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"Mon Oncle" France - 1958  Directed by Jacques Tati
orld Festival of Foreign Films


Mon Oncle
France - 1958
Directed by Jacques Tati

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

Monsieur Hulot returns in another almost plotless but extremely perceptive and amusing comedy, this time battling with the devices of modern life. In a small, rural French town (which represents just about anywhere) the dogs are running free. Rooting through bins and marking their territory, one of the pack squeezes through a gate and heads towards a house, where it's welcomed with open arms by Mme.Arpel (Adrienne Servantie). This is no ordinary home though -- the building looks more like an architects fantasy with its strange angles and two large eye-like windows. Inside it's more of a gallery, empty apart from a few pieces of furniture which look nice but are probably plenty uncomfortable. M.Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) emerges and goes through a ritual with his wife where she comes out, hands him something (like his hat), then dashes inside for another item. It's a strange little dance which has resonance with the almost choreographed traffic that M.Arpel drives through, on his way to drop their son Gerald (Alain Becourt) at school.

When M.Hulot (Jacques Tati) appears it's immediately obvious that at a subtle, but significant, level he doesn't fit in with everything around him. From the way he walks and looks at other people to his problems with anything more complex than a staircase, M.Hulot stumbles through life with an aura of innocence. To his nephew, Gerald, he's great fun to be with, especially when M.Hulot picks him up from school. Dragging his uncle by the hand Gerald plays pranks with his friends (such as convincing car drivers that they've just been hit by the following car) then hides, leaving M.Hulot to explain. In fact a lot of the time M.Hulot seems to be left with the blame when his only crime was to be passing at the same time, a recurrent theme. Part of the time M.Arpel tries to get his brother-in-law a job (made difficult by M.Hulot's technical incompetence) which leads to some inspired comedy moments.

Initially M.Hulot is given a position at a local company (which has a sterile art gallery/industrial atmosphere) and he hastens over for an interview. However, on the way in he steps in some white paint (without noticing) with one foot. Waiting for his appointment he takes his shoe off, because it's sticky, and puts it on the chair and desk a couple of times. Of course, when the secretary comes in all she notices is a line of white footprints that lead from the door to her desk, towards the open window! Thirty seconds later M.Hulot is once again without employment. As a last resort M.Arpel takes him in at his own factory, which makes extruded plastic tubes. This is simply an invitation for chaos, which M.Hulot unwittingly supplies. Can there be a solution to the mayhem which is driving M.Arpel to distraction?

The key to this movie is a patchwork of loosely linked scenes, each shedding light on some aspect of the human character. Tati has the enviable ability to see nuances that are obvious and yet hidden, only becoming clear when presented in isolation. There are also several examples of repeated behaviour patterns, such as Mme.Arpel oscillating in her doorway, the road-sweeper who never manages to clear his pile or the pack of tame dogs which appear in several scenes. Together with magnificent moments of physical comedy (not as energetic as Buster Keaton but equally clever), the result is a meandering but endearing film. The continuing trouble that M.Hulot has with technology, particularly the Arpel's space-age kitchen, is the obvious moral of the story (that our lives are being taken over) but this point is secondary to the humour. Apart from the unusual dialogue, which mixes several languages at random, this is almost a perfect comedy of its type (actually there's a negligible amount of speaking so this isn't a problem). The soundtrack, with its specially enhanced incidental sounds, works well with the action. Just watch out for the huge, metal, fish fountain!

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