Mon Oncle is far funnier than any dry French art film on the aesthetics of postwar modernism has any right to be. We can credit that to director Jacques Tati’s meticulous comic timing, to the movie’s easygoing rhythms just begging to be interrupted by comedic chaos, or to the simple fact that modern life is, when you get down to it, pretty darned ridiculous. But most of all, it’s because Tati does his highbrow theorizing through the most lowbrow forms of comedy: sight gags, visual puns, and outrageous slapstick. And while he uses these first two subtly and drily, that just primes the audience when he interrupts the soft chuckle of dawning realization with the bomb burst of a slapstick belly laugh. Let’s look at one gag in particular that caught me off guard and still comes to mind whenever I see a rubber-bottomed dish. Tati as his hero, Monsieur Hulot, is poking around his family’s cabinet when he accidentally knocks over a pitcher and finds out it bounces. He plays with it for a little while, then picks up a glass. He looks from the pitcher to the glass and back again. We see the wheels turning in his head, he drops the glass and — CRASH!
That joke setup — pattern, pattern, pattern, CRASH! — is one of the sharpest tools in Tati’s comic arsenal, and it pays dividends elsewhere in the film too. Hulot’s brother-in-law, Monsieur Arpel, gets help parallel parking from a little old man who slowly hobbles back and forth along the car over and over to make sure it’s lined up and then finally throws up his hands and gives up. After sneaking into Arpel’s yard by cover of night, Monsieur Hulot slowly, ponderously shuts the gate to make sure no one hears him — and then the whole thing falls over. That one still shocked me even the second time I watched it!
Tati hangs his gags on the simple frame of his recurring character Hulot and the culture clash between his life in the earthy, homey Old Town and his family in their plastic-and-stainless-steel House of Tomorrow. The setup’s apparent before the credits are even done rolling: the cast and crew appear as the nameplates in a construction site, printed out in cold grey-on-grey against the din of the machines. Then it’s a hard cut to the Old Town, stray dogs running wild in the streets. Everything goes quiet except for Frank Barcellini, Alain Romans, and Nobert Glanzberg’s lulling, rollicking score, the single simple theme that’ll carry us through the whole film. The title’s spray-painted on the wall, not in the mechanical typeset of the credits but looping, swooping cursive. The Arpels live in an industrial eyesore, more like a military compound than any kind of livable home. A nonfunctional, unburning log of some material that’s almost certainly not wood sits in the metal fireplace. Hulot has to hunch over like a spider to sit in their chairs, and turn their couch sideways before he can sleep on it. Everything’s automated and sterilized: Madame Arpel even wears rubber gloves and a dress that looks suspiciously like a lab coat in the kitchen. When we first see her, she’s busily scrubbing everything, even the flowerpots. Monsieur Arpel’s factory and his son, Gérard’s school are distinguishable only by the signs in front. Even the piano is made of corrugated iron.
Everything in Hulot’s neighborhood is the perfect opposite. Dogs happily run wild, eating out of the garbage and peeing on the benches. The grocer, who looks more than a little like a clown with his hiked-up pants and stuck-out belly, undisturbedly picks up the tools that clatter out of his car every time he opens the door. While everything in the Arpel’s home is designed for function above all else, the zigzag route Hulot takes to get to his would probably give an efficiency expert a heart attack. The Arpels own a set of two trees tamed into something geometrical, modern, and dead. A friend gives them plastic flowers that last forever but smell like rubber. In Hulot’s neighborhood, nature has the last laugh: Gérard and his friends play and buy crullers in a green field that’s grown over the old train tracks.
The title puts Mon Oncle in the child’s perspective, and the child characters provide what’s probably the best microcosm of Mon Oncle’s outlook. Confronted with a fence meant to impose ordered boundaries, they simply walk right through it. And there’s a rich strain of childlike vision in Tati’s cartoon version of modern life. The bright, pale colors are reminiscent of the watercolor children’s-book illustrations of Tati’s contemporaries like Hergé or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The way he breaks up the dull grey of the Arpel’s world or the earthy browns of Hulot’s with splashes of color recalls previous Year of the Month subject Dr. Seuss. There’s actually a surprising amount of similarity between Monsieur Hulot and the Cat in the Hat: each of them are chaos agents who entertain children by disrupting the polite orderliness of the adult suburban world. While the Cat’s well-meaning innocence always comes with a wink, Hulot seems to be the real deal. But even unwillingly, he still brings mayhem everywhere he goes. Sometimes his very attempts to preserve order cause chaos: when the Arpels offer him an elaborate freestanding cupholder, he runs all over the yard trying to find a place to stake it. When he finally finds one, he ends up piercing right through the hose that runs to the fountain, and he doggedly continues his conversation standing over it to keep anyone from noticing. Other times, his well-meaning obliviousness is the cause of his troubles — when Arpel’s little dachshund, Daki, runs through the factory, the other workers realize the boss is coming and ensure they look busy. Hulot stops his work to bend down and pet it.
