Mon Oncle (1958) directed by Jacques Tati
I usually don’t get this personal in my reviews, and certainly not this early in the post, but I struggle with depression. That is important for you to know, not particularly about me, but in describing how Mon Oncle affected me in a way I did not anticipate.
For several years I have been slowly working through Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, a list of 362 films Ebert considered the finest he reviewed during his tenure as movie critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. Out of those 362 films, I have watched 299, leaving 63 to go, a handful of which I own on Blu-ray unwatched. In an attempt to combat the bout of depression I was going through a few days ago, I decided the only film that might help lift me out of my funk was Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, part of the Criterion Tati box set from several years ago. I had previously watched Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Playtime (1967) twice each, discussing both films with our library’s Great Movies discussion group. I anticipated a lifting of my spirits with Mon Oncle.
The opening scene with several stray dogs roaming the early morning streets of a French city succeeded in lifting my spirits momentarily. Having seen the other two films mentioned before, I knew that Tati wasn’t simply showing us a pack of dogs wreaking havoc (mostly innocuous havoc, to be sure). I felt sure he had something more in mind.
As soon as the film’s set piece, the ultra-modern house (designed by Henri Schmitt), makes its first appearance, I was instantly reminded of Playtime, a film whose scope and critique of modern technology cover more territory than Mon Oncle. I knew the schtick.
The ultramodern house and yard are filled with gadgets, push-button “time-saving” devices (such as automatic gates, doors, windows, a garage door), and a gauche aluminum fountain in the shape of a fish that spouts an unnatural blue-colored water from its mouth. We know that Mr. Hulot is going to visit this house and that in no time at all, he will more or less destroy it.
The house is the home of Monsieur (Jean-Pierre Zola) and Madame Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) and their young son Gérard (Alain Bécourt). Once they enter the picture, it takes the audience about 30 seconds to recognize that they are as empty as their spacious house. (You can’t really call it a “home.”) It is a place as impersonal as the Arpels themselves, and young Gérard, when he’s not playing with the young ruffians in the more run-down parts of town, finds one of life’s few pleasures in spending time with his mother’s brother, Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati).
Before there was Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers in Being There), Forrest Gump, or any other cinematic character who seems innocent and almost too good for this world, there was Monsieur Hulot. Hulot is unemployed (at least during most of the film) and unpretentious, without a care in the world. He takes things as they come, and in a world filled with wonder, Hulot wants nothing more than to explore it in a leisurely manner as if time stood still for his every journey of curiosity. In a sense, he is childlike, the perfect companion for Gérard.
At the insistence of his wife, Monsieur Arpel hires Hulot to work in his factory, which manufactures plastic hoses. You can just imagine the comic possibilities, and Tati does not disappoint. Yet Arpel is very disappointed, relocating his brother-in-law to a distant factory where he will be out of his hair and away from influencing Gérard.
This dismissal of Hulot made me angry, which momentarily took me out of my depression. It’s bad enough that Arpel is jealous of Hulot, but to deny his son one of the few pleasures he gets out of life by removing his uncle is hateful and selfish. And it’s not like Arpel is suddenly going to become closer to his son. He’s going to acquire more gadgets and give Gérard more meaningless presents.
But Hulot takes it all in stride. To quote from Roger Ebert’s review of the film:
I love Monsieur Hulot. I love him because he wishes no harm, causes no harm, sees (whenever possible) no harm. He does not forgive his trespassers because he does not feel trespassed against; in the face of rudeness, he nods politely, tries to look interested and stays out of the way. In an emergency, he does what he can, stepping on the leak in the lawn so that the fish can continue to spout. What he would like to do, I think, is to set out each morning and walk here and there, tipping his hat, tapping his pipe, grateful for those amusements that come his way. If his heart breaks even a little when he says goodbye to the landlady's daughter, he doesn't let us know.
The day after I watched the film, I began to realize a few things that helped with my depression: Hulot does not need the praise of others. He is not a people pleaser and suffers no sense of doubt, lack of self worth, or feelings that he doesn’t measure up to everyone else. He has no self doubt, no feelings that he’s “never good enough.” When he can, he tries to help people who need it. Sometimes those efforts result in comic mayhem, but he’s trying to help.
Hulot is also about relationships, although sometimes he appears to be a reluctant participant. Perhaps, like many of us, he’s been burned a few times. But he doesn’t keep a list of wrongs done against him. He keeps on. He doesn’t have meltdowns, throw tantrums, or complain that his rights have been violated. He keeps on.
Note to self? You bet: Just keep on. And remember that everyone’s going through a hard time. Maybe try to make someone else’s day better before focusing on your own.
Is everyone better off at the end of Mon Oncle than they were at the beginning? Possibly. I don’t know. The dogs return, doing what dogs do. Kids will be kids. The Arpels will continue to be the Arpels. And Mr. Hulot will continue to be Mr. Hulot. Maybe no one in the film learned anything by the end of the film, but I did. In many ways, Mon Oncle could be the most important movie I’ve seen this year.