Mon Oncle (1958)
Director: Jacques Tati
Cast: Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Zola, Adrienne Servantie
Plot: Monsieur Hulot visits the technology-driven world of his sister, brother-in-law, and nephew, but he can't quite fit into the surroundings.
Awards: Won Special Jury Prize (Cannes). Won Best Foreign Language Film (Academy Awards).
International Sales: StudioCanal
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Jacques Tati was one of the most unique of filmmakers of his time. One has to see it all come together in his magnum opus, Playtime (1967), to be in awe of this most fascinating of artistes. Mon Oncle, made nine years earlier, was his third feature and first film in colour. In it, we see a film that very much functions as a bridge between the more carefree, in-his-own-world-in-his-own-time movie that was Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), and the sparkling satire of modernity and technology that was Playtime.
Perhaps the most telling of Mon Oncle’s position as a major crossroad in Tati’s career comes in its opening credits—the names of cast and crew are produced physically in the shot, accompanied by a noisy and drab background of construction and constant drilling. Later, when it transits to the title shot, ‘Mon Oncle’ is written in chalk on a brick wall in what seems like a peaceful town with the earthly charms of the old-world.
Starring Tati himself and reprising his role as Monsieur Hulot, Mon Oncle brings him into a world of technological progress. As a visiting uncle of a boy who finds the daily ritual of home-school-home tedious and uninspiring, Hulot takes the kid out to play with his peers. In one of the film’s most hilarious comedy set-pieces, the young schoolboys play a whistling prank on strangers.
The entire film is a comedy, involving all matters of slapstick, yet there is enough warmth and humanity to the intricately-devised scenarios that give Tati’s work a genteel yet tender quality. Much of the film, however, centers on Hulot’s sister’s unbelievable symmetrically-designed and technologically-advanced house. Hulot’s visits often end in ridicule (his sister’s husband dislikes him), but Tati’s endearing performance helps to retain the character’s dignity.
In what is possibly the film’s most damning indictment on mechanized modernity and groupthink, Hulot’s sister hosts a gathering of friends in her place to side-splitting effect, but the sequence also satirizes Man’s futile quest to want to impress and be impressed, but to what end?
Mon Oncle is bookended by scenes of dogs running happily in the old-world parts of the town. One of them is a brown dachshund, who would return back to Hulot’s sister house after hours of fun. If a dog could understand what it means to live free of any self-prescribed impositions, I think we ought to learn a thing or two.
Verdict: The first colour film of Tati is a remarkable and satirical slapstick comedy, acting as a bridge between the doldrums of mechanized modernity and the earthly charms of the old-world.
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