Jacques Tati vs. Modernity

For his first color feature, Tati focused on the streamlining of French home life. Mon Oncle (1958) pokes fun at how modernity is, contrary to its promises, a terrible encroachment upon a family’s wellbeing.

More shapely and character-driven than anything Tati had written, the story follows a young schoolboy, Gerard Arpel, trapped in a prison of his parents’ homemaking. This fully automated household proves an inescapable fortress of solitude, air-tight enough to suffocate his rambunctious instincts.

Enter Monsieur Hulot, the hapless uncle with a heart of gold, and the boy is saved. Hulot’s pre-modern presence turns the family’s lifeless modern abode into a lively calamity of man vs. machine.

Like one of the stray dogs that open the film, Hulot follows his instincts with a nose for amusement. He delights in the magic of the everyday. Sharing this delight with his sheltered nephew, Hulot points out the comedic potential of the outside world. He partakes in pranks on unsuspecting pedestrians, performs sidewalk pantomime, and just pals around with Gerard on equal footing.

Throughout Mon Oncle, Tati explores the qualities of color film, playing with light to subtly juxtapose the modern and pre-modern worlds. The very same light that illuminates Hulot’s old-world neighborhood bounces off of the sleek and shiny edges of the Arpel home. Its reflection reveals everything that Gerard is missing in life: nesting birds, music, merriment, etc.

Electricity courses through the Arpel home, producing artificial light and powering all of the parents’ modern artifices. But, it also binds all of the appliances together like a string of firecrackers. So, when the dinner party guests arrive, Tati lets the dominoes fall down the line.

Madame and Monsieur Arpel set the scene by flaunting their modernism to the stuffy guests, showing off all of the gadgetry that “simplifies” their home life. When they ask Hulot to retrieve some refreshments from the robotic kitchen, everything goes haywire. The coordinated sight-gags ensue, as does a running joke on the fish-out-of-water metaphor. On the front lawn stands a giant center-piece, a spitting-fish fountain; its malfunctioning becomes a symbol of nature regurgitating technology.

Tati aligns the viewer with Gerard as he watches his uncle unwittingly dismantle the whole dinner party. Hiding on the periphery, Gerard roots for Hulot to ruin things and then laughs at his painstaking efforts to remedy them without anyone else noticing.

This sort of privileged perspective involves the viewer in the situation, making them complicit in the comedy. Orchestrating his comedy from both sides of the camera, Tati builds up a unique understanding of life as a comical arrangement of the unpredictable.

A reprisal of the stray dogs delivers Mon Oncle’s final punch line. Following Hulot’s awkward stride, the mutts trot into Monsieur Arpel’s factory to wreak havoc on all of its modern machinations and automaton workers. Man’s best friend at his side, Hulot proves that all he needs is an audience in this battle of man vs. modernity.

to be continued…