‘Mon Oncle’ – M. Hulot versus the modern world on Max and Criterion Channel

Jacques Tati is a treasure of French cinema and his signature character is Monsieur Hulot, a loping bachelor and live action caricature with lanky frame under a shapeless trench coat and Tyrolian hat with a trademark pipe jutting out of his angular face.

Mon Oncle (France, 1958), the second of Tati’s Hulot comedies (after the sweetly droll Mr. Hulot’s Holiday), drops the gangly bachelor into his upwardly mobile brother-in-law’s (Jean-Pierre Zola) world of empty consumerism, social status, and modern household gadgets that take on a life of their own.

The distracted gentleman bachelor himself (and Hulot is always a gentleman) resides in a rooftop doll house of a cottage in a sleepy, pleasantly old-fashioned quarter of Paris, where cobblestone streets and open air markets are still the order of the day. The contrast of sensibilities is not lost on Hulot’s young nephew, who delights in his befuddled uncle’s frantic battles with the elaborate gadgets of his parent’s modern home.

The films of Jacques Tati have been compared to the work of Chaplin and Keaton, and Tati’s loping, pipe smoking M. Hulot does indeed share both Keaton’s gangly physicality and polite, gentlemanly dissonance with the world and Chaplin’s man-out-of-time war with modern mechanics. But Tati also creates a unique little world around his awkward beanpole of a bachelor, a pocket of silent film comedy and pantomime set-pieces where the entire cast become vivid characters with their own quirks and personalities

Tati’s style is effortless as he conducts a complex comic symphonies of sight gags with elegant ease and his gangly performance is deceptively deft and graceful. It’s almost a contemporary, color silent movie where dialogue becomes yet another sound effect. For all the satiric jabs at consumer culture and status-conscious manner, however, Tati’s direction is nothing if not considerate and appreciative of the foibles of all of his characters. The sweetness and innocence of Hulot rubs off on the world around him.

It won the Jury Prize at Cannes and the Academy Award for best foreign film.

Tati next appearance as M. Hulot was his masterpiece: Playtime.

In French with English subtitles

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Complete Jacques Tati (Jour de fête/Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday/Mon oncle/PlayTime/Trafic/Parade) (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
The Complete Jacques Tati (Jour de fête/Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday/Mon oncle/PlayTime/Trafic/Parade) (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
Mon Oncle (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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