My use of the word “chaos” may be misleading: Hulot’s world is disordered, but it’s the easygoing disorder of a life without rigid schedules and the constant work of tidying up. Certainly, battling the state of nature is a full-time job for the Arpels: after Hulot breaks the fountain, they mount an elaborate expedition to move the lunch party to drier ground that looks like something out of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Tati’s mockery of the mechanical precision of the modern world becomes more complicated when you realize just how much it applies to his own artistry. As Terry Jones points out in his introduction to the Criterion disc, one gag in particular involves a setup as complex and meticulous as anything in Arpel’s Plastac factory. A car driving through the gutter splashes water neatly across the top half of a shopkeeper’s pants — when we cut to his reaction, we can see Tati has switched out the unruly natural splatter of water with a custom dye job that makes the pants appear to be soaked along a perfect straight line. And then Hulot goes by on his moped and splashes precisely along the dry part. And, as Jones points out, if you look closely, you can see where Tati inserted a little hose to make sure he got the right effect.
There’s another meticulous sight gag when Hulot sneaks into the backyard. The round, eye-like windows light up, and we see Monsieur and Madame Arpel heads pop out and transform into black pupils as the house itself seems to look around. This requires the actors to move around in ways that make perfect sense for the gag but no sense at all in the literal world and must have taken dozens of takes to work out. You’ll notice the bedrooms are the one part of the house we never see — knowing the actual space would kill the plausibility of the gag. And it’s all worked out to the last detail — except for a brief moment where the house seems to have a lazy eye, the actors are in perfect sync.
Terry Jones also makes an excellent point about Mon Oncle’s sound design, which is every bit as important to the comedy and commentary as the visuals. There’s the deafening hum of machines that floods out of the factory every time the door opens. There’s the insistent squeaking of Madame Arpel’s hideous synthetic fabric every time she moves. There’s the horrible strangled gurgle of the water every time she turns the fountain on (to impress company) and off (to save on the water bill). And there’s that score, always the same but never monotonous, carrying us from start to finish, and becoming a joyful singalong when Hulot and Gérard drive home in a horse cart after a night of revelry with their Old-Town friends. In the final scene at the airport, the sound completely changes the meaning of the picture: the jazz score transforms a priest lugging his suitcase and a woman wrangling her child from a struggle into a dance.
We get to that ending when Arpel finally gives up on getting his brother-in-law a job in the city and ships him out to the provinces. He drives past a construction crew and the crumbling ruins of the Old Town take on a new, more bittersweet meaning as we realize the neighborhood’s being slowly torn down and replaced to make room for more modernist monstrosities. It’s bittersweet for Hulot, too: he’s leaving his nephew and his neighborhood friends, but he’s also escaping to a place further away from the crushing march of modernization. (At least, that’s the idea: in his next appearance, Playtime, he’ll be in the belly of the beast, urban Paris. And before you start talking about loose continuity, that movie also features the return of the British tourist from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday who insists on calling him “Mister Hewlett!”) It’s more bitter than sweet for poor Gérard who, without the “bad” influence of his uncle, may be doomed to become another drone like his poor father. That’s where Tati sets up his biggest and most cathartic laugh. Monsieur Arpel seems to be whistling to give Hulot one last message, but he’s actually enjoying Gérard’s favorite prank, causing some poor schmuck to look up and ram into a streetlight. They dart behind the car before he can catch them, and Gérard grabs his father’s hand, the first sign of affection he’s shown the whole movie. If the spirit of Hulot can live in a humorless old modern man like Arpel, maybe there’s hope for all of us. The dogs dart past the fascistic airport guards into the freedom of the Old Town, and a free, easy breeze blows a curtain between them and us. The curtain comes from a window, but it’s also Tati drawing a stage curtain over his little play: a perfect ending to a movie about the joys of imperfection.