Vintage Movies: “Mon Oncle”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost plans to share some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’30s through the ’70s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, will appear every Friday.

Mon Oncle (1958, in French with English subtitles, 116 minutes)

Anyone who recently fell under the spell of the charismatic, Oscar-nominated animated feature The Illusionist should spend a night with director Jacques Tati’s wonderful Oscar-winning French comedy Mon Oncle. A tall, middle-aged man with a stiff-legged gait, dressed in a thigh-length raincoat, rumpled hat and trousers that don’t quite reach his ankles, played by Tati himself, is the main character in both films. He’s Monsieur Hulot, back for a second appearance in Mon Oncle (in color this time) after 1953’s black-and-white gem Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, a delightful send-up of summer days at the beach. Always puffing on a pipe with a bemused smile for anything that smacks of post-World War II modernism, Hulot, like British composer Ray Davies, has little use for the modern world. And Mon Oncle supplies him with plenty of easy targets.

Hulot’s brother-in-law, Charles Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), manages a plastic-hose factory (called Plastac) and is the proud owner of a thoroughly sterile, mid-century modern home, painted concrete grey and full of labor-saving devices. Two large porthole-like, front-window eyes stare blankly at the remote-control-operated garage door. Arpel’s wife (Adrienne Servantie) greets guests by traipsing up a ludicrous, serpentine, concrete walkway that winds through a “garden” composed mostly of painted gravel. Whenever someone arrives (unless, of course, it’s only the plumber or a delivery man), she switches on a preposterous, upright, aluminum-fish fountain that spouts water heaven-ward.

Gerard (Alain Becort), Hulot’s nephew, dislikes his home and micro-managed lifestyle, but dearly loves his uncle, who picks him up at a school called Ecole and watches as the neighborhood kids whistle at passers-by next to a lamp post until one of them is distracted enough to walk into it. The Arpels are intent on getting Hulot a job anywhere, even in Arpel’s factory. But Hulot, a character who draws heavily on the carefree lifestyle of Stan Laurel, seems content in his cheery upstairs flat, a place where he can adjust a front window to reflect sunshine onto a nearby caged canary to provide music anytime he likes. A pack of carefree dogs roams throughout Hulot’s bustling neighborhood, symbolizing a lifestyle doomed to change.

Hulot has practically no dialog in the picture. Tati once worked in the theater as a mime, and his greatest contribution to film may be to permanently erase from memory the creaky stereotype of the French pantomime artist. There’s no one here with a face painted white, dressed in a black-and-white striped jersey and a beret trying to portray a man walking against the wind, or someone trapped in a glass phone booth. There’s only Tati as the loveable uncle you may have been lucky enough to have in your own family.