Watch just about any of Tati’s movies and it is abundantly apparent that Tati had a difficult time adjusting to the modern France of the 1960s. Through the character of Hulot (particularly in Mon Oncle), he illustrates his struggles with technology—Hulot misunderstands it, fights it, even throws it away. One would think, then, that with this nostalgia would come romanticism. The awful, dirty factories and the impersonal, sterile suburbs would clash against Tati’s dreamy version of the French countryside and Paris’s cobblestone streets, right?
Tati’s love for the France he grew up with doesn’t seem to be one he views with rose-colored glasses. In Mon Oncle, we watch piles of trash get pushed about the street but never fully swept up, old brick walls crumble at the slightest touch, and dogs run loose through alleys and walkways relieving themselves on park benches. At one point, a young couple takes a stroll through a field, but there's no romance even here. The colors stay muted, and the field looks as if you'd be far more likely to stumble upon a broken bottle than a wildflower. How can scenes like these be painted by someone who seems to love them?
But that's part of Tati's artistry. He doesn't need to dress up the sets with excessive presentation; he brings it alive with sound instead. In one of the opening shots of the film, the camera follows a pack of dogs, one of which is wearing an adorable sweater. We watch him as he runs and runs until he reaches the gates of one of the most stunning, mod homes perhaps ever shown on film: Villa Arpel.
Here we meet the Arpels in the midst of their morning routine, the dutiful wife taking care of the house and helping her husband ready for work. Their son trots out to hop in the car alongside his father as his mother waves them off. A charming moment in the day for a family, but with Tati it is an utterly silent moment. There is no "Good morning, dear!" or "Have a great day!" or "I love you, honey!" There is affection on their faces, but not a word is spoken.
The camera follows Mr. Arpel as he drops his son off at school and continues on his way to work where we see that the horse-drawn junk cart, the one piled high with trash from M. Hulot's neighborhood seen earlier in the film, is dropping it off here. The purpose of this moment, especially its placing before properly contrasting it with Hulot's neighborhood, is to show a sort of symbiotic relationship between the old Paris Tati loves and the new world of its suburbia. The cart brings what would have been thrown away and forgotten to the factory, where it becomes something new.
It's only after establishing this that we follow the cart on its journey back to the alley mutts; old, dusty buildings; and, finally, sound. After nearly 10 minutes of relative silence, we hear our first bits of dialogue, and get Tati's first true sign to us that this is where life is.
Even with this, though, it's not as if we're hearing something beautiful. The sound is an oftentimes borderline inaudible cacophony. People talk over one another, they yell, they argue. The dialogue may be better described as a clamor, but it is also very much alive. This motif repeats itself throughout the film.
So often when we're with the Arpels, all we can hear is the flicking of switches, the turning of knobs, or the click-clack-click-clack of Mrs. Arpel's heels on the concrete. It isn't as if they don't speak, however. It's simply that what they speak of isn't something Tati finds important or interesting. So despite being able to hear them much more clearly than Hulot's neighbors, it's easy to tune them out.
Ultimately, while I think Tati mourns some of what's being lost as society marches forward, I don't think he abhors what replaces it. He doesn't despise the Arpels for their consumerism and their obsession with the latest trends; he simply finds them ridiculous. More importantly, he doesn't see them as without hope. One of the last shots in the film shows father and son sharing a tender moment, laughing together like rapscallions.
Tati understands, even through his longing, that the past and present are bound to one another. The solution to his ever-changing world, then, isn't trying to recapture the past, but merely to find life and human connection within it.