Mon Oncle is a really funny movie that you should check out. I'm kicking myself that it took this long for me to see it.

Previous AFS reviews

Purple Noon (2015)

The Servant 

Eyes Without A Face 

Night of the Demon (2016)

Grand Central

Tales of Hoffman


The Last Command & Ministry of Fear

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (2018)

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