Tuesday 13 September 2016

My Uncle (Mon Oncle) (1958)

Min onkel
Comedies are the exception rather than the rule on the List. Many of those that have been included are not that funny anymore as the years have not been kind to them. Those that do survive the passing of the decades are usually focused on visual humor and, more importantly, are intelligent. One such survivor is Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle”. I do not hesitate calling this the funniest movie on the list so far, even compared to Keaton and Chaplin. I do not remember laughing this much from any of their movies.

“Mon Oncle” is the second installment featuring Tati’s Monsieur Hulot. First time was in “Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot” and back then I erroneously thought that that would be the only Hulot movie and desperately wished for some more. Luckily I was mistaken and I now got my wish fulfilled plenty. It is obvious that several years have passed, the Hulot character is more developed and the film itself, while still situational, is more focused and, yes, funnier.

Monsieur and Madame Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie) are of the nouveau riche. They live a very modern life in a stylized modernistic house full of electrical appliances. Everything wirrs and buzzes and are of the latest design. But it is also a very cold home. The garden is immaculate with straight lines and absurd curves, impractical in the extreme and the rooms of the house are largely empty. There are only a few items in each room and these are intended to be looked at rather than being used. In fact the Arpel home looks like a modernistic home design catalogue, not a place suited for living. However for the Arpel’s it fits their ideal of modern and efficient lives perfectly. They even have a child that serves the same purpose as the home. Needless to say Gerard (Alain Bécourt), the nine year old son is bored stiff in this home.

This could be a terrible story, but it is played out for fun. All those electrical appliances are hilarious. Some of them work less elegantly than others and combined they make the Arpels look ridiculous.  The extravagant and completely tasteless fish fountain is the garden is a good representation of this home. Made to impress it is actually completely laughable.

The antithesis of this home is Monsieur Hulot (Tati). He is anarchistic, childish, distracted and very inefficient. But he is also a warm and friendly character and greatly loved by Gerard. Hulot is brother to Madame Arpel and as he is unemployed he spends a lot of time with the boy. The scenes switch between the cozy old neighborhood where Hulot lives and the modernistic nightmare where the Arpels live. It is when these two worlds meet things get funny.

Hulot in the Arpel house, Hulot trying out a job in Arpel’s factory making plastic (very modern!) items, the Arpel’s trying to train Hulot. It is all a riot. I love the job interview scene and the garden party is fantastic. The neighbor is worth a movie all on her own and Hulot making plastic sausages instead of tubes is just amazing. Yet the winner is all those small details you hardly notice at first, but all contribute to make this culture clash truly epic.

Of course the story does not really lead anywhere. There is not a crime to solve or any big solution, only the chaos inflicted by Hulot. It becomes a prime concern for the Arpels to rid themselves of Hulot if they cannot reform him, but in doing so Hulot also becomes the key for Monsieur Arpel to meet his son at his eye level and reconnect.

I love that the movie is viewed from the eyelevel of Gerard. A nine year old would find all that modernity useless and laughable, though he might not consciously realize just how narcissistic it also is, and the old and inefficient, but warm and hearty world of Hulot’s is what dreams are made of.  It makes me forgive the naivety of the movie and fills me with a warm and cozy feeling.

It is funny to think of that all that modernity is now largely reality for many if not most of us. Automatic doors and vacuum cleaners are pretty standard now and we are surrounded by electric gimmicks of all sorts. The interesting thing is that this does not detract from the movie at all. The character types are universal and they totally work, also today.  


  1. I found this amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny, but comedy is much more down to personal taste than tragedy. I did love the constant turning on and off of the fish fountain, and yes, M. Hulot being let loose on the house is brilliant.

    I've found I didn't warm to Tati's character as much as I have to Chaplin or Keaton's, but I cannot take anything away from his filmmaking. I'll be interested to see what you make of Playtime when you get there.

    Regarding the list, you are dead right about the comedy:drama ratio! Sadly I seem to have watched most of the funny ones, leaving a long list of depressing films to go. I'll have to look elsewhere for funny-bone tickling!

    1. It makes sense that a universal list will focus on dramas. Whereas we can all relate to dramas comedies are far more culturally conditioned. What is hilarious in China might not be funny at all in Italy.
      I found Mon Oncle not only endearing, but belly-trembling hilarious. At one point my wife had to quiet my down because our son had to sleep.
      Curiously it was not so much Hulot as the Arpels that made me laugh. In their narcisistic idiocy they are awfully familiar.

  2. Isn't this the best? I just love that all the Arpel's modern conveniences are so inconvenient. And those dogs! They are so like Hulot.

    1. Yes, this is marvelous. I enjoyed every minute of it. There are so many of those gadgets and ridiculous items. I particularly love the sofa. How are you even supposed to sit on it?