Happy Birthday, “Mon Oncle”
My grandfather had beautiful, intelligent eyes, a pair of big lips, and a boxer’s nose. Long before I saw Breathless (1960), my mother would tell me that he looked like Jean-Paul Belmondo. In my child’s mind, that sounded like a bullfighter’s name, and for a while the two images became one: my grandpa swirling elegantly between bulls, his eyes and hands too gentle to harm any of them. He started a company that sold vacuum pumps with his two brothers after World War II, and he spent years flying from one country to another, powering through jet lags and language barriers with great stamina and a thick Venetian accent. I wish I could say we spent a lot of time together, but I’d be lying: work trips often kept him abroad, and by the time his health betrayed him, he’d be held captive in frighteningly far away places that I was never allowed in. But this much I recall: anytime he’d come back from his trips, he’d drop his suitcase and drive to our house. He’d have me sit next to him, pull out a world atlas, and trace with his finger on the map, naming places I’d never heard of, recounting adventures so incredible that I felt they belonged to the films I started to binge-watch with a precocious and Pantagruelian appetite.
This is an article about a film that brought back to life those moments, long after I had stupidly tried to bury them to numb the emptiness I felt when he passed away. This is an article written by a soon-to-be 28-year-old, who’s yet to figure out whether his understanding of the world first came from those films or his grandpa’s stories. This is an article about Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle.
For those unfamiliar with Tati’s 1958 masterwork, Mon Oncle is, at its core, the story of a friendship between a boy and his uncle. The boy is Gérard (Alain Bécourt), a rambunctious nine-year-old locked in a Le Corbusier-inspired, ultra-modern, ultra-chic French neighborhood with his parents, Monsieur Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), a plastic hose factory manager, and Madame Arpel (Adrienne Servantie), a housewife in charge of the family villa, a geometric nightmare where everything runs automatically — and lifelessly. The uncle is Monsieur Hulot, the iconic character Tati had already played to great acclaim in his 1953 hit Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, an eccentrically charming pipe-smoker living in the languid and slow-paced banlieue located right behind Gérard’s industrial universe. They are the antipodes of a bifurcated city that symbolically embodies France’s 1950s modernist urges and the relics of its bucolic cafés and bistros — universes populated by their own distinct breed of people: workaholic and “zombified” bourgeois in the Arpel’s industrialist dystopia; chatty and lively hobos in Hulot’s wonderland.
So what happens in Mon Oncle? Admittedly, not much: Tati follows his alter ego as he gets hired by Monsieur Arpel, fails to perform, and is finally sent to another factory. Yet calling Tati’s work plot-thin feels like a disservice. At a time when quieter pleasures are often neglected for the sake of faster, louder, action-packed entertainment, Mon Oncle is delightfully subversive.
The story is made up of incidents and gags, none of which would probably count as a plot point, per se. The whole plot is resolutely low stakes, its narrative gentle. Tati’s humor works through visuals more than words, so much so that Mon Oncle feels like a silent film. I am certainly not the first to draw parallels between Hulot and Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, and I surely won’t be the last in praising Tati as one of the final great silent comedians. For a feature centered on the relationship between a small boy and his uncle, the fact that this emerges so delicately without Hulot ever actually saying anything to Gérard speaks volumes about Tati’s sheer genius as writer and actor. To be sure, humans do speak in Mon Oncle, but their voices are muffled by the buzzing of automated kitchens, while humor lies in the details — oftentimes stirred up by the rigid architecture constraining Hulot and co.
The garden inside Villa Arpel has a winding path to the door, which lends itself to a wonderfully wicked shot of Madame Arpel and an acquaintance effusively greeting each other while walking in opposite directions. Out by the patio, a Brutalist fish-like fountain squirts water for the benefit of the affluent neighbors — but the fish is never turned on for the unworthy: relatives, maids, or tradesmen. When a garden party at the villa is thrown to arrange for a matchmaking rendezvous between Hulot and a neighbor, the guests engage in cringe-worthy chitchat until Tati proceeds to bring the whole lunch to an epic and comedic catastrophe.
“What my brother needs is a goal,” Madame Arpel pitifully remarks while cajoling her husband into hiring the brother-in-law. Nothing could be farther from the truth. True, Hulot has no job, but his routine unfolds through an elaborate series of small, heartfelt gestures. He spends his days riding his bike, charming the neighbors, smoking a pipe, and luring canaries to sing. He takes on quixotic battles against the futuristic world of robotic homes and sterile factories, exposing its awkwardness and garish materialism. And, of course, he’s out to save his nephew from a dreadfully dull childhood. When the Arpels can’t pick up Gérard from school, Uncle Hulot happily covers the shift, showing up on his old bike and riding the nephew back to the banlieue for more gags and endless fun.
I saw Mon Oncle for the first time a couple of years ago, and I’ve seen it on a few more occasions since then. Anytime I watch it with other people I find myself chuckling at Hulot’s gentle slapstick, the Chaplin-esque gags inside Villa Arpel, but this is by far my favorite scene: the moment Gérard hops on his uncle’s bike, and the two ride away. Hulot is a key to a world the little boy has no access to — a noisy and disorderly universe filled with street vendors, ramshackle buildings, and stray dogs that far exceeds the confining tin-gray cage the Arpels have locked their child in. It is a world of summery dawn lights, which Jean Bourgoin’s cinematography contrasts with the colder hues of the Arpels’ house, and to which the upbeat score by Franck Barcellini and Alain Romans add a circus-like aura. In this world, Gérard can roam around with friends, prank the unbeknownst adults around him, get muddy, run around and get into trouble. It is only here, far from the oppressive and absurd formalisms governing Villa Arpel, that Gérard can truly be a kid.
Mon Oncle turns 60 this year. I don’t think my grandfather ever saw it — I never asked, at least. He passed away a few weeks before I turned 15, before we could ever see a single film together. Yet anytime I lock myself inside a cinema, my memory jolts back to the peacefulness that I’d feel next to him, eyes glued to the atlas, ears straining to hear his stories. I recall the outrageously huge world that he’d spent his life exploring, the way it would pop up through his stories and would linger above us like a daring and defiant presence. And I remember feeling invincible as I sat next to him, firmly convinced in my own mind that nothing bad would happen to us.
I said Mon Oncle reminds me of my grandfather. I said it because sometimes I like to think the ecstatic look that congeals on Gérard’s face as he sits on the backseat of his uncle’s bike was the same I’d give my grandpa as he’d recount his adventures around the world. Because sometimes I like to think Monsieur Hulot was to Gérard what my grandpa was to me — a guide in a universe that I’d never thought I’d have the guts to explore, and once I saw it through him, I couldn’t stay away from.