The Tati brand of comedy is what I would call delightful. He doesn’t go for many huge laughs. It’s a gentle kind of humor that is out to find a smile on the face of the audience. I have laughed out loud at several moments through his body of work, but they’re the exception to how Tati’s films work on me. Mostly, I’m just smiling at what I see as the titular M. Hulot navigates the eccentricities of Tati’s vision of the modern world at its most absurd. In Mon Oncle, Tati fully embraces this skewering of modern design and sensibilities after only hinting at it in his previous two films, and it’s his most fully realized and cohesive vision so far.
Tati was still working distinctly in the Chaplin mode of stringing along individual gags into sequences that combined into a feature length film, and after the assured step forward he had made with M. Hulot’s Holiday, his stitches in Mon Oncle are less obvious and the central idea even stronger. Monsieur Hulot must meet the modern world.
The film’s opening is rather wonderful, beginning with its credits. All of the names are on street signs in front of a building under construction, the noises of building filling the soundtrack. It doesn’t reveal the title of the film until after a cut where the hard edged lettering of the construction site have been replaced by a bit of nice graffiti against an older building. What we’re seeing are the two parts of town, not far from each other, that will dominate the film. The former is representative of a plastics factory and the modern house while the latter is M. Hulot’s more natural environment, the lived in, older section of town where M. Hulot lives. Tati used a small pack of dogs to provide the movement from one place to the next in a nice bit of visual vocabulary.
The basics of the story are the M. Hulot (Tati) is happy to live his quiet life in the older part of town while his sister Madame Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) and brother-in-law Monsieur Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) try to get him a job and a woman. Hulot is more than happy spending time dotting on his nephew Gerard (Alain Becourt), though. Hulot gets two attempts at a job at the plastics factory where Monsieur Arpel is a high ranking official. The first goes wrong when he accidentally tracks in some paint on the bottom of his shoe, leaving a series of footprints that make it look like he climbed on top of a desk to peer through a window where his female interviewer was getting herself ready. He, of course, did no such thing, and has no idea why she’s so angry, but he leaves anyway. The second is an extended sequence that ends the film where he is given a nothing job in the factory where he is given temporary command over a machine creating a long, red tube of plastic that he fiddles with while trying to fix something that leads to both bubbles in the tubing as well as sinches in the tubing to make it resemble sausage links. The controlled chaos is just a delight to watch unfold.
The centerpiece of the film visually, though, is the Arpel house, a hideous, modern, monstrosity of a house that looks more like a bad art installation that something practical to live in. Every room is spotlessly clean, devoid of any personal touch, populated by hideous furniture, and looks out onto the over-manicured garden with its central piece of a metal fountain made in the image of a fish that Madame Arpel turns on for every knock on the outer gate in case it is someone she wishes to impress (she turns it off when Hulot comes through). The Arpels are extremely proud of their house to the point where Madame Arpel insists that Gerard never ever leave anything in disorder to keep it in pristine shape at all times (her introduction is actually her saying goodbye to her husband and son for the day as she endlessly polishes the car while they leave, getting every bit of dust and fingerprint). This is all in contrast to the empty lot that Gerard takes Hulot to when Hulot is given him as a charge where Gerard and his friends eat fried dough covered in jelly and sugar from a vendor and play a game where they hide just out of sight and whistle in an effort to get passerbys to run into a streetlamp (Hulot ultimately getting the blame for it, of course).
And that’s really the heart of the film’s ideas. It’s the stolid, ugly, and clean modern world paling in comparison in Tati’s eyes to the dirtier and livelier ways of the past. Tati might have been a luddite.
This would be hardly enough for a short film on its own, but the idea isn’t the real driver of the film, it’s the nearly silent comedy. Taking his established form of modern silent mime further, Tati uses the sets and situations for the kind of good-natured humor that is his forte. Once again, he may find Monsieur and Madam Arpel ridiculous, but he seems to hold them no ill-will. They are nice people caught up in the shininess of the modern age, fully ridiculous but never malicious. That general good-natured sensibility is the ground layer on which Tati builds his comedy. Upon that, we have sight gags like three men walking up and down a series of stone steps in the Arpel garden without stepping off of them onto the gravel that surrounds them, something that resembles a nearly manic dance as they try to keep within the bounds of expectation. This is also brought to comic effect when Hulot, carrying something that obscures his vision, accidentally steps on a fake lily pad in the small pool expecting it to be a step. Are these laugh out loud moments? Not really, but they are a wonderful source of comic delight.
The one laugh out loud moment I had was when Hulot tries to replicate the bounce of a pitcher he finds with something else.
These films fill me with such heedless joy as I watch them. Tati had a marvelous gift for comedy without anger or malice. His films would be simple enjoyable truffles of amusement if he did not combine them with a strong central idea, which he does here, providing an extra layer of depth and thought to the whole affair. As Hulot enters the airport to go on to be a salesman for the company in another part of the country, sent by his brother-in-law to get rid of his troublesome relative, Hulot gets lost in the dance of pedestrians, off to find another adventure.