I'm to the point now in my familiarity with the feature films of Jacques Tati that when I come back to revisit them,whether for the purpose of writing in this blog or just because I enjoy the mirthful mood they put me in, it feels like meeting up with a seldom seen but fondly remembered old friend. As in real-life friendships, you think you have a pretty good handle on who your friend is, what he or she is about, and even how they're likely to react to a given situation - but they still retain the ability to surprise and show you something you didn't really suspect was there, at least until you stopped and thought about it a little.
Such is my current take of Mon Oncle, the first color film of Tati's, and one that earned him an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 1959 and a bit of a breakthrough to audiences outside of France. I say only a "bit" because he really didn't do much to capitalize on the opportunity for subsequent success that an Oscar typically presents to filmmakers. It was a full nine years before his next feature, Play Time, would be released, and the story behind the making of that movie is a debacle that I'll describe when I get to it, probably a few years from now!
On first impression, Mon Oncle is an easy film for most people to assess, whether or not one appreciates Tati's meandering, nearly plotless style. He creates a smoothly unfolding stream of clever sight gags and mild pratfalls that may not immediately provoke laughter, especially if seen in isolation from the rest of the film (or if one just isn't in the mood for this kind of comedy), but which build momentum as they draw in and sharpen our attention as we go.
It's a droll, subtle spoof of modern life and society's increasing fascination with gadgets and so-called conveniences that really do more to distract and alienate than actually improve our standard of living. The slim narrative involves a young boy, Gerard Arpel, a single child who lives with his parents in a severely geometric architectural showcase of a house in some fashionable upscale suburb. His father is an upper management business executive who tries to run his life according to meticulous rules of organization, and is doted on by his equally fastidious wife.
The sterility of Gerard's lonely home life is alleviated a bit each afternoon when his mother's brother, the oncle of the title, picks him up from school and they enjoy a bit of wandering around town, meeting up with Gerard's friends and pulling little mischievous pranks, before returning to la maison Arpel.
The Arpels, along with their status-conscious neighbors and business colleagues, are cartoonish caricatures of bourgeois propriety and befuddled inhibition, doing everything for the sake of appearances and fitting in, with no discernible interior life or deeper motivations. I can easily imagine a theatrical audience full of people who resemble the Arpels more than they might have cared to admit, chuckling heartily at their awkward striving and vulgar materialism. In watching it again, I was reminded of WALL-E, another sly comedy with mass appeal that pokes gentle mockery directly at the very audience that made it so popular to begin with. Both movies spend a fair amount of time ribbing middle-class mores before concluding matters in a pleasing gesture of reconciliation that softens their satirical sting.
The uncle, one Monsieur Hulot, is a decidedly non-meticulous, non-fastidious member of society who we first met in M. Hulot's Holiday, released five years earlier. In both films, and in his future appearances, Hulot is known more by his appearance and socially inept mannerisms than by any biographical details attached to the character. Hulot is fully a man without a past or even much of a present, perpetually passing through, observing but not saying much, not in pursuit of any particular goals, always with emotions in check even as absurdity and miscommunication happen all around him. His typical emotional response is some degree of puzzlement over what he sees and hears, and through his head-tilted gaze at circumstances, we the audience are brought to a fresh level of awareness for just how odd life really is, even (or maybe especially) when reduced to its most basic components. Having a meal, entertaining guests, ambling down neighborhood streets, resolving petty disagreements, shopping for groceries, going to work or simply making the utterly familiar walk back to one's home - all these mundane interactions get held up for our examination so that we too can detect the peculiarity that Tati noticed when he put Mon Oncle together.
As for the sheer craftsmanship of Mon Oncle, and Tati films in general, that's one of those details that I grow more and more impressed with in each viewing. A careful eye and ear that have already come to recognize the most obvious gags can now divert attention to other aspects of the work, such as what's going on in the back of the frame, the construction of various props and set pieces or the ambient sound design. This clip features just a typical example of the creativity that Tati infused into his sound effects, giving them just enough pronouncement to amuse without calling obvious attention to their "zaniness."
And then there's the music... a pleasant, recurring theme that drifts sublimely in and out over the course of the picture, generally in counterpoint to the grating sounds of industrial equipment, alarm buzzers and rumbling engines that epitomize "progress." You can hear it for yourself in this clip, the opening sequence of Mon Oncle, which I just noticed drops a nice little cameo of a horse-drawn wagon that appears later in the movie, another example of the comprehensive and inspired vision that Tati brought to his films.
Obviously, there's a reason after all that he took so many years between projects – it takes awhile to think up and refine so many small moments, then arrange them in such a careful manner that the whole thing takes on the appearance and textures of life, not as its actually lived, perhaps, but according to an ideal of Tati's that I'll label “conservative anarchy” - a trusting sense that our existence would be more humane and fulfilling if we stopped chasing so hard after the new, the sleek and the shiny and rested, without coercion, in the assured pleasures offered by the tried and true. That value is epitomized by the pack of wandering dogs, an eclectic mix of mutts and well-bred domestics, who roam the streets freely and know naturally how to stay out of trouble. Just reach back, take Mon Oncle's hand and head out around the block wherever you live. You never really know just what it is you'll discover on your next stroll through the neighborhood.