Essentials #13: MON ONCLE (1958)

Jacque Tati’s wonderfully charming comedy may take some training for Western eyes. But stick around and you’ll discover a film of undeniable beauty and an emotional core that’s sentimental…but in a good way.

If you haven’t heard of Jacques Tati, that’s fine. He’s not a powerhouse auteur like Martin Scorsese or Alfred Hitchcock, but I’d still classify him as a very important filmmaker to check out (after all, he is French). Like all great artists, he has something to say and truly has a point-of-view. Visually, he does things very few filmmakers are able to accomplish in their work in that he creates universes.

Tati only made 6 feature films (PLAYTIME is considered his “masterpiece”) and the environments he fabricates are unlike any other I’ve seen. Watching a Tati movie is like looking at a Where’s Waldo? book (you know…those giant picture books where you have to find that hipster in the crowd).

I say this because the point of his films are rather simple but they are so impeccably crafted, visually layered, and flat-out silly, that if you let yourself go to his absurd way of seeing things, you will truly appreciate its brilliance.

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Before Fight Club, Mon Oncle was talking about us chumps.

This is one of those rare films where the story isn’t much, but it actually works. Monsieur Hulot (also played by Tati) pays weekly visits to his sister, her CEO husband, and their young son, Gerard. They live in a super trendy post-modern home (post-modern for 1958) and their lifestyle seems straight out of a Home and Garden magazine with all sorts of gadgets and cutting-edge household items. Hulot lives in an old cobble-stoned part of town that will soon be demolished for more modern-looking buildings. Gerard, like any normal kid, is absolutely bored with his materialistic parents and relishes any opportunity to spend more time with his uncle because he still knows how to have fun and hasn’t lost his emotional connection to people because of physical possessions.

Virtually plotless and devoid of dialogue, the film follows a series of comical situations Hulot gets into. It’s observation humor really. Not the Jerry Seinfeld “What’s the deal with airplane peanuts?” kind, but the type of humor you might notice sitting on a park bench on a Sunday afternoon. That’s essentially what his films are. People watching.

But underneath the laughs, the message is pretty sentimental. In fact, the ending almost brings me to tears how sad it is. And it’s all visual too. No need to tell the audience what to feel. Tati shows it.

That’s great cinema.

There are three major things to learn from Tati technically.

  1. How to shoot physical comedy
  2. How to block actors and create action in the frame
  3. Timing

Tati is full-frame director, meaning there is always something going on in the foreground and the background. The master shots he employs force the viewer to pick and choose what they want to look at. And there’s a lot. The framing is so meticulous that one can get lost staring at each shot and noticing all the details. Everyone is choreographed on their marks like a cinematic ballet. It’s very pleasing to the eyes naturally when things are shot and blocked correctly. Comedy is all about timing and reactions and this is a masterclass.

When I say this movie might need “training for Western eyes,” I mean how 99% of us (including myself) have gnat-like attention spans that require constant visual stimulation (quick montages, fast camera movement, editing, etc.). Therefore, it’s easy to call this movie boring or hard to sit through since there isn’t a variety of cinematic tricks in his movies. When I first saw LES VACANCES de MONSIEUR HULOT (another charming film I recommend), I was taken aback by its simplicity and leisurely pace. That’s the point. He wants to draw you into his world as the observer.

Surprisingly, I would say his work could not be more culturally relevant today as his films poke fun at the materialism and consumerists (take that FIGHT CLUB!), and how that lifestyle leaves relationships superficial and bereft of genuine human connection. But at the heart of his films, there is always a nostalgia and a longing for simplicity.

Before Mr. Bean or Cosmo Kramer, there was Monsieur Hulot. Tati’s silent and innocuous character is a kind of cinema treasure. He lumbers along this movie (and the others) seemingly oblivious to the outside world and the characters he meets. He’s the kind of person who’s never had a bad day in their life, exuding positivity without having to say a word.

I think the reason why he’s so awkward expresses how Tati feels about the modern world [per 1958]. He must have felt uneasy with how fast the world was changing and the absurdity of new inventions we don’t really need. The message is simple: “Life’s short. Spend time with your loved ones. Go out more and appreciate the world. Stop caring about buying things in order to impress the people because they wouldn’t even care about us anyway.”

Sounds familiar, huh? I get annoyed when I hear people say, “Man, I wish we lived in a different decade. It seemed like the old days were better times…back when music was good and people cared about each other…blah blah blah;” it’s amusing to think that the criticisms we have about our culture today-materialism, consumerism, and the self-importance of the individual-were already discussed topics back in the 1950s.

Hm…I wonder what kind of film Jacques Tati would make if he knew about selfies and social media. Just a thought.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

  • If you’re a fan of this movie and his other films, check out THE ILLUSIONIST (2010)which is an animated film based on an unproduced script of Tati
  • I love the score for this film. It’s so pleasant and…french.
  • Paul Thomas Anderson partly based the style of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE on Tati’s work. Now I know where Barry Egan got his dance moves…
  • Watch this movie and appreciate the physical comedy; it’s so brilliant and it’s a lost art
  • Tati’s work is a fine lesson on using sound and silence here, ladies and germs
  • The opening credits in this film. Genius.
  • Ironically, he pokes fun at the emptiness of the mid-century modern home, but looking back at it from the present time, it’s reversed! Those style of houses have become classics that any homeowner would want. I do.

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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Filmmaker | Photographer | MatthewOquendo.com

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