Monsieur Hulot vs. The Modern World

In 1958 the world was changing rapidly. The post war economic boom had produced new industries and lots of new jobs. Consumer confidence was high and many families were finally able to afford their own home and purchase a car. In the art and design world modernism was transforming household objects into works of art. Furniture, electronics and home appliances began to reflect a new found prosperity that promised optimum function, affordability and were pleasing to the eye. Brazil gave birth to Bossa Nova and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was established in the United States. Terms like “pop art” and “Aerospace” entered our lexicon and Belgium played host to Expo 58.

Expo 58 was the first major World’s Fair held after WW2. It billed itself as the “First World’s Fair of the Atomic Age” and promoted “Peace among all the nations, faith in progress, both technical and scientific and, finally, an optimistic vision of the future of a modern, new, super-technological world for a better life for mankind.” During the fair Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) was screened for a crowd that included the French film critics Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut who awarded it with the top-prize. The film undoubtedly inspired both men who would go on to become two of France’s most influential filmmakers. Ford Motors took home a Gold Medal of Elegance for their automobiles and Composer Edgard Varèse (often referred to as the “father of electronic music”) debuted his groundbreaking musical composition Poème électronique. Over 40 million people attended the 1958 World’s Fair in Belgium including US President Dwight Eisenhower, Walt Disney, Prince Renier and Princess Grace Kelly along with many other lovely actresses such as Sophia Loren, Romy Schneider and Audrey Hepburn. Expo 58 received unparalleled international attention from the press and sparked the imaginations of people around the world. The event ushered in a modern approach to living that was celebrated by the media and promised a hopeful future filled with technological advances that would make our lives better and easier to manage. Of course anything new tends to generate some healthy fear and doubt that is both warranted and unwarranted. Not everyone was won over by the future that Expo 58 promised and one of these pessimists was the much beloved French director, actor and writer Jacques Tati.

Images from the 1958 World’s Fair (Expo 58) held in Belgium.

I don’t know if Jacques Tati actually attended the 1958 World’s Fair but he undoubtedly heard about it. His 1958 film Mon Oncle (“My Uncle”) seems like a direct response to Expo 58 beginning with how the impressive sound stage was built to the actual themes present in the final film. Mon Oncle could be seen as a funny, stylish and utterly charming rebuttal to everything Expo 58 celebrated.

This classic French comedy tells the story of Monsieur Hulot (played by Jacques Tati), the unconventional and easy-going uncle of a young boy named Gérard (Alain Bécourt) who obviously loves and admires his uncle. Monsieur Hulot is perplexed by the advances of the Atomic Age and the film finds plenty of slapstick style humor and laughs in the way that Hulot interacts with the modern world. When Monsieur Hulot visits his sister’s stylish new home he’s baffled by her kitchen appliances and finds her modern furniture increasingly uncomfortable. Hulot’s sister (Adrienne Servantie) is a sweet-natured control freak who is obsessed with cleaning and keeping up appearances. She worries about her carefree sibling and enlists her husband’s help to try and get Hulot a proper job and a wife. Naturally nothing goes exactly as planned but the fun is in watching how this delightful family interacts and finds a way to live with one another as the ever-encroaching future approaches.

The film contains very little dialogue and most of the story it tells is told through hilarious site gags and the wonderfully expressive faces of every cast member. I’m extremely fond of French comedy for the simple reason that it can appeal to just about anyone and everyone no matter what their language happens to be. Mon Oncle is undoubtedly one of the best French comedies ever produced and possibly Jacques Tati’s greatest achievement.

Although it’s hard to believe, the modern home featured in Mon Oncle was designed and created by Tati’s creative partner Jacques Lagrange on the set of a French film studio. Much like the architectural wonders that debuted at the 1958 World’s Fair, Jacques Lagrange created an incredible modern home for the films’ characters to inhabit that was torn down after production had ended. I happen to love modern design and I would happily take up residence in Jacques Lagrange’s colorful creation, but the house he constructed doesn’t appeal to everyone. Even though I greatly admire modern design and appreciate it’s advances I can still find a lot to laugh about in Mon Oncle.

