Posted by Greg Ferrara on July 21, 2013
Tonight on TCM, Jacques Tati’s wonderful 1958 film, Mon Oncle, airs at 8:00 p.m. (EST). Of all the silent filmmakers, Tati is my favorite. While his films were made in the sound era and even contained sound, music and dialogue, they were, for all intents and purposes, silent films through and through. The dialogue is pointless babble, no matter what the language. I’ve actually seen Mon Oncle dubbed into English and it made absolutely no difference whatsoever. I don’t even understand why anyone bothered to do it. It’s the perfect silent film.
I have had the good fortune to see both Mon Oncle and Playtime on the big screen and both are extraordinary works of art but Mon Oncle is my favorite. Tati always plays order against chaos, rigidity against looseness, modern against established. It’s a theme exploration that worked well for him and one where most people would place Playtime at its apex but I think he achieved more, years before, with Mon Oncle.
As with all Tati films, there is no real plot. It starts with dogs roaming through the older parts of the city, scavenging garbage as they advance towards the more affluent and modern suburbs. Once there, the smallest dog finds his way to a modern home that turns out to be where he lives. He makes his way in as the lady of the house cleans every perfect, unblemished surface. Her husband is perfectly well-kept, his briefcase shiny, his car striking and new. Their son makes his way out to the car and as father and son drive away the mother polishes the fender.
This is contrasted with the older part of town where we meet Tati’s Monseiur Hulot, reading a paper used to wrap fish. There we see children playing, people talking and arguing and a vibrant community of vendors, street sweepers and artisans. Hulot makes his way up to his apartment in a four story building that looks like it was designed by Rube Goldberg by way of Dr. Caligari. Hulot goes up and down stairs to get to his top apartment where the key waits simply over the door.
Those two worlds interact for the rest of the movie with the dogs, Hulot and his nephew being the main interlocutors for the show. They move back and forth between the two worlds and expose and enjoy the absurdity of both. There’s really not a lot more to say about Tati’s basic contrasts because the point of a Tati film is not to engage in lengthy philosophical discussions about the meaning of it all but to engage in the act of watching the extraordinary visual sense of one of the most masterful artists of the twentieth century.
In Tati films, the idea isn’t the thing, it’s the jumping off point. And that point isn’t simply a visual representation of the idea but a choreography as important and distinct as anything done in modern dance . It’s just that Tati uses actors, animals, cars and machines as his dancers and the choreography is all of a piece, running the length of the movie with the dialogue and sound effects joining the music as the aural rhythm of the dance. Really, truly, it’s hard to describe a Tati film to someone who hasn’t seen one. Even after seeing one, it may all look so deceptively simple but the dance is deliberate and intricate and perfectly timed.
Perhaps I prefer Mon Oncle over Playtime or Trafic because its dance is more intimate, brought down to a smaller scale but still expansive and not restrained to the antics of Hulot alone, as in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s the perfect combination of every Tati quality and, fittingly, comes right in the middle of his career as a feature length director (two before; Jour de Fete, which I have not seen, and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, and two after, Playtime and Trafic).
Mon Oncle also displays Tati’s incredible sense of color. He keeps a grey palette for most of the modern world so that greens and reds and blues can jump out from them and play off of them. He achieved an even greater sense of this in Playtime, where I once did a piece on the use of red and green played against a neutral palette, but he developed it here first, in Mon Oncle.
The only problem I have with Tati as a filmmaker, honestly, is recommending him to people who have never seen his works before. It’s difficult to know who’s going to take to Tati and who isn’t. I’ve been asked before online by someone venturing into his films for the first time, “Will I like Playtime? Mon Oncle? Trafic?” and each time my response is the same, “I have no idea.” Will a Tati novice appreciate the amazing sense of color and design? I certainly hope so. Will a Tati novice appreciate the choreography of the whole movie as a feature length dance? I couldn’t say. Will they find it funny? I know I do. But I also know that when a movie doesn’t give you a clear cut plot (though there’s always a story) and the humor is gentle and teasing, it’s a risk. Honestly, when I first saw Playtime, it wasn’t until the second half that I really started to like it. I found the first half a bit tedious because I didn’t realize it was building to an out of control climax. I foolishly thought I was watching a bunch of disconnected sight gags that was going to continue until the closing credits. I was wrong. Ludicrously wrong and I can see that now. Mon Oncle works the same way. It starts out with a myriad of disconnected and disassociated characters and gags and builds into something not just connected but beautiful. It’s my favorite Tati films, and despite the omnipresent sound, one of my favorite silent movies, ever.
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