Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. Spine: #111 Release Date: October 28, 2014 (Part of The Complete Jacques Tati boxset) Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
When we last left Monsieur Hulot, Jacques Tati’s comic creation, he was just ending his seaside vacation in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Now, it’s back to the day-to-day as Hulot navigates the city in such a manner that his wealthy, modern sister and brother-in-law are inspired (or driven) to help him get on with his life, trying to hook him up with a job and a wife. The world wherein Hulot had a natural fit is vanishing, if it ever truly existed. When it was released in 1958 Jacques Tati’s comedy Mon Oncle picked up a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival and then broke out of France, winning an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (among other prizes). And as much as I loved Tati’s first two films, Jour de fête and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (which I reviewed here and here), Mon Oncle, which keeps its warm whimsy while also allowing a somber mood to chill the room at times, is where I really fell for Tati’s work, considering him not just the creator of some great films but the creator of some of the greatest films.
Mon Oncle begins by contrasting two worlds. The opening credits are posted on clean, crisp metal signs. In the background, heavy equipment is building up an industrial zone; the soundtrack is machinery — whether the sound of jackhammers and trucks is assaultive is, I guess, a matter of perspective.
We then move away from that to a shot of a rugged old street, the kind built before cars were fathomed so it is tight and goes where walkers want to go; the provincial, cheerful score picks up and the title of the film — which translates to “my uncle” and refers to M. Hulot — is chalked on an old brick wall.
As we’d guess, Hulot lives in the old neighborhood, at the top of a building where you can see the phases of construction over time, dependent on needs and means:
The old neighborhood is disheveled, though not messy. The modern cars, and their regimented driving patterns, that we see in the modern part of town are nowhere around. Rather, folks still rely on rickety old carts. Fences and brick walls have come down, have been rebuilt, and are coming down again. In stark contrast, we go to the modern home of Hulot’s sister, Madame Arpel. When we first meet her, she’s escorting her husband out of their sterile home, wiping down every clean surface she’s standing next to. She exerts full control over their yard: the grass plots are kept short, the shrubbery is kept trimmed, the gravel is nicely raked, and the pond is too blue. Leading up to her home is a wavy sidewalk, a basis for several great jokes, especially when Mdm. Arpel is visited by her neighbor and they both greet empty space as they sidewalk leads them first away from and then towards each other.
There is also a fish fountain that Mdm. Arpel turns on for company, which does not include Hulot.
It’s easy to poke fun at the Arpel’s home. It’s terrible. The child who lives there is miserable. He always wants to go wander around the old part of town with his uncle. Interestingly, in the supplements we hear some individuals criticize this film for denigrating “taste.” Some find it offensive that the Hulot we first met on holiday, the Hulot who never judged, is now used to criticize a contemporary style. I find this criticism misguided. Yes, as the characters interact with the Arpel home, we see that it is quite ridiculous. Yet the old world is presented for laughs as well. When Hulot first goes to his room at the top of that crazy old house, we see him enter the lower door and then he pops up in each and every window and cranny on his way up to his own space. There’s something there reminiscent of the wavy sidewalk that leads to the Arpel’s home. The difference, of course, is that the strangeness of one is the result of lives lived; the other is the conscious result of planning with the singular goal of showing off. It’s the stodgy attitude of class that’s being criticized; the architecture is merely the means. Why, if we think that the only one that’s filled with life is the old town, then we are in for a treat: when Hulot shows up at the Arpel’s the home itself seems to come to life to watch.
The tragedy is that at this point in time, the Arpel’s home is not going to maintain its life because they won’t let it. They keep it sterile. They put on airs and perform even for each other, maintaining a regimented schedule that the home is meant to facilitate. So much order and convenience can feel like a closed in pathway to . . . well, to nowhere.
Mon Oncle itself is filled to the brim with life, though, and Hulot does persist in simply accepting the world and the people for who they are. He wouldn’t dream of changing his sister: he loves taking his nephew out and he seems to love taking his nephew back home. It’s just that there is no place in this efficient world for someone as meandering as Hulot. In a great comic set piece, Hulot gets a job at his brother-in-law’s hose factory, but there’s no place for him there either.
In the end, Hulot is shipped away to another job where he cannot do much damage, seemingly oblivious to any ulterior motives. He joins others in a veritable dance to enter the airport. It’s also a dance out of time. But then there’s the final shot. After Hulot has left, Tati takes us back to Hulot’s neighborhood. We look out a window at the world, and a gauzy curtain floats over the scene, making it ethereal, suggesting a world that doesn’t quite exist the way we see it — not anymore. There’s some hope that things will right themselves in the modern world, though, because a father and son made a tiny connection out of a random event in their day. If something random can occur, perhaps things won’t be so bad.
It’s gorgeous, creative, hilarious, touching, peaceful, pleasurable — just about perfect. Perfection, as I measure it, comes with the next film: PlayTime.
Again, this disc is filled to the brim with interesting supplements (I’ll say that again and again through this set, though one disc does feel like it was given the short shrift).
We get another introduction from Terry Jones, filmed for the original Criterion DVD release over a decade ago. It runs 5 minutes, and, for me, was better than his introduction to Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, probably because he likes this film so much. He admits he was initially disappointed by the film, but that, understanding the harsher world of Mon Oncle, it not might be his favorite.
As with the prior two films, we get an alternate version of the film, the English-language version called My Uncle (though, again, in standard definition, so it doesn’t look good at all, especially if you float to it from the restored, high-definition transfer). The English-language version has some differences. First, those opening credits got their own signs, these in English. The Arpels also speak English, though most everyone else speaks French. It also runs ten minutes shorter. This version was released concurrently with the French version, and Tati made it so that people who don’t speak French could focus on the visuals rather than be distracted by the subtitles.
Coming in at 51 minutes is another documentary from the television series A Film and Its Era: Once Upon a Time . . . Mon Oncle. This is a kind of making-of, with old footage of the production, presented in the context of 1958. It features interviews with Tati himself, as well as with Pierre Etaix and David Lynch (of all people) and several others. Each talks about their experience making or enjoying the film, often going into their appreciation of the Hulot character.
The next supplement is a three-part 2005 program called Everything Is Beautiful. First, we get the 23-minute Lines, Signs, Designs, which goes into the architecture. Second, the 20-minute Fashion, about the costumes. And, third, the 9-minute Please, Have a Seat, about the furniture design. It’s not the best supplement, by a long shot, but I still enjoyed the information — and was glad they were relatively short.
The disc also comes with a visual essay by Stéphane Goudet, Everything Is Connected. For 51 minutes, Goudet walks through the style of Mon Oncle, comparing and contrasting it to the other Hulot films. I was thrilled this was 51 minutes, as Goudet’s supplements are, for my money, the best supplements of the set. His insights and ability to go deep — it’s hard to imagine others spending so much time on the films — pay off and are well worth the time.
The disc closes with the 8-minute Le Hasard de Jacques Tati, from a 1977 episode of 30 million d’amis. Hasard is Tati’s dog. a feature on the dog might seem weird (it kind of is), but dogs have a prominent role in Mon Oncle. After seeing Tati play with Hasard, we go into the dogs of Mon Oncle, which Tati rescued from a pound. When the film was done, he didn’t know what to do with them but knew he wouldn’t send them back to the pound. So, he posted an ad for them, touting their status as movie stars, and there was no trouble finding each a home.