Mon Oncle

Today's movie is Mon Oncle, directed by and starring Jacques Tati. He made the film in 1958, and it was his first movie in color. The main character, Mr. Hulot, returns from a previous film that I watched earlier in the project, Mr. Hulot's Holiday. The films both have the same gentle and quiet style of comedy, and are both basically silent movies. I really like the character of Mr. Hulot. He bumbles around and causes mayhem, but he usually means well. I always find this sort of endearing.

I love this movie because it's filled with so many little moments that made me smile, and a few moments that made me laugh unnaturally loudly. As I said in my review of Holiday, I like that it's not a really high-strung screwball comedy. It's all small moments and little sight gags. It barely has any dialogue, and just relies on the visuals for humor. I like this style a lot, so I really enjoyed the film, but I could see fans of less-subtle comedy not really liking it as much as I did.

The movie follows Mr. Hulot as he confronts the consumerist and materialistic culture of the world around him. He lives in a really quaint village, with markets and little cafes, and a pack of stray dogs who roam the town. He has a close relationship to his young nephew, Gerard, who is bored of his city life and likes to come out and be mischievous with his uncle. Hulot's sister wants to set him up with her neighbor, and tries to stage  a party for them at their ultra-modern and automated house. The modern house, full of dials and switches and sensors, is one of the main sources of comedy in the film. Hulot's sister and brother-in-law are forever trying to "help" Hulot to meet people or get a job, but of course, he is happiest doing what he has always done - strolling around town with no real purpose.

I loved the crazy futuristic house that Tati created for this film. There is an awful metal fish fountain in the middle of the yard that Madame Arpel, Hulot's sister, will only turn on for important guests. However, the house is gated, so she is never sure whether or not a guest is important until she opens the gate. Each time the gate buzzes, she starts the fountain, and when she discovers it is just her husband, or a repairman, she turns the fountain off, and it makes stupid slurping noises that somehow were very funny. Better safe than sorry, I guess.

Much of the house is controlled by sensors. The cabinets don't seem to have normal handles, but are opened and closed by putting your hand in front of them. There is a scene, of course, where Mr. Hulot struggles to get something out of them, and then to return an item to them. The cabinet opens and ejects at him a rounded pitcher, and Hulot discovers that it bounces! He tries to retrieve a glass, next, then studies it for a moment. Will it bounce, too? He smashes it to the ground, and then, without hesitating, sweeps the shards under the stove with his foot. Even the garage in the house is controlled by sensors, but there is no way to operate the garage once inside it. Inevitably, the Arbel's get trapped inside, begging their dog to cross in front of the sensors to let them out.

I love all these moments. They're not huge, memorable or riotous gags, but they're charming and funny, and they made me smile. I like that there are scenes where you can just see Hulot and Gerard screwing around in the background while everyone else acts normal. I love the strange apartment building that Hulot lives in, where we get to see how oddly the buildings are linked just by watching the position of Hulot's feet and head in the windows. There's never any big buildup to a punchline or action or anything like that. There's just little nudges and nods, and I really like the tone that it gives the whole movie. Like it's all a little private joke between yourself and the director, I guess.

The modernist house is a little dated, but somehow it still felt current at the same time. We still put weird, automated stuff in our houses that don't do their jobs very well (see: Roombas, which seem to just be ridden on by cats). I bought my dad an automatic can opener a while back as a sort of joke. You push a button on it and it propels itself around the can, removing the lid. I can't ever get the horrid thing to stop, though, and I always almost cut myself on it's moving blades trying to pry the can lid away from it. Yet, when I have cans to open, I always use it. We're all sort of fascinated with and yet repulsed by new technology, and even though the overall feel of the modernist house is all wrong now, the idea behind it still works.

It's different to see a comedy that relies so heavily on visual humor, since we're so used to mostly just jokes in our comedies. I really liked this style. It felt sort of restrained and quaint, and was never in your face about anything. It was subtle and cute, and I really enjoyed it. It's on Hulu right now, and although it's a little long for a comedy, it's still a lot of fun. Let me know if you check it out!

Have any of you seen Mon Oncle? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Mon Oncle
Buy it at Amazon


Mean Streets