The young Gérard Arpel (Bécourt) lives with his mother and father in their ultramodern villa on the edge of Paris. Gerard finds it hard to adapt to the monotony and regimented routine of this life. The father (Zola) works for a large plastic pipe factory, while his mother (Servantie) cleans the house all day – she is particularly fond of turning on and off a fish-shaped fountain in the front yard for admiring guests. Her brother, Monsieur Hulot (Tati) visits them at the villa for a garden party, and then his brother-in-law at the factory. He brings disaster with him.
For David Thomson, Jacques Tati’s elaborate talent for refined visual comedy was expressed with the consistency and neatness of a great miniaturist.1 Among French cinema’s most inventive comics, Tati is fondly remembered by audiences and critics alike for his near flawless body of work. He was a silent film star in a post-silent world, and is remembered as one of the great screen comedians – perhaps the greatest – of the sound era, up there with Buster Keaton, Chaplin, and Leslie Nielsen. With little or no dialogue in his films, Tati employed tightly choreographed slapstick action and innovative, often unsettling sound designs to move the story forward. His precise films (he was a notorious perfectionist, ranked with Robert Bresson for the total control he exerted on set) were made to look breezy and effortless, and given a greater depth by successfully merging farce, visual comedy, and social commentary on issues such as materialism, class relationships, and the increasingly impersonal nature of modernisation. Mon oncle, like Tati’s other films, is remarkable for its symbolic colour schemes, its dense use of sound effects, its lovehate relationship to American culture, and its ‘economy of style and apposite gesturality’. 2
Tati once described Hulot as ‘a character with a complete sense of independence, utterly unselfish, whose distraction, which is his main flaw, make him – in our functional times – a misfit’. 3 He was an apolitical Everyman, a perplexed figure marooned in a fast-changing France, a silent witness to a new vogue in efficiency and urban renewal. His absentmindedness seemed the counterbalance the vacuousness of the new glass and steel constructions; Hulot is a ‘distracted spectator’, not so much cynical of modern urban life as totally bemused by its encroaching workings and practices. Tati used Hulot in four films – from Les vacances de M. Hulot/Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), via Mon oncle and Playtime (1967), to Trafic (1971) – and gradually became less ridiculous, less farcical, and less obtrusive, part of Tati’s tactic to de-emphasise his main character and make the audience focus more on other characters and actions. Hulot was not a comedian in the sense of being the source and focus of the humour; rather, he was ‘an attitude, a signpost, a perspective that reveals the humour in the world around him’. 4
It is not surprising that Mon oncle is burdened with so strong a spirit of ambivalence towards modernity and progress. Tati was one of the few French filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s to engage in a critical dialogue with the modernising and emergent mass consumerist aspect of French society. His work is notable for its engagement with ‘new and disquieting forces infiltrating the sphere of the quotidian in postWWII France’. 5 These forces might be expressed as the effects of technology, mechanisation, urban planning and design, and modernity at the level of human behaviour – a period, in the words of Kristin Ross – of ‘fast cars and clean bodies’. Tati’s two previous films, Jour de fête/The Big Day(1949) and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, as well as the later Playtime all, to a greater or lesser degree, problematise the notion that technological progress is to be embraced and automatically succumbed to. Mon Oncle is often regarded as a paean to a bygone France that has gradually been usurped by the grand architectural renovations taking place in French urban areas throughout the 1950s and casts a satirical eye on the so-called benefits of modern design and technology. Jour de fête had already used the postman’s bicycle as an emblem of tradition that is being replaced by the mechanised systems installed by American postal companies. By the time of Mon oncle, Tati was creating dramatic tension through the clash of cultures between old and new France, allegorised in the Arpel’s new modern villa built on the outskirts of Paris.
The Arpel home, all white walls and sleek furnishing, looks deliberately ridiculous, bereft of function and domesticity. Despite the aesthetic quality of the house and its proportional and linear harmony, it is clearly a space that has not improved the lifestyle of its end users. The fashionable notion – forwarded by Le Corbusier – that modern architecture could provide an ideal form of utopian self-improvement is contested throughout Tati’s work and reaches a critical juncture in Mon oncle. The villa is a clear link back to Le Corbusier’s concept of housing as ‘machines for living in’ (complete with whirring gadgets, sparse decor, and ergonomically suspect sofas) and highlights Tati’s ambivalence towards the wholesale embrace of modern architecture. This new model for living entrenches gender roles and places conspicuous consumption and the acquisition of possessions as the sine qua non for happiness. In fact, it does the opposite – Gerard is an unhappy child, unloved and isolated. As Tati was fond of saying, ‘modern architecture does not produce amiable inhabitants’.
Tati began filming Mon oncle in autumn 1956 and completed principal photography in early 1957. It would take another year in the editing room for Tati to master the dubbing process and sound effects that would become so critical to the aural complexity of the finished work. In keeping with Tati’s own background as a mime artist, his films are ‘silent’ – dialogue is muffled or incomprehensible, train station announcements are garbled, and doors open and close to the sound of twanging elastic bands. Such techniques are used in Mon oncle – the gimmicks and gadgets in the villa and the factory are accompanied by clicks, buzzing, squeaks, screeches and whistles – the soundscape becomes deafening, and suggests that the human voice is also under threat in this new mania for mechanisation.
