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Posts Tagged ‘Mon Oncle’

I used to be a fairly regular participant in the great British tradition of the pub quiz, back before the institution was effectively killed off by the rise of the smartphone and hand-held search engines. One of the methods by which the proprietors of these events tried to limit people’s ability to cheat was by introducing things like music and picture rounds, where you couldn’t just google for the answers. There was usually an interesting mixture of difficulties on display.

I recall on one occasion being heads-down with the rest of the team poring over some of the more challenging pictures we were being asked to identify: 1970s football managers, obscure cousins to the queen, and so on. And there was one photo of a middle-aged man in a shapeless hat and a raincoat, smoking a pipe, with a rather peculiar expression on his face.

‘Is that Eric Morecambe without his glasses?’ wondered one of the team, aloud.

‘No it’s not. Maybe it’s Harold Wilson,’ said another, prompting an instinctive and visceral hiss from the members of the team who also belonged to the local Conservative Club (one can’t always freely pick one’s pub quiz team-mates).

Something was stirring in the back of my brain, as the machinery back there (which I have given up trying to understand) quivered and buzzed and finally coughed up an answer.

‘I… I think that’s Jacques Tati,’ I said.

They stared at me a lot, torn between lack of comprehension at what I was on about and bemusement that I actually appeared to know the answer. For myself, I was astonished that a picture of a French comedian from the middle of the last century had turned up in a pub quiz picture round in the north-west of England, and also that I was able to recognise him despite never actually having seen one of his films.

I mean, come on, it’s French comedy: our cousins across the channel are famous for their wine, their cuisine, their sense of style, and the sense of humility which they take with them whenever they travel abroad, but French comedy is (generally speaking) down the list beneath their pop music when it comes to les grandes realisations de la France.

Then again, there are exceptions to everything, and if there is a French comedian with a claim to international recognition it is Jacques Tati, acclaimed as one of the greatest auteurs and film directors of all time by people who should actually know about that sort of thing.

Well, as I say, I’d heard of Tati (and clearly seen a picture of him at some point), but had never seen one of his movies until recently when a stack of films passed on to me by a friend happened to include Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle (even I, who didn’t even take GCSE French, can figure out that this means My Uncle).

monocle

With a title like that it sounds like some sort of sentimental, family-themed romp, but (and to be honest you had best get used to this) Mon Oncle defies – or, perhaps, ignores – expectations. Tati plays his most famous creation, Monsieur Hulot, a carefree, easy-going gentleman of middle years, residing in a chaotic Parisian neighbourhood at the top of a ramshackle apartment block.

This is quite at odds with the lifestyle of his sister (Adrienne Servantie), who along with her husband Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) has relocated to an ultra-modern home in the suburbs, with all kinds of modern fixtures and conveniences. Despite all of this, their son (Alain Becourt) seems much happier spending time with his uncle, Hulot. This is a source of much chagrin to the Arpels, who view Hulot as a feckless embarrassment and seemingly spend most of their time trying to get him to adopt a more ‘appropriate’ lifestyle – working in Arpel’s factory, and so on.

There is, it must be said, not much more in the way of plot when it comes to Mon Oncle, mainly just a succession of set-pieces which usually depict Monsieur Hulot unintentionally wreaking havoc upon the ordered existence and plans of the Arpels. Your sympathies are intended to be with Hulot throughout, not because he is a particularly engaging or identifiable figure, but because the lifestyle of the Arpels is depicted as phoney and dehumanised: their home is a sterile environment depicted in a palette of dull greys, the most distinctive feature a fairly ugly fountain (which Mme Arpel hurries to switch on whenever they receive an important guest).

This extends to the film’s view of the factory and the consumerist lifestyle which the Arpels have enthusiastically adopted: rows of grey cars trundling in perfect unison between grey boxes. The contrast with the slightly shambolic, but always warm and vibrant neighbourhood in which Hulot resides could not be much more clear. Points are obviously being made, and there’s a certain sense in which Mon Oncle would be a good double-bill companion piece to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for they are both obviously very seriously-intentioned satires of consumerism – indeed, Mon Oncle occasionally seems almost reactionary in its suspicion of modern technology.

Satire isn’t an exact synonym for comedy, of course, which I suppose is my way of delicately raising the issue of whether this famous comedy film is actually funny or not. I suppose it is, but this feels like the kind of comedy which is meant to be taken very seriously – in other words, it is Art. As you admire the conception, composition, art direction and performances of each scene, it almost seems disrespectful to laugh at the film: an approving, serious nod feels like a much more appropriate response.

It’s not really the style of comedy you expect, either. Monsieur Hulot is clearly part of a tradition of clowning which – in cinematic terms at least – goes back at least to Chaplin’s Tramp and continues on to characters like Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson has acknowledged Tati’s influence on his work). But the difference is that with the Tramp or Bean, you are always watching a star vehicle – they are always centre stage, the comedy built around them. In Mon Oncle, on the other hand, many of the scenes are filmed in long shot, with Hulot just one figure in a crowd of other characters (if he is present at all). He is a major character, but the film does not revolve solely around him.

I should probably also observe that there is an abrasive element to Anglophone clowning which seems to be almost entirely absent here. There is a lot less falling-over, slapstick, and comic violence than you might expect – there’s a fairly lengthy sequence about an automatic garage door opening mechanism which eventually causes the Arpels a lot of trouble after their dachshund starts to accidentally trigger the mechanism. I was anticipating the moment where someone either gets hit by the door or entangled in the works and whisked out of sight; it never happens and it almost feels like a scene without a pay-off. There are many other almost-throwaway moments of visual inspiration.

So I have to conclude that while Mon Oncle is clearly a well-made film and the product of a distinct creative sensibility, it didn’t actually make me laugh very much. Then again, it seems to be a film about ideas and the changes in French society in the late 1950s at least as much as it is a comedy; the conclusion (Hulot is banished to the provinces to become a sales rep) seemed to me to be genuinely affecting and rather sad. Still, an interesting film, though definitely the product of a rather different comedic tradition.

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