Images from Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958)

The humor is never harsh in Tati’s film and it’s easy to understand why the director, writer and star may have worried about the imposing complexity of the modern world. As we watch beautiful but war damaged old buildings being torn down and replaced by shiny new structures; it’s impossible to not feel some sadness and a sense of nostalgia for the past. Technology has helped us advance in many areas but in some ways the things that were designed to make our lives easier and better such as home computers, televisions, cars and phones, have only managed to clutter our lives. We’re often distracted by needless and increasingly expensive luxuries that are hard to maintain. Mon Oncle is a gentle reminder that new isn’t always better and if you happen to own a modern home you should definitely personalize your living space and make it more comfortable and inviting. Monsieur Hulot’s sister seems to think modern living involves an uncluttered and organized life framed by stark white artless walls and photo free tabletops. But the lifeless home she’s maintaining only builds resentment in her young son. Thankfully he’s got his uncle around to remind him to laugh and enjoy the simple pleasures in life like a bike ride and a good hot dog.

If you’re looking for an entertaining film that could appeal to the whole family, I highly recommend considering the delightful French comedy Mon Oncle. Its good nature, family friendly humor and pleasing aesthetics would make a wonderful introduction to French cinema. The film would also make a great double feature with Rene Clair’s silent 1931 French film A Nous la Liberte (“Freedom for Us”), which satirizes the onset of the industrial revolution. Both Mon Oncle and A Nous la Liberte occasionally play on TCM and are currently available for instant viewing on Netflix.

14 Responses Monsieur Hulot vs. The Modern World
Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : July 15, 2010 7:47 pm

Lovely and interesting article.

“Mon oncle” is a charmer from beginning to end with a most delightful score. My favourite gag is probably the boys tricking folks into bumping into the lamppost (I’m a step on a rake gal from way back) and, for some reason, the last scene makes me a little weepy even as I smile.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : July 15, 2010 7:47 pm

Lovely and interesting article.

“Mon oncle” is a charmer from beginning to end with a most delightful score. My favourite gag is probably the boys tricking folks into bumping into the lamppost (I’m a step on a rake gal from way back) and, for some reason, the last scene makes me a little weepy even as I smile.

Posted By Matt Hinrichs : July 15, 2010 8:54 pm

At the very least, somebody should put the fish fountain back in production!

Posted By Matt Hinrichs : July 15, 2010 8:54 pm

At the very least, somebody should put the fish fountain back in production!

Posted By Dan North : July 16, 2010 5:31 am

Very interesting. I’m not sure about the connection to expo ’58, since Tati’s sets for Mon Oncle were already built by 1956 – there’s an affinity, if not a direct influence.

A lot of the humour is conveyed through sound – the grating noises of the fish fountain, the door buzzer, high heels clicking perilously on concrete tiles. That’s partly what makes the scenes in the Lagrange house seem uncomfortable and unliveable.

Tati’s response to modern consumer society was definitely an abiding theme particularly in his later work, and reaches an epic climax in 1967′s Playtime, which is also highly recommended, though more challenging if you’re not prepared for the minutiae of his sight gags:

http://drnorth.wordpress.com/2008/11/12/jacques-tatis-playtime-modern-life-is-noisy/

Posted By Dan North : July 16, 2010 5:31 am

Very interesting. I’m not sure about the connection to expo ’58, since Tati’s sets for Mon Oncle were already built by 1956 – there’s an affinity, if not a direct influence.

A lot of the humour is conveyed through sound – the grating noises of the fish fountain, the door buzzer, high heels clicking perilously on concrete tiles. That’s partly what makes the scenes in the Lagrange house seem uncomfortable and unliveable.

Tati’s response to modern consumer society was definitely an abiding theme particularly in his later work, and reaches an epic climax in 1967′s Playtime, which is also highly recommended, though more challenging if you’re not prepared for the minutiae of his sight gags:

http://drnorth.wordpress.com/2008/11/12/jacques-tatis-playtime-modern-life-is-noisy/

Posted By David Ehrenstein : July 16, 2010 12:38 pm

My favoirte bit is when Monsiuer et madame Arpel sppear in the windows of their house, making it look like a face with two enormous eyes.

