September 26, 2017
“That would be the ideal film. I would like people to see Hulot less and less and to see other people or characters more and more.” – Jacques Tati
With Mon Oncle (1958), Jacques Tati gets closer to making his ideal film. The character of Hulot gets pushed further and further into the background until he often disappears, letting nearly everyone else in town take center stage. Hulot’s role is to set a disastrous mechanism into motion, then stroll offscreen with charming obliviousness. He is inimical to the quickly modernizing world of the film, able to find the flaw in any advanced doohickey and reduce it to a smoking, blubbering mess in a matter of minutes. Hulot is forever putting the brakes on technological advancement, while the rest of his family is installing the latest and greatest in household tech, from a motion-sensor garage door to a fish water fountain. While his family tries to automate and smooth out their lives, Hulot prefers to live in the grit and grime, in an old rickety house covered in dust and layered with history. Tati uses set and sound design to separate Hulot from his contemporaries, going from the squeaky clean lines of his sister’s ultra-modern home to the clatteringly labyrinthine staircase of his apartment building. Hulot is a man of out of time, trying to impart his destabilizing spirit to his little nephew, the only relative susceptible to his charms.
Mon Oncle opens and closes with scenes of stray dogs fanning out into an alley, eating garbage, urinating and making the world their home. The title appears in chalk on a brick wall, as if this was a post-apocalyptic thriller rather than a slapstick comedy. But all of Tati’s films have this “out-of-time” feeling, since Tati himself felt so upset about the massive re-development changing the French cityscape. Tati told Bert Cardullo (quoted in World Directors in Dialogue): “What bothers me today is that Paris itself is being destroyed. This really aggravates me. If we need additional housing, and God knows we do, let’s build new cities. There is enough room. But we should not demolish nice old buildings in Paris for the sake of new apartment buildings. Paris will end up looking like Hamburg. And it is uniformity that I dislike.” And it is uniformity that he skewers relentlessly in his design of Charles and Madame Arpel’s home (Hulot’s brother-in-law and sister played by Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie), a boxy glass-walled modern edifice in which everything is connected but nothing functions. It is an especially dour place for Hulot’s nephew Gérard (Alain Bécourt), who finds few places to play in the ascetic setup. Even the backyard is landscaped to an inch within its life, and one hopscotches over it rather than walks through it.
It is Tati’s first film released in color (he shot Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday  in color but it was distributed in B&W), and he uses it to further establish a sense of place. The Arpel home is weak pastel, gray-blue with a smidge of green in the yard. Rather institutional in its color scheme. Hulot’s neighborhood though, is all earth tones, what Tati called, “old, velvety colors.” Hulot lives in what seems like a simulacrum of a small French village, on which probably no longer existed when Tati made the film. But he is a nostalgist for this kind of place, having fond memories of going to delis with his grandmother, “there was some sawdust on the floor, they cut us some thin slices of salami to give us a taste of it, the room smelled deliciously of oak and pepper.” Today, Tati said, “when you go to a restaurant it’s as if you were eating in a clinic.” Hulot’s home is a remarkable construction meant to channel these childhood memories. It is shot head-on in long shot, so when Hulot descends the stairs we can make out his entire journey from top-to-bottom in one sequence, tracking his progress through windows and balconies, his bopping head giving him away. This kind of “dollhouse” shot is one that Wes Anderson liberally borrowed in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
This set is not just that one trick-shot though, it is a living organism that Hulot has to manipulate to keep people happy. In order to make a caged bird sing it’s morning song, he has to manipulate one of his windows so it reflects a beam of sun onto the animal – only then will it start its song. And every day upon departure he provides the girl on the bottom floor with candy or a kind word (by the end of the film she’s grown from a tween to an adolescent while his nephew never seemed to age at all – time does strange things in Hulot’s world). Hulot is always leaving the apartment to pick up Gérard from school. Gérard is a cooped up kid who has found an escape with his ne’er do well uncle and a group of prankster kids. Their favorite routine is to wait for a pedestrian to walk near a lamp post, whistle as if calling them and betting on whether they will run into the post.
Eventually though, Hulot has to take the boy home, and the construction of that home is one of Tati’s great achievements, a totem to conspicuous consumption without a thought to functionality. And Tati uses sound design to activate multiple levels of the screen space. In one segment Madame Arpel is complimenting a neighbor on her hat in the foreground, while in the background Gérard is cleaning his shoes on the welcome mat, that scraping sound nearly blotting out his mother’s conversation. Everything in a Tati frame matters, there is no centering character. While your eye automatically drifts to Hulot, since Tati is such a master of pantomime, he often wanders out of frame, so you are forced to find other jokes – like the two circular windows that look like eyelid-less eyes, or the great sucking sound of the fish fountain, which Madame Arpel turns on and off depending on the importance of the guest. There is a whole rhythm to the house’s apparatus, the fountain “sucking,” the front door buzz, the soft “thunk” of a glass door closing, one might be able to map the comings and goings of each character just based on the sound design.
Needless to say when they have a dinner party Hulot starts breaking down the Arpel’s much sought-after order. He does the same at the rubber hose factory they get him a job at – the hose ends up looking like sausage, the disposal of which is an adventure on its own. There are so many visual gags, layered into each intricately arrayed sequence, it’s almost enough to be distracted by the solitude of it all. For while Hulot was the center of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, here he seems more peripheral, his final expulsion a natural extension of the plot. The final images, rather touching ones, find Charles and his son Gérard ultimately bonding over the lamp post prank. What had been a completely combative relationship has softened in a shared bond over slapstick violence. But Hulot is gone, and they don’t miss him.