Mon Oncle

2 ratings (2 Epinions reviews)
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A Delicate Brand of Humor

May 30, 2004 (Updated Feb 21, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Action Factor:
  • Special Effects:
  • Suspense:

Pros:Precisely choreographed elaborate sight gags

Cons:Tati's sight gags elicit mainly bemusement

The Bottom Line: Recommended only for those with a taste for delicate slapstick that provides mainly quiet bemusement


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

Jacques Tati (1909-1982) was a vaudeville performer who decided to take his craft to film – first in some shorts and later into six feature-length movies. Hulot is Tati’s recurrent character, much like Chaplin’s “Little Tramp.” He first came to life in Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and then reemerged in Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967), and Traffic (1971). Hulot is a kind of vaguely lost soul who wears a tan trench coat, a brown top hat, and a bow tie. A long-stemmed pipe constantly hangs from his mouth, except when he removes it to tap it on the heel of his shoe. Hulot is not dim-witted, but he is certainly out of his element in modern human society. He is observant but continuously perplexed.

Tati films are very little removed from the silent film era. Dialogue is sparse and, when it occurs, of little more import than the other noises of the environment. Tati films are mostly elaborately choreographed sight gags – a kind of sentimental, low-emotion, observational slapstick.

In Mon Oncle, Hulot (Jacques Tati) is the favorite uncle of his nephew Gerard. Hulot’s sister, Madame Arpel (Adrienne Servantie), lives with her husband, Monsieur Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zolla), and their son Gerard (Alain Becourt) in an ultra-modern, fully mechanized and stylistically futuristic home. The adult Arpels and their home represent over-regimented modernity with all of its assortment to technological excesses, in contrast to Hulot's life of chaotic simplicity. In the Arpel’s zone of Paris, all of the cars move along the perfectly lined highways in perfect military formations. Perfectly dressed fathers drop their immaculate children off at school in a fully ordered routine. Both Gerard and the Arpel’s plaid-coated Dachshund greatly prefer to be out of the house – Gerard to play with a rambunctious collection of rascally little boys and the Dachshund to scamper around with a pack of scavenging mutts. Gerard prefers his uncle’s easy-going nature and child-like naïve innocence to his father’s preoccupation with order and responsibility.

Representative Sight Gags: In one scene, we see Hulot returning to his home in the old Paris of run-down old buildings, trash cans, junk wagons, stray dogs, street markets, and litter. There are two buildings, approximately three stories high, side by side – or so it seems. Hulot enters at the ground level of the building on the right. We then see parts of him – his head, his torso, or just his shoes – as he appears in various windows as he wends his way up a convoluted stairwell. He exits from the building on the right onto the roof, then enters another little stairwell, disappears, and finally emerges on the far left of the top of the building, comes around front, and enters his little dwelling on the roof of the building on the left. This meandering pathway to his home also pretty much captures Hulot’s entire approach to life. He wanders aimlessly through life merely drinking in whatever comes along.

Hulot opens a window in his small apartment. He notices that as he moves the window, a bird somewhere outside begins or stops singing as if the window itself had the power to create music. He opens it a bit and the singing stops. He repositions it and the bird’s song begins again. Ultimately, he realizes that the window pane, when it is positioned correctly, is reflecting light onto the cage of a neighbor’s canary. The canary sings when it thinks it is dawn. Hulot wedges the window into the perfect position to provide the neighborhood with endless music.

The house in which the Arpels live, the brilliant construct of set designer Henri Schmitt, is an architectural monstrosity – sparse in design, filled with uncomfortable wrought-iron furniture, and fronted by an elaborate yard totally lacking in functionality. The front walk winds to an automated gate. Small patios are separated by patches of lawn of various colors and connected by walking stones placed at inconvenient distances from one another. In the center of the front lawn is a large fountain consisting of a fish in a vertical position spouting water from its mouth. The fountain is turned on, however, only for guests – not for family or tradesmen. Inside, the house is frequently dominated by annoying buzzes and shrieks from the myriad automated appliances, doors, windows, and ventilation system. The Arpels organize a lawn party that is a comedy of accidents and inconveniences.

