We first met Mr. Hulot on a holiday, at a rundown seaside resort hotel, a loner but hardly a recluse. Immensely likable, eager to turn all living creatures into his loving friends (and usually successful at it): Why would such a charming, appealing fellow go off on a holiday by himself, one might ask. Has he no companions of the bosom, no relatives?
Yes, he has relatives, and from their antics in Mon oncle, our second rendezvous with the enchanting Hulot, we discover reason enough for his preference for solitary vacations. His sister is Mme. Arpel, who is married to a dyspeptic plastics tycoon, and whose greatest joy in life is the tidy, superlatively mechanized home her husband’s affluence has bought for her. Clickety-clack she goes, on her stiletto heels along the concrete garden stepping-stones. The garden’s proud centerpiece is a fountain in the shape of a fish, which gurgles into action when visitors arrive. Indoors there are other sources of pride, including a staggeringly overdesigned automated kitchen.
There is also a son, Gerard, and he is a cause for concern: He does not respect his father’s car. And then there is her brother, Hulot, and he, too, is a cause for concern. So convinced are the Arpels in the rightness of their push-button lifestyle that they can only look upon Hulot as a classic deprivation case: no job, no wife, a yawning social chasm that demands to be filled.
To this end, Arpel arranges a job for Hulot in his plastics factory; Mme. Arpel attempts a match between her brother and her next door neighbor (whose prize possessions, by the way, consist of a garden and a garden tractor, both exactly the same size). Both projects end hilariously, disastrously. Hulot snoozes on the job as a huge plastic extrusion machine entrusted to his care runs endlessly amok. A garden party runs similarly off-track, as the spouting fish-fountain spews its aqueous terror across the Arpels’ front yard.
It would be simple enough to pigeonhole Mon oncle as another in a long list of simple-minded essays on the matter of nature vs. the machine; this marvelously observant, richly detailed film goes far deeper. For all their inane obsessions with consumerism run rampant, the Arpels are not unlikable; they are charming in their own way, as Penelope Gilliatt put it, “partly because they treat themselves as if they were machines and partly because they have lost the defining sense of relative importances . . . ” Their tragedy is their frustration in not, at least so far, having passed their values on to their young son. In this process, they quite rightly see Hulot, whom the boy adores, as their enemy. Still the film is called Mon oncle, and the loving, joshing, easygoing relationship between the boy and his untamable, rumpled uncle lies at the movie’s beautiful, radiant center. In the ongoing counterpoint between the uncle’ s sunlit, disorganized way of life and the Arpels’ existence under the bright fluorescences, there is no question as to where the tune truly lies. One can hope for the best possible happy ending, that Gerard will in time escape past the electronic gates and discover the better, purer life in a high garret in a run-down Paris neighborhood, with neighbors that smile and canaries that sing and bakeries that produce handmade, misshapen masterpieces.
There is, in fact, a kind of happy ending; Hulot has been packed off to yet another new job in the provinces (which he is bound to bollix in due time). Gerard and his father, returning from seeing him off, stumble by accident into a replay of a game that the boy and his uncle had once invented. There is a tense moment, then a moment of high hilarity—perhaps the first time that father and son had ever laughed together. It becomes also, therefore, a moment of hope.
Released in 1958 and awarded the Best Foreign Film Oscar the following year, Mon oncle has been the most honored and most written about of all Tati’s sadly small list of comic masterpieces. There is a quality here that, more than with any others of Tati’s oeuvre, seems to approach a state of classical music. As with all four of the Hulot films—as, for that matter, in a Mozart symphony—it charms first by its fresh simplicity and only later by the depth and richness of its technique.
It’s only later, for example, that you realize the richness of the sound structure, the way all of the dialogue—from Arpel’s fulminating oratory down to Hulot’s subverbal near-silences—becomes a second kind of music to blend with the marvelous, manipulative richness of the music itself, the score of Franck Barcellini and Alain Romans that mingles sweet, light jazz and electronic sounds to underline the counterpoint between the diverse lifestyles of Hulot and the Arpels. It’s only later, too, that you come to recognize Mon oncle‘s exquisite, immaculate structuring, the bits of visual thematic material that recur (as in a Mozart symphony) to give the film its sense of sublime movement. As with Mozart, the humor runs deep and true; as with Mozart, also, there isn’t a wasted note.