Tati’s charm proceeds from the fact that he never attacks the modern world. He simply joshes it. There are no villains in his film. Only people in all their eccentricity.

Posted By David Ehrenstein : July 16, 2010 12:38 pm

My favoirte bit is when Monsiuer et madame Arpel sppear in the windows of their house, making it look like a face with two enormous eyes.

Tati’s charm proceeds from the fact that he never attacks the modern world. He simply joshes it. There are no villains in his film. Only people in all their eccentricity.

Posted By Jenni : July 16, 2010 4:14 pm

I tried to watch Mon Oncle a couple of years ago, I need to seek it out and try it again. I did enjoy Mr. Hulot’s Vacation, which didn’t have much dialogue either, and it was easy to follow the actions of Mr. Hulot’s bumbling antics at a resort. I would highly recommend the French film, The Red Balloon, for family entertainment. My youngest watched it with me when he was 5 and he still talks about that film! It really touched him.

Posted By Jenni : July 16, 2010 4:14 pm

I tried to watch Mon Oncle a couple of years ago, I need to seek it out and try it again. I did enjoy Mr. Hulot’s Vacation, which didn’t have much dialogue either, and it was easy to follow the actions of Mr. Hulot’s bumbling antics at a resort. I would highly recommend the French film, The Red Balloon, for family entertainment. My youngest watched it with me when he was 5 and he still talks about that film! It really touched him.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 16, 2010 4:38 pm

Patricia – Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. The last scene is very touching. I loved how it ended on a sentimental note without begging the audience to shed a tear. In general, I really like Tati’s subtlety. Unlike so many modern directors working today, he doesn’t seem to have the need to hammer his audience over the head with his ideas.

Matt – Thanks for stopping by! And I couldn’t agree more. I’d like that fish fountain in my own backyard.

Dan – Thanks for sharing your thoughts & insights on the film. By comparing Expo 58 & Mon Oncle I hope readers understand that I was merely pointing out how the film could seen as a response to it but Tati’s focus is obviously a bit wider and undoubtedly more personal. I look forward to seeing Playtime soon!

David – That’s my favorite site gag too! The house seems to be mocking Hulot half the time and I found that incredibly funny. I couldn’t agree with you more about Tati’s charm. His gentle style of humor is incredibly appealing at a time when most modern movies seem to rely on insult comedy to get their laughs.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 16, 2010 4:38 pm

Patricia – Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. The last scene is very touching. I loved how it ended on a sentimental note without begging the audience to shed a tear. In general, I really like Tati’s subtlety. Unlike so many modern directors working today, he doesn’t seem to have the need to hammer his audience over the head with his ideas.

Matt – Thanks for stopping by! And I couldn’t agree more. I’d like that fish fountain in my own backyard.

Dan – Thanks for sharing your thoughts & insights on the film. By comparing Expo 58 & Mon Oncle I hope readers understand that I was merely pointing out how the film could seen as a response to it but Tati’s focus is obviously a bit wider and undoubtedly more personal. I look forward to seeing Playtime soon!

David – That’s my favorite site gag too! The house seems to be mocking Hulot half the time and I found that incredibly funny. I couldn’t agree with you more about Tati’s charm. His gentle style of humor is incredibly appealing at a time when most modern movies seem to rely on insult comedy to get their laughs.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 16, 2010 4:50 pm

On a side note, someone just left a comment on one of the images that I uploaded to Flickr and pointed out that animator Craig McCracken was inspired by the house in Mon Oncle and used it as the basis for his design of the Power Puff Girls’ house. I enjoyed the cartoon when it aired so I had to share this:

http://www.powerpuff.tv/powerpuff-coloring-24.gif

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 16, 2010 4:50 pm

On a side note, someone just left a comment on one of the images that I uploaded to Flickr and pointed out that animator Craig McCracken was inspired by the house in Mon Oncle and used it as the basis for his design of the Power Puff Girls’ house. I enjoyed the cartoon when it aired so I had to share this:

http://www.powerpuff.tv/powerpuff-coloring-24.gif

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