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We Can’t Believe You Haven’t Seen…Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle
Image courtesy of Stephen Coles via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED)

In a bid to match his excitement for this film, I’m going to shamelessly use the assertive, if enigmatic, opening phrase of Roger Ebert’s review of Mon Oncle (or, "My Uncle") as a starting point for my discussion on Tati’s 1958 classic: ‘Jacques Tati,’ Ebert writes, ‘is the great philosophical tinkerer of comedy.’ What does it mean to be “philosophical” as a filmmaker? One could easily find answers in the theories of Alexandre Astruc or Gilles Deleuze, in ideas of film as a grammatical language, rather than the object towards which semiological arguments are thrown. But what of a ‘tinkerer of comedy’? Anyone with knowledge of Deleuze would certainly struggle to see the funny side of his work, but aren’t the discursive elements then lost when Tati cracks a joke? The answer is vehemently in the negative: exploring the mundanity-veering-on-stupidity of quotidian life, laughing at his characters is laughing at ourselves, the self-reflexive growing out of the comedic. No more vividly does this ‘philosophical tinkering’ shine than in Mon Oncle.

The film follows Monsieur Hulot, the slapstick character at the centre of all of Tati’s major films, this time at his flat in a city’s Old Quarter, where he mingles with the market stallers and street sweeps among the dusty cafés and bars. He is the eponymous uncle, the subject of the film’s title being Gérard, a boy who lives with his parents on the other, comedically futuristic side of town. The hyper-hygienic neighbourhood of grey buildings, confusing kitchen appliances and conspicuous fish fountains is a bore for Gérard, who regularly finds solace with his uncle and the yellowish, cracked brickwork and stray dogs of the Old Quarter, a place with much more character and wholesome imperfection than the standardised living in the city.

If it isn’t evident from my description, world-building is at the forefront of Tati’s film. The city feels much like a precursor to “Tativille,” the enormous set that Tati would go on to build on the outskirts of Paris for his 1967 film Playtime, the follow-up to Mon Oncle and the other contender for his most successful film. One argument for the superiority of Mon Oncle is that it only took ₣250k to make (while Playtime took ₣17m), nevertheless winning both an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, as well as making it onto Cahiers Top 10 films of its 1958.

It’s important to note then which might come as a surprise, that what little there is in the way of a narrative is nothing new. The film is broken up into small comedy sketches, perhaps being the source of the quotidian feeling of the film; Hulot doesn’t try to convince his sister that the old way of life is better, and vice-versa; the comedic conflict remains unresolved as the film closes. And yet, the film has a potent, transitory quality. 

Mon Oncle came at a time in France where culture post-WWII was in desperate need of redefinition, the youth were taking over, and the morale of wartime victory was motivating rapid innovation. Of the effect this had on the blooming generation, Antoine de Baecque identifies ‘two different types of evolution dovetailed here: the acceleration of history, on the one hand, polarised people’s outlook towards the future; and demographic expansion on the other hand accentuated the weight of youth in the overall age balance’ (the latter of which is very potent in the incessant misdemeanours of Gérard and his schoolmates). The central conflict that the film stages is comedically hyperbolic, but is nonetheless a caricature of the real changes happening in France at the time. Indeed, if we may argue that the film is told, as the title suggests, from Gérard’s maturing perspective on the world, then we may see the conflicts in the film as a snapshot of a culture in motion (or more precisely, in revolution).

But this reading can’t be left there; where would we be in society if we assumed that every new idea or way of life was better purely because of its novelty? The new city in Mon Oncle is mundane; it lacks colour, character, and any sense of sensory depth. The Old Quarter has these elements, but they can also grow tedious, such as the street sweeper, whose talkative streak means he never quite gets to sweeping anything, leaving the streets dirty. The city is exemplary of order and structure, but in doing so strips away any essence of life, reducing the conversations between Gérard’s mother and their neighbour to painful pleasantries and boasting.

For those who haven’t yet seen the film—a group to which, dear reader, I shall assume you subscribe—it must be hard to imagine where the comedy in all this comes in, or at least, where the “philosophical” comedy comes in if not staging gags purely at the expense of the characters. Yes, the foil of the worldly Old Quarter and, as a Variety reviewer called it, the ‘antiseptic’ city is amusing. Still, it isn’t explicitly because of the fish fountains or quirky kitchen appliances that we laugh—it’s the fact that people created them out of curiosity and a need to modernise, solidified by their absurdly excited reactions to a new garage sensor, or keeping everything shiny and clean. It is this curiosity, this fundamental human emotion, that makes the Old Quarter and the ‘antiseptic’ city a lot more alike than it might initially seem; the comedy from Hulot at the centre of the film (the closest we get to a narrative) sparks almost exclusively from an innocent if nosy curiosity, particularly in his perpetual conflict with the different gadgets in the “Plastac” factory where Gérard’s father works. And the same goes for the city-dwellers: every time Gérard’s mother has to turn the fountain on and off for guests, or when the factor is overrun by mysterious tubing, we laugh because they are caricatured versions of all those who try to innovate in the real world, putting themselves forth in the face of inevitable failure in the name of modernity.

Ebert finishes his review with an unsurprisingly loft quote from Jean-Luc Godard: ‘Cinema is not the station. Cinema is the train.’ However, how this materialises in Mon Oncle, indeed in many of Tati’s films, is notably different from his contemporaries, Godard included. While the Cahiers filmmakers were ardently taking advantage of (and in a certain sense creating) the movement necessary to modernise France, Tati’s cinema lends itself to a more ambivalent approach, forcing us to remember that change always has an origin. It is never a given that things will change; it always comes out of a curiosity for a different way of life. And, of course, this a system of trial and error, with comedic potential springing from these errors and their inevitability.

So, at last, we have found the source of what a “philosophical tinkerer of comedy” might be, and how this works to make Mon Oncle a film for the ages. Even if you find through watching this film that the “tinkering” is to no avail, to no result of solace in a rapidly changing world, just turn to Wes Anderson or Greta Gerwig, or any of the other numerous filmmakers who have been inspired by Tati—the uncle, if you will, of modern European cinema.


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