Tuesday, January 29, 2008

And Tati's your oncle

Previously, in this post, I talked about Jacques Tati and Playtime, his 1967 masterpiece. Critics are in a huge dogpile over this movie, gesticulating that it's a work of perfect art and whatnot. I like the movie. Ir's scrumptious. However... it's not my favourite Tati. Spoiler alert - it's Mon Oncle.

Mon Oncle is not as visually rich or as deep focus as Playtime, but it certainly plays in the same thematic sandbox. Mon Oncle is the second film that stars Tati as M. Hulot, who's the tall guy on the cover there.

Let me just take a second to look at the poster there. That's the cover of the Criterion Collection release of the film, and it uses the original poster design. Unlike floating head posters that convey who is the star, this poster clearly announces the main images that you need to pay attention to. The first, and most apparent, is the lanky fellow in the centre - that's M. Hulot, with trademark pipe, hat, coat, and umbrella. On the left is Hulot's nephew and on the right is a small dog. This is a perfect poster that conveys a lot of information about the movie. We know it's fun based on the cartoonish design of the characters. We know it's about a guy and his nephew and possibly a dog.

In looking at the plot, it's true. We have a guy, we have his nephew, and we have a dog. The dog belongs to the family of the nephew, M Hulot's sister Madame Arpel, her husband M. Arpel, and their kid, Gerard. With an accent. They live in this ultra modern ultra sterile ultra ugly house with a huge automatic gate. The path from the drive to the house is winding, and goes by this absurd giant salmon that spits out water whenever Madame Arpel turns it on from the control switch at the door, which controls everything save the kitchen, but we'll get to that.

Gerard finds himself alienated from the modernity of his parents' house and finds himself gravitating towards his uncle (of the title. SEE? See? SEE?) and his lifestyle of wandering around with no cares, living in an apartment building in the middle of the classic pre-war France that we all know and love and are supposed to be charmed by.

Tati takes his time showing us the facets of each lifestyle. We have the parents and their cold sterile house, a lifestyle of success and comfort. Everything they need to do is controlled by machines - no need for a servant when the house will clean itself. This is contrasted with Hulot and his neighbourhood. There's a street-sweeper who manages to make one pile eat up his whole day. There's the sellers of fruit and vegetables and his gorgeous old truck.

My favourite bit of the entire movie is this great shot in which a fruitstand is in the foreground and a cafe is in the background. Two men are sitting at a table having a great discussion. A woman comes into the foreground and picks up a couple fruit. She selects the ones she wants to purchase, and then turns to the men at the cafe. He signals to her the price and she leaves it there at the fruitstand. This is a terrific bit showing the simplicity of the France that Tati longs for.

When Hulot is charged with picking up Gerard from school, he lets Gerard go off and play with his friends. They engage in pranks that show people for the fools they are. The most significant is when they cause drivers in cars to think they've been hit, and the drivers freak out. If I turned on my mighty critical brain here, I would hazard a guess that Tati is saying we're too obsessed with our stupid toys like cars or spitting salmon.

The key scene in the film is when the Arpels have everybody over for a dinner party. The idea is to hook M Hulot up with the neighbour of the Arpels, an extremely fashionable woman. The neighbour is such a complex joke, I would have to use an entire post to yak about her. Essentially, we know she's not a good match for Hulot because in a previous scene, she doesn't know how to talk to Gerard - she says a bunch of idiotic "adult-speaking-to-child" things. The whole dinner scene features the funniest jokes, especially that spitting salmon I have mentioned a couple of times, which you can see in the photo above.

Two other scenes are key to the film: Hulot in the ultra-modern, button-crazy automatic kitchen and Hulot in the ultra-modern, lever-heavy automatic hose factory that M. Arpel helps run. I'm not going to detail all the great stuff here, because you get the idea. Just like in Playtime, Tati is critical of the modernity that post-war France is striving for. There's some class critique going on in this film more so than Playtime. The modernity of the Arpels is indicative of the archaic class structure that needs to be done away with.

Ooh-wee, that was a lot of big words. I may have used up my word count for the day. I have to take my critical hat off for a second and mellow out. Perhaps a picture of explosions will help?
That blowed up real good! Anyway, back to business.

One final thing, and this relates to the class structure and modernity thing I babbled about before. I mentioned the dog when I talked about the poster, right? Well the dog is the central visual metaphor. In the beginning of the movie