Friday, August 7, 2009

Mon Oncle

"Mon Oncle" (Jacques Tati, 1958) French comedy (the director's first in color) that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film that year. Tati had been making comedy films for 20 years by this time, and he was startling to settle his silent anarchic character Mr. Hulot as something of a stick-in-the-mud in the French landscape, preferring the noisy, quaint ramshackle of city life to the encroachment of pre-fab, angular concrete and steel slab-homes.

You know whose side he's on immediately with the first three shots as the first two pan down from a construction crane to reveal the contractors (only in a neat wrinkle they're the film's credits,
with the title scrawled like graffiti on a stone wall in an alleyway that becomes the early morning run for a pack of dogs who pee on everything in sight and raid the garbage receptacles for food. Immediately the messy brick and mortar of old France is linked to the natural and everything just beyond its broken metal fence is restrictive, mechanical, and regimented. The "yard" is landscaped sand and pebbles, with paver stones as path-ways although what they're protecting other than orderliness is hard to fathom.

The house itself, the main set of the film, is a square monstrosity with bug-eyed windows on the second floor, which will be used to hilarious effect later in the film. And the interior is spartan with uncomfortable metal furniture that appears never to have been sat on. The kitchen has every sort of gadget you could imagine and some for comedy of the automated variety. It is here that Hulot's sister lives with her family, her husband working in "coal derivatives" (though the company's main function seems to be the manufacture of plastic hoses) and her son chaffing against the sterile environment.

He'd much rather be with his Uncle (
Tati), who by contrast lives in a rooftop apartment from which he can watch the city. To get there, he must make his way through a most circuitous 3-dimensional maze of stairs and hallways before reaching his front door. The life he lives is unorganized without the benefit of car or clock and the open neighborly village life suits him, rather than living behind the locked gates (remote controlled, naturally) of her sister's domicile.

By this time in his career, Tati could milk comedy out of every situation embracing chaos in a clickety-clack, buttoned-up synthetic world. "Mon Oncle," with its narrow focus has all the cover-the-comedic-bases charms of Chaplin, but especially the mechanical engineering of Keaton, while maintaining it all in a limited space. And with each film, Tati was becoming more adept at integrating sound into a silent world (Hulot is always silent but still manages to get his point across to the chattering populace anyway). The plastic offices have a perpetual hum, the factory is hermetically sealed by hydraulic doors and every gadget and goo-gah has its own personality and rhythm. Hulot's neighborhood is an uneven sprawl of city-sounds, dogs barking and kids playing. Tati is starting to become a welcome habit with me as he recalls the delights of the silent stars, but also the most disciplined of the "Looney Tunes" sensibility (Isn't that ironic?)

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