Like Clair and Chaplin before him, Tati’s representation of the modern workforce in Mon oncle is defined by a series of obligatory rituals. He shows how Taylorism has moved beyond the modes of production, and now obliges its inhabitants to work and live in particular ways, ‘with all their movements synchronized with their intended desires or objectives’. 6 Mrs Arpel carries out her housekeeping duties with exaggerated accents on her motions, as if acting out her role in the household though no one is there to watch her performance. None of the workers in Arpel’s factory actually ‘work’; instead, they sit quietly, disengaged, and only rouse themselves when Arpel passes by.
While the Arpel villa remains a justly celebrated example of production design, Hulot’s own garret 354 Mon oncle/My Uncle (1958) room, at the apex of rickety old building that takes him a eternity to reach, is indicative of an old France resistant to wholesale change. Far from a site of blank functionalism and automated gates, his living space retains a nostalgic charm. Hulot uses a mirror to shine sunlight onto a bird to start it singing – not only is this another opportunity for Tati to use sound in an amusing, childlike way, but also indicates the sustainability of old-style values and a cherished engagement with activities that are not battery-operated. Despite the ramshackle nature of the town square, it remains a dynamic site of community interaction, complete with market-sellers, playing children, and people unfazed by the pressures of modernity. Unlike the Arpels, who bring their ultra-modern chairs out of the house, and carefully position them on the patio to sit and watch the television from further away, Hulot’s world involves face-to-face communication. The irony is that this old quartier is exactly the sort of urban space that would be flattened in the 1950s and 1960s as France relocated its working-class masses from inner-city tumbledown housing to high-rise suburban apartments. For Tati, this type of city living is destined to rapidly disappear.
Despite the attendant promises of precision and certainty posited by the Arpel villa, such sureness is radically undermined. The brave new world of architectural modernity is not a space of expanding imagination but rather a confusing and unstable one. Tati subverts the supposedly ideal futurist dream as represented in modernist architecture, and recasts it as a space in which modes of behaviour have eroded to robotic gestures and automated responses.
Tati’s camerawork creates a distancing effect between the spectator and the on-screen events. There are very few close-ups, or even shotreverse shots, in Mon oncle – the majority of scenes in the ‘modern’ world are filmed from a distance, in long-shot. The extended garden party sequence exemplifies this approach. It’s a 20- minute tour de force of choreography, sight gags, and comic tension that invite us to watch from a distance. Such a ‘democratic’ 7 approach to comedy (so many ‘bits of business’ are happening in these long-shot frames that we are unsure where to look or focus our attention next, for fear of missing an equally exquisite sight gag happening simultaneously) typified Tati’s visual and sonic aesthetic.
Mon oncle is Tati’s warmest film, despite its cool, detached style, and despair of the soulnessness of modern life. It’s there in the title – a story about family bonds that ends happily. As Hulot leaves for a job in the provinces, Gerard connects with his father when a whistle goes wrong. Hulot, despite his bumbling demeanour and being an agent for chaos, is a catalyst for Gerard to find an inkling of boyish adventure in his father, and the two form a long overdue connection.
The message of Mon oncle is ‘not a defence of tradition’ but instead a ‘clear indictment of progress at any price’. 8 In the near-decade interim before Playtime France would demonstrably change, and the Arpel villa that so baffles Hulot would become the default design aesthetic for urban planners. The France of the 1960s was changing, and the uncertainties that Hulot may once have overcome through sheer bumbling endeavour transformed exponentially in Playtime into dilemmas that would leave him ‘shaken and discomfited by the shifting sands of a Paris in the throes of metamorphosis’. 9 Mon oncle won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film of 1958, and when he arrived in Hollywood for the ceremony, the Academy asked Tati if there was anywhere he would like go. Tati asked that he be allowed to visit the nursing homes where Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, and Mack Sennett then lived.
1. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th ed., London, Little Brown, 2003, p. 862.
2. Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, 2nd ed., London and New York, Routledge, p. 189. 3. See Cauliez, pp. 80–107.
4. Bert Cardullo, ‘An Interview with Jacques Tati by André Bazin, with the Participation of François Truffaut’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 19:4, 2002, p. 286.
5. Lee Hilliker, ‘Hulot vs. the 1950s: Tati, Technology and Mediation’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 32:2, 1998, p. 59.
6. Nezar AlSayyad, ‘Cynical Modernity, or the Modernity of Cynicism’, in Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real, London and New York, Routledge, 2006, p. 101.
7. See Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘Tati’s Democracy’, Film Comment, May–June, 1973, pp. 37–40. 8. See Hayward, p. 190.
9. Lee Hilliker, ‘In The Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape’, French Review, 76:2, 2002, p. 321.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France and Italy. Production Company: Gaumont. Director: Jacques Tati. Screenwriters: Jacques Tati and Jacques Lagrange. Producers: Jacques Tati and Louis Dolivet. Music: Franck Barcellini and Alain Romans. Cinematographer: Jean Bourgoin. Production Designer: Henry Schmitt. Editor: Suzanne Baron. Cast: Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot), Jean-Pierre Zola (Charles Arpel), Adreinne Servantie (Madame Arpel), Alain Bécourt (Gérard), Adelaide Danieli (Madame Pichard).]
David Bellos, Jacques Tati, London, The Harvill Press, 1999. Armand J. Cauliez, Jacques Tati, Paris, Seghers, 1968.
Michel Chion, The Films of Jacques Tati, trans. Antonio D’Alfonso, Toronto, Guernica Editions, 2003.
Brent Maddock, The Films of Jacques Tati, Metuchen, NJ, and London, Scarecrow Press, 1977. Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘Tati’s Democracy’, Film Comment, May–June, 1973, pp. 37–40.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.