The Arpels are determined that Hulot should find gainful employment to provide direction to his aimless life. “What my brother needs is an objective,” muses Mme. Arpel. Monsieur Arpel uses his influence to get Hulot a job interview, but on the way to the interview, Hulot steps in a pile of lime and leaves white footprints on the personnel officer’s floor, chair, and desk. He is fired without being hired! Later Hulot starts a job in Arpel’s plastics factory that makes plastic garden hose. Soon, thanks to Hulot’s ineptitude, one of the machines is cranking out hose resembling a string of Frankfurters.

A street-sweeper “works” on a single pile of trash throughout the film, never actually making progress because he is continuously distracted in conversation. This represents simple humanity of discourse winning out over utilitarian productivity.

Gerard and his friends enjoy nothing more than playing pranks on unsuspecting adults. One such prank involves whistling loudly as a pedestrian approaches a lamppost hoping to make the person walk into the post. Another involves stepping firmly on the fender of a car stopped in traffic to create the impression that the car has been hit from behind by another vehicle. The boys then amusedly watch the ensuing argument between the drivers.

Themes: If a film such as this can be said to have a theme beyond the effort to amuse, I suppose that it is the horrors of an over-mechanized world. Hulot, the uncle, represents sloppy but picturesque traditional living while the Arpels epitomize sterile, mechanized, precision life full of silly conveniences. It is hard to take this theme too seriously, however, since the super-technological world portrayed by Tati is of his own making and an obvious exaggeration of anything existing in reality. This is the old “straw man” tactic – an extreme set up precisely for the purpose of being knocked down. The obvious solution to the problem posed by Tati is that people can reject whatever elements of technology each finds more inconveniencing than helpful. Like the dogs and the children in Mon Oncle, any of us can choose to prefer a nostalgic, traditional, simple life-style in part or in whole.

Monsieur Hulot is reminiscent of Ferdinand the Bull that I encountered as a child in a children’s story. Ferdinand merely wanted to smell the roses but his owners were determined that he should make his fame in a bullring. Hulot wants merely to wander about harmlessly, tipping his hat now and then, with no particular purpose in life. Tati’s message is that Hulot should be left alone to pursue life as he sees fit – to wander aimlessly. One has to wonder, on the other hand, how a society would support a good many Hulots.

Production Values: One has to admire the perfectionism and precision choreography of Tati’s variety of slapstick. The level of care that has gone into producing this film is obvious. Shot construction is often marvelous. The sets are extraordinary. The whimsical musical track is delightful.

Bottom-Line: Mon Oncle won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize as well as the 1959 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It was also a commercial success. The films of Jacques Tati are treasured by the French and not without some international following. Tati films seem designed to elicit bemusement more than outright laughter. For me, Mon Oncle provided just one laugh and a few smiles. I usually look to comedies to provide more than mere bemusement. Tati’s sight gags are an acquired taste. One reviewer claims that Tati’s jokes “build and grow organically.” He further states that “Newbies to the comedian might be perplexed by his deliberate pace and very literal approach to his simple, old fashioned gags.” Another decries that some viewers simply “don’t get Tati . . . but that the better part of humanity . . . still knows how to laugh at both the world and itself.” Tati fans appear to be particularly devoted to him but, on the other hand, the sparse number of reviews available for Tati films also suggests that his remaining audience is rather small. Those of you who need more than delicate bemusement for your comedy palate might do best looking elsewhere, but if you enjoy subtle sight gags, Tati could be just the ticket.

The DVD version of Mon Oncle produced by Criterion is far better than previous prints. It was made from the best available stock and painstakingly restored. There is an introduction to the film by a veteran of the Monty Python troupe, Terry Jones, that is very enthusiastic but lacking in substance. The Criterion release of Mon Oncle was part of a three disk release of Tati films that also included Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Playtime (1967). Each of the disks contains a Tati short as well. The one on Mon Oncle was Tati’s directorial debut, L’école des facteurs (School for Postmen).


Recommend this product? Yes


Video Occasion: Good Date Movie
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12


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