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mheu, Historical Museum of the Urban Environment

Mon Oncle

Jacques Tati

© Les Films de Mon Oncle

View this work in Les Chiffonniers exhibition

The work

In his first two films, Jacques Tati explored the tension between the old and the new, the past and the future, Europe and America, the rural and the urban. However, although the social mixing of classes is very evident in the boarding house in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Monsieur Hulot's Holiday), at a time of paid holidays, in Mon Oncle (My Uncle), these two worlds no longer cohabit.

A stockade, a shaky frontier, separates the two neighborhoods, wealth and poverty, pretension and modesty, stress and an easy-going life, egoism and sociability, etc. The Arpels, a well-off bourgeois couple, come down to use their luxurious villa with its futuristic architecture, in the new neighborhood, with their son Gérard, for the first time. Gérard leads a dull life, between an absent father and an obsessively house-proud mother (Gérard associates the sound of the vacuum cleaner with his mother's presence!). The only times that matter to him are when he is riding around his uncle's (Mr Hulot) old neighborhood on the back of his uncle's Solex.

The film revolves around this contrast and Tati wields his camera without pulling his punches: lambasting snobbery, conformism and dehumanizing modernism (the clinical laboratory-like kitchen, the garden with its excruciating design, the aggressive electronic shutters or the idiotic gargoyle-like fish-fountain are all pretexts for inventive and sometimes repetitive gags). No one communicates in this house where "everything communicates", as Mme Arpel coos!

A visionary, Tati poses very contemporary questions, with humor and insistence, on architecture and town planning, local services, social interaction between classes, parent-child relations, the place of cars in our cities. But Mon Oncle is above all a great comic film: Jacques Tati, in his original and poetic style, creates a new rhythm for his scenes and gags, and develops a popular, ambitious and demanding cinema.

The film ends on an optimistic note with father and son, hand in hand, united in a mischievous complicity that they will have to learn to sustain.

The artist

Jacques Tatischeff was born in the outskirts of Paris on October 9, 1907. Destined to follow in the footsteps of his father, a picture framer, he abandoned his studies to become a mime artist. He performed his pantomime parodies of sports on stage and then in short films. In 1947, he made L'école des facteurs (School for Postmen), a promising outline of his first feature-length film which came out the same year: Jour de Fête (The Big Day). This first work was greeted with critical and public success. Proudly claiming descent from the great American burlesque comedians headed by Chaplin and Keaton, Tati established his own offbeat style, a silent and very resonant cinema: a great comic filmmaker was born!

In 1953, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Monsieur Hulot's Holiday) was an international triumph, especially in the United States. This was the first appearance on screen of the emblematic character to which the filmmaker now lent his own tall silhouette. Mon Oncle (My Uncle) came out in 1958 and received the highest accolades: the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in Hollywood. Tati, attached to his independence and creative freedom, then turned down the most enticing propositions: so we never got "Monsieur Hulot goes skiing", or "Monsieur Hulot in New York", in space, or anywhere else! Audiences delighted in the discovery of a funny stylized cinema, based on the minute and affectionate observation of Homo sapiens in a changing world. Lucky fans of Jacques Tati's cinema, faced in real life with bizarre noises, snatches of conversation or street scenes with a doubtful, potentially comical, outcome have all been known to say "why, it's just like a Tati film!".

Playtime, his fourth film, was released in 1967 and was as resounding a flop as it was an ambitious and costly project. The disappointed critics and public could not make sense of this gigantic work (originally 152 mins then edited down to 137 mins), profuse with details in which Hulot himself seems lost in the abundance of each shot (filmed in 70mm). A film to watch over and over again and spot something new with each screening!

Jacques Tati never got over this failure. The releases of Trafic in 1971 and Parade in 1973 did not soothe the bitterness felt by their maker. His final years were painful: he was ruined, deprived of the income from his first four films and seriously ill. Tati was however honored in 1977 by the Académie des Césars, for his entire, exemplary and consistent, oeuvre: six films in thirty five years! He finished writing what should have been his next film: Confusion which was never completed nor filmed. Jacques Tati died of a pulmonary embolism on November 4, 1982.