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Friday, 24 October 2008

Mon Oncle (1958)

Much slower than 1953's Mr Hulot's Holiday, but just as subtle, this is Jacques Tati's attempt to look at the dehumanising aspect of technology in much the same way as Chaplin in Modern Times or his predecessor René Clair in À nous la liberté aka Freedom for Us. It follows Mr Hulot's fundamental incompatibility with the technology that his sister and her family have designed into their lives. It's far from a preachy film but the message it carries is even more applicable today than in 1958 when the film was released, to much acclaim including an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Hulot lives in a very organic part of the city, in a building that seems to have been a few buildings cobbled together into one. Everything here is decidedly low tech: children play with tyres and barrels, adults travel by bicycle or by horse and cart, street vendors cook at the side of the road. As you'd expect from the detail-oriented Tati, there are little touches everywhere here. Hulot can make a neighbouring bird sing just by angling his window just right; there's a street sweeper who is always about to sweep something but never does; a fruit and veg salesman who scams his customers through clever use of a flat tire.

Hulot's nephew, Gerard Arpel, is very much a part of this world too, playing cleverly timed pranks with the kids in Hulot's neighbourhood using nothing but water, dirt and their imagination. I'd love to be able to play that joyous whistling game, however twisted it is, but alas I can't whistle. Here's the incentive for me to learn! Gerard is as out of place in his parent's house as Hulot is. His parents obviously love him but they can't connect: the first time we hear him laugh is when Mr Hulot gives him a toy.

Mr and Mrs Arpel live in the world of technology. Their house is a joyous depiction of fifties futurism, where everything is stylised, artistic and mechanised. It's entirely free of such things as handles, because things open at the press of a button or the wave of a hand, whether it be a main gate, a kitchen cupboard or what might just be the ugliest garden fountain I've ever seen. 'It's modern,' they say. 'Everything's connected.' Needless to say Mr Hulot wreaks chaos whenever he connects with this technology: at a garden party thrown so Mrs Arpel attempts an insane matchmaking exercise, at the Plastec plant at which Mr Arpel gives him a job or in trying to get rid of the pipe that he created there back in his own world. And it's in this chaos that we find our film.

I was very happy to find that Tati continued to work in the style that he demonstrated so well in Mr Hulot's Holiday and which had its roots as far back as Jour de fête. It's a sound film but that doesn't mean it sounds like you'd expect. Much of the film is told in sound but that doesn't mean dialogue and we don't hear too much of that. I love this approach and could watch and listen for hours. On the face of it Mon Oncle doesn't appear to be as memorable or as subtly resonant as Mr Hulot's Holiday, but these films are deceptive. I'm going to be fascinated to see how these Jacques Tati films grow over viewings but I believe they're going to sink into the soul. Right now the difference is that I've seen Mr Hulot's Holiday three times but Mon Oncle only once.

I should add that I don't quite get the meaning of the dogs. They're everywhere in this film, as prominent as the children, and I'm not sure why. Some of them have very specific purposes at very specific points in the film, that's for sure, but there are far more of them around than that. Perhaps Dakky the dachsund is merely a canine equivalent to Gerard, choosing to leave his world of technology to chase around with the dogs who are still free. Oh well, let's see what sense it makes next time. It's a Jacques Tati: I'll return to it again and again.

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