Blog Directory CineVerse: A French confection with familial themes

A French confection with familial themes

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Mon Oncle, a French comedy helmed by and starring Jacques Tati and the second in a trilogy featuring the Monsieur Hulot character, made its debut in 1958. The film received widespread critical acclaim, clinching the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1959 and garnering a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival during the same year.

Click here to access a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this movie, conducted last week.

What makes Mon Oncle distinctive, different, memorable, and resonant? The Hulot character is funny and fascinating. Tati had introduced Hulot in his earlier picture, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday in 1953; this well-meaning yet clumsily endearing personality frequently clashed with the modern world, delighting audiences for standing out as a humorous nonconformist misfit. Hulot symbolized an older, more traditional way of life struggling to coexist with the swift modernization and technological advancements of post-war France. Mon Oncle offered him an ideal platform to expand upon the Hulot character while also delving into key themes and ideas, including the impact of modernization and consumerism on society.

Mon Oncle, as in other Tati movies, emphasizes visual humor, clever manipulation of sound, and a not-so-subtle social commentary. The film leans on physical comedy rather than dialogue, skillfully utilizing the characters' physicality and their interactions with the modern world. The movie also abounds with clever and inventive visual gags and comedic set pieces.

It’s obvious this is a meticulously designed and arranged film that relies heavily on careful blocking, precise acting choreography, focused art direction, and preestablished spatial dynamics. Every shot appears painstakingly planned to ensure maximum comedic payoff with the characters and situations in each sequence, and proper comedic timing is key, especially with multiple characters and objects competing for our attention in most shots. Mon Oncle is a triumph of fastidious direction and synergy between well-rehearsed actors.

Tati was famous for his scrupulous attention to detail and unwavering commitment to crafting a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. The director went to great effort to shape and personalize each scene to achieve his preferred comedic and thematic effects. Roger Ebert posited: “He was a perfectionist whose precise construction of shots, sets, actions, and gags is all the more impressive because he remained within a calm emotional range; Hulot doesn't find himself starving, hanging from clock faces, besotted with romance or in the middle of a war, but simply puttering away at life, genial and courteous, doing what he can to negotiate the hurdles of civilization.”

The framing and lensing of Mon Oncle is noteworthy, too; Tati commonly uses long shots, without close-ups or zoom-ins, to tell his story, as well as long takes, allowing typically multiple characters grouped within most shots to interact and interplay or contrast with divergent action. The result is that the actors are permitted to let a scene unfold organically, without excessive editing to advance the narrative, and we the viewer must often choose which characters and actions to concentrate on in a busy shot.

Tati’s camera choices also lend the film a voyeuristic feel. In his Criterion Collection essay, Matt Zoeller Seitz wrote: “Much of Mon Oncle is…a voyeuristic comedy in which the only person spying is the audience; Rear Window played for whimsy. Like the characters in Hitchcock's apartment complex, Tati's people are sketches of urban anthropology. The film's situational humor encloses them—boxes them, figuratively and sometimes literally, like zoo animals (though at least zoo animals know they're caged). We study them, realize how much we share with them, and smile.”

Per Slant Magazine reviewer Christian Blauvelt: “For much of the film, we see his alter ego, M. Hulot, from the back, so that the camera—and, by extension, we the viewer—are forced to share his puzzlement over the functional architecture and ludicrous gadgetry that have taken over his world.”

Mon Oncle also plays like a silent film; we don’t necessarily need the subtitles to contextually comprehend what’s going on with the characters and what they are communicating. Interestingly, Tati created both a French language version and an English version of Mon Oncle, the former nine minutes longer and the latter employs slightly different staging and performances.

Granted, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie. The overarching themes are the primary narrative thrust, and the story unfolds as more of a series of vignettes focused on Hulot and his sister’s family.

A noteworthy theme is the schism between modernity and tradition. This movie subtly critiques the relentless march of modernization and contemporary society's preoccupation with technology and progress. Monsieur Hulot, Tati's character, embodies an endearing, old-fashioned charm that starkly contrasts with the overly mechanized and sterile environment of his sister's modern home. Seitz further wrote: “Keenly aware that modernization eliminated some cherished virtues—solitude, contemplation and a sense of connection—Tati’s comedies show us how technological changes dismantled the old idea of community.”

Additionally, Mon Oncle explores the consequences of dehumanization and disconnection, which can occur in the wake of excessive reliance on technology and adherence to contemporary norms. The Arpels are too focused on shoehorning the latest gadgets, styles, and innovations into their lives, preferring form at the expense of function and letting these trappings define them at the expense of living as fallible but authentic human beings.

Similar works

  • Other Tati films with the Hulot character, including Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Playtime, and Trafic
  • The films of Charles Chaplin featuring the Little Tramp, especially City Lights and Modern Times
  • The Graduate, another film critical of a “plastic” society and a patriarchal generation overreliant on materialism and hollow values.
  • Mary Poppins
  • The Party

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP