Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) is the sequel to his earlier film Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. I have seen a few of Tati’s films, but Mon Oncle is the most recent. Tati is known for his nearly silent situational comedies, and this film is no different. It tells the story of the Arpel family who have recently moved into a hyper modern home with their eccentric uncle, played by the director himself. His films are rich in color, entertainment value and have an unparalleled sense for comedy. His work fills a niche that has been essentially barren since the end of the silent era.
In all of Tati’s great works the environment plays a pivotal role in the narrative. Objects transcend their mere physical forms and become characters in their own right. In his film Traffic for example a car modified into a camper becomes one of the protagonists itself as several police officers search the car at customs. The car turns into a main focal point of the picture behaving almost like a living creature as the officers discover the nearly endless supply of gadgets and gizmos the car is furnished with. In Mon Oncle instead of a car, a futuristic house takes center stage. The home becomes more than just an object it becomes a supporting character constantly engaging in a give and take with the characters.
Tati has a remarkable inventiveness when it comes to designing sets and props. One of the funniest elements in the Mon Oncle is a fountain in the front courtyard of the Arpel’s futuristic house. Each time a visitor arrives to the home, Madame Arpel turns on the fountain in the middle of the yard, and after their guests depart…off goes the fountain. This is repeated multiple times throughout the film, becoming prograssively hilarious with each repetition. Yes, it does go on a bit too long, nevertheless, Tati knew the root of good comedy. Often the best comedic films are even more enjoyable on the second viewing, this is because humans are creatures of habit. We like what we know, and this is what Tati plays off of. By repeating comedic elements multiple times throughout a film he first familiarizes the viewer with them, and then repeats that element for increased comedic effect.
Although the use of dialog is almost non-existent in Mon Oncle the soundscape is rich and delicious. Watching a Tati film is like a eating a parfait with your ears, there is layer after layer of juicy goodness. Tati loves the sound of footsteps. For the first several minutes of his masterwork Playtime, all that is heard is crisp footsteps on a tile floor. This same effect is utilized in Mon Oncle. Footsteps are ever present from start to finish. The steps give the film a constant sense of rhythm in the absence of music.
In conclusion, Tati is a master of his craft. Each of his films are meticulously choreographed, and ingeniously comedic. He managed to make props and elements of his sets come to life. Sound is always an integral part to any Tati picture; he always keeps the ears stimulated without overwhelming them. Comedy is a fine balance that is easily, and often over done; however, Tati manages to walk the line like a pro.