CAPSULE: MON ONCLE (1958)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Zola, Adrienne Servantie, Alain Becourt

PLOT: A young boy being raised in a sterile modernist home prefers the company of his childlike uncle, one M. Hulot.

Still from Mon Oncle (1958)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I’m far from set on including a Jacques Tati film on the List, but if he were to show up, Playtime would make a better choice.

COMMENTS: Mon Oncle could almost be described as a tale of two houses. There’s not a lot of plot; the movie hinges on set design more than anything. The movie’s satirical targets, the Arpels, live in a white, clean-looking modernist geometric home fitted out with all the latest 1958 gadgets, like automatic garage door openers (incroyable!), air-conditioning, and an automatic steak-flipper. The most significant of all the doo-dads is the dolphin fountain in the garden, which a vigilant Mme. Arpel turns on and off (to save on water bills) depending on the social status of the villa’s latest visitor. The Arpels are thoroughly bourgeois consumers; M. Arpel owns a hose factory (the source of a gag later in the film when he hires  hapless frere-in-law Hulot). Oncle Hulot’s apartment is more magical. Like it’s most famous tenant, it’s a ramshackle, organic, and impractical domicile. We view Hulot enter from across the street and see as he passes through half a dozen windows and balconies, not always emerging exactly where we expect.

Easygoing, unambitious Hulot, with his rumpled overcoat and the ever-present pipe clutched between his teeth, represents an almost bohemian view of life as something to be enjoyed at leisure. The Arpels, obsessed with acquiring status symbols, find him to be a shamefully out-of-touch embarrassment, and seek to make him into a respectable member of modern society. They try to find him a job and a spinster to wed. Of course, his nephew finds his nonchalant oncle to be a lot more fun than his nagging parents. I’d certainly side with Hulot over the Arpels, but it’s not much of a choice; they take all the fun out of being rich. As satire, however, Mon Oncle is far too forgiving, almost affectionate to its targets. The critique never stings—which is not the way Voltaire or Molière would have done it. The Arpels seem merely foolish rather than venal. And parts of Tati’s attack are now dated. The Arpel’s decor, then chosen to represent the ugliness of modernism, now looks quaint and almost classical. I wouldn’t mind living in their house at all.

As comedy, Mon Oncle is dry stuff, usually cute rather than funny. Tati recycles gags that might have been used by vaudevillians or silent comedians; rarely does the dialogue itself have any zing or purpose. A schoolboy prank that causes pedestrians to walk into light poles is as mischievous as things ever get. Hulot accidentally busts the water supply to the fish fountain and oversees a malfunctioning hose production unit, but the mishaps never get truly out of control, and certainly never approach the dangerous. The gags get elaborate, but go on for some time without much payoff, making them more to be admired than beloved. It’s hard to dislike Jacques Tati, but I’m not the biggest fan of these Hulot pictures. Like a beautifully plated but insubstantial French dish, there’s an awful lot of mise en scene to chew on for very little nourishment.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…perceptibly contrived when it lingers too long and gets too deeply into the dullness of things mechanical. After you’ve pushed one button and one modernistic face, you’ve pushed them all.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “christine,” who called it a “totally weird but fun 1958 French movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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