Monsieur Hulot visits his wealthy sister, brother-in-law, and nephew but can’t quite fit into their modern home.
I honestly haven’t heard Tati’s name mentioned that often, amongst cinephiles or otherwise, and that’s unfortunate. This is my first Tati film, but I can guarantee it will not be my last. He’s a director that delights in the small things, and therein lies his charm. “Mon Oncle” tells a simple story of a man not accustomed to his surroundings, and that is all it is. Monsieur Hulot (Jaques Tati, “Playtime”) is a man that feels at ease around the times of old- of street performers and open-air markets, of strange homes and lively neighbors. Monsieur Hulot’s brother-in-law, Charles Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola, “Triple Cross”), is a man who believes in his wealth and new technology and his isolated way of living. The film examines the two ways of life while never really creating any real crisis; it just makes simple observations and lets the audience put together the meaning of each skit/vignette. The result, I will admit, took me a minute to get used to, as I found myself waiting for the story hook, but as the film continued it won me over entirely, and in the end I found this film to be one of the most charming movies I’ve ever seen.
Charlie Chaplin in Technicolor
So really, the thing that I liked most about this story was the simple way it built the two worlds of Monsieur Hulot. As I mentioned above, there isn’t really an overarching crisis that is the through-line for the story- the film moves from one vignette to another, sometimes showing the lives of Hulot’s Sister and her family, and sometimes showing Hulot’s. Hulot’s world is filled with life: happy dogs roam the street stealing food from cart, children play in the yards, people stroll through parks and Monsieur Hulot himself seems content. The Arpel family, consisting of Hulot’s brother-in-law, Hulot’s sister, and Hulot’s nephew Gerard, lives in a high-tech home with a manicured lawn and garden, complete with a working fish fountain, garage door opener, and security gate. It’s clear that Tati prefers one lifestyle over the other, but he never explicitly states that one way of living is better than the other- he just lets things play out onscreen with subtle humor.
Hulot’s character is practically silent throughout the entire film (I believe he says the name of his sister once or twice and he mumbles a few inaudible things as well), and he behaves in a way that feels a lot like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. The way he behaves is frequently with larger motions (apropos of silent film) He’s a good-hearted man who sometimes lets his absent-mindedness get the better of him. Some of the best moments of the film arise because of his willingness to do good, but his inability to think things through before he does them.
Hulot’s good-natured relationship with Gerard is perhaps where the most points of crisis arise, as Charles believes Hulot’s influence is a bad one. Charles believes in things that are tactile: his home and his wealth, and so he tries to get Hulot to conform to his ways and become what he believes is a better Uncle. He offers Hulot a job at his factory and tries to set Hulot up with whom he believes is a suitable girl, but Hulot for one reason or another, cannot seem to glean the ways of his family. Really, if you’re looking for conflict, that’s about it for this film.
Where the brilliance of this film really shines is when the repetitive motions of Hulot and his family start to take on new meaning. For example, one of the main display items for the Arpel family’s yard is their fish fountain; Madame Arpel constantly switches the fountain on and off depending on who arrives at their gate. When the new neighbor comes over to visit, Madame Arpel turns on the fountain to impress her; when a delivery driver arrives, she shuts it off because she’s not trying to impress him. The fountain becomes a sort of indicator for who the Arpel’s view as worthy of their time.
The production design is another thing that makes this film worth watching. The sets for this film must’ve cost a fortune, for everything is aligned and meticulously placed. The way he frames his shots makes the world inviting and charming and quaint- his films remind me heavily of Ozu and Wes Anderson- everything from the color palette to the arrangement of the furniture. The soundtrack also added to the quaint feeling. The music was light and airy, somewhat vaudevillian feeling at times.
I think this film could divide people: some people might find the lack of conflict and actual story to be a bit dull (I will admit I do think this film could’ve been trimmed by ten minutes or so), but overall I found this movie to be absolutely delightful. Tati has crafted a world where he finds amazement in the mundane, and life and joy in the mechanical and boring. This is a quiet masterwork of world-building and filmmaking, and it’s a place that I already want to revisit.
Review Written By: