I’m not so sure what my reaction to Mon Oncle might have been in 1958. Had I lived during the postwar era, it may have been easier to imagine a world where society’s obsession with modernization might be characterized as being entirely frivolous. But today, although modern gadgetry does seem trivial at times, much of the comedy in Mon Oncle feels dated and silly. More than 50 years after its original release, Mr. Hulot is not as lovable of a character as he may have once been.
- Director: Jacques Tati
- Writer: Jacques Tati, Jacques Lagrange, Jean L’Hote
- Cast: Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Zola, Adrienne Servantie, Lucien Fregis, Betty Schneider
In a French society obsessed with modernization and social status, Mr. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) and Mrs. Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) are wrapped up trying keep up appearances. Meanwhile, Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati), their brother-in-law, runs around town with the aloofness of a man who appears out of touch with reality. The Arpels will try to provide Mr. Hulot with a purpose within their superficial society, but Mr. Hulot bumbling ways might end up providing insights of their own.
One of the most effective qualities of Mon Oncle is that it brings into question whether its better to be somewhat aloof about society or be completely obsessed by its perceived demands. On one hand, because of its ability to raise questions such as these, Mon Oncle can be appreciated for having more to say than most other comedies. However, given its simple message, it takes too long to tell it. It’s one thing to have a clear message within the plot, its yet another to execute it effectively. The level of comedy is simply not enough, and I suspect most people would cut much of the first half and skip mainly to the latter half dealing with Mr. Hulot’s reluctant introduction to factory work.
Much like the modern architecture and technology that it seeks to satirize, Mon Oncle is a film that functions more in theory than in reality. Mr. Hulot is effective at being socially awkward to the brink of comedy, but his ability to be equally lovable is limited by the fact that certain gags feel forced and run longer than necessary. For nearly half of the film, the electronic novelties that the film features and mocks simply overstay their welcome by annoying us with their constant buzzing and overkill. Perhaps in 1958, much of the ridiculousness that the film implies to be inherent in many of our modern conveniences seemed like a more legitimate concern. But in 2013, the exaggerated manner in which the film argues against modernity serves only to weaken any of the characterizations that may in fact hold some truth.
There is a scene in which he fidgets around in Arpel’s “high-tech” kitchen. He discovers a kettle can bounce off the ground when dropped, and with a logic that would seem far-fetched even for a child, he proceeds to drop a glass, presumably because he is curious if all kitchenware is similarly unbreakable. Despite Mr. Hulot being established as a juvenile character of sorts, gags like this feel forced and unfunny.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
In Tati’s great earlier film Mister Hulot’s Holiday, the Mr. Hulot character feels more like a naive victim, caught in a series of mishaps. In Mon Oncle, his misadventures feel more contrived and therefore less humorous. Compared to his other films, could it be that Mon Oncle’s limited effect lies in the fact that he’s “a lost soul, unemployed, bemused and confused by the modern world”. The problem here is that his confusion is not the type that most of us can identify with. Rather than just create situational comedy, the attempt at social satire ultimately seems to backfire, as much of it takes away from the pure and simple enjoyment of what might otherwise be a genuinely fun movie. At nearly 2 hours, perhaps like most comedies, Mon Oncle would be best if trimmed to 90 minutes. In terms of the music, I agree that the music is “simple, cheerful, like circus music while we’re waiting for the clowns”, although I feel as though the “clowning” never fully takes off. Instead, we end up with scattered laughs separated by gags that seem slow in developing. You also refer to the large cast of local characters. But despite being given some kind of identifiable characteristic, not only are they not significant in terms for the plot, they barely manage to own their fleeting moments on screen. As Mr. Ebert’s review points out, it is true that “Hulot doesn’t find himself starving, hanging from clock faces, besotted with romance or in the middle of a war”, but I’m not so sure that by puttering away at life he succeeds in capturing our hearts or minds, no matter how genial and courteous he might be. I do not hate this film, as much of what I write may imply. I just don’t think it holds up to the test of time.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Mon Oncle? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Diary of a Lonely Girl
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle this week, he now has 305 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.