As much as I love Mon Oncle, it wasn’t the first Tati film I saw; Chicago’s 70mm Film Festival played Tati’s magnum opus Playtime in 2013. But that wasn’t my introduction, either. Instead, in 2010 I saw the followup to Sylvain Chomet’s acclaimed debut The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist. It was another animated feature, but what I didn’t know at the time was that it was based on an unproduced script written by Jacques Tati. It ranked among my favorite films of the year, and I thought about it endlessly. When I saw Playtime, recognition clicked into place. The pipe, the sloping chin, the round nose—I knew that face. Even more, though, I recognized that feeling of joy while I watched it.
The only way I know how to explain my love of Tati is to say that I have certainly needed him as of late. The news has been relentless and punishing and all-consuming, forcing my efforts to counteract it into overdrive through doing more and more, which leaves me exhausted even before any of the regular, everyday commitments even come into play. But rewatching Mon Oncle (1958) this past week? That was a two-hour-long vacation.
Watching Mon Oncle I wondered, is it possible to feel your entire body smile? To grin from one end of your being to another, the hairs on your head fluttering with glee, warmth spreading out from your chest down to the tips of your toes? This is how a Tati movie makes me feel. Tati asks comparatively little of his audiences. He requires your attention, but your reward is pure delight.
Mon Oncle is the second film to feature Tati’s most famous character: Monsieur Hulot, played by none other than Tati himself. A skilled mime, Tati’s Hulot is an unassuming man made instantly recognizable by his trench coat, pipe, and long, awkward gait. In Mon Oncle, Hulot butts heads with the rapidly modernizing world around him (a recurring theme in much of Tati’s work), baffled by his sister’s ultra modern home in the suburbs, preferring his own dilapidated section of Paris instead. However, he regularly visits in order to whisk away his young nephew for a series of comedic jaunts around town.
The plot may seem thin, but that’s because in a Tati film the plot isn’t really the point. The set pieces and Tati’s carefully orchestrated shenanigans are the point. Hulot’s Chaplin-esque interactions with the world around him are as elegantly choreographed as a ballet, only instead of pirouettes we have captivating sight gags where even the very buildings themselves seem to come to life.
And that’s what’s so striking about Tati’s work: absolutely everything on screen, from the dogs running in the street to the trash littering the gutter feels fully and completely alive. Not just alive, either, but wondrous or charming. Wes Anderson works to achieve similar effects, but his candy-colored sets are full of beauty that’s been artfully and obsessively stylized. Wes Anderson has it easy. Even Hulot’s lively apartment building is a block of grey and tan, and yet Tati draws the beauty out of it anyway. The beauty in his world is lived in.
And part of Tati’s world is France. Tati’s France, Tati’s Paris, aren’t idealized or glamorized. There are factories and suburbs and traffic and crowds, and yet the love he has for these places is obvious. He doesn’t need France to be perfect to love it. It’s home. Which means he can criticize it, but he does so with the love of an older brother. It’s his to pick on all he wants—just don’t try to take a swing at it yourself.
Where does all of this leave us with Mon Oncle? Well, it’s a musing on modernization. It’s both clearly personal for Tati and universal. It’s art. And it will leave you smiling.
Here's what we'll have this week:
- Related Review of Tati-scripted animated feature The Illusionist
- On Tati's sense of realism in a heightened world
- In Context on the architecture of the world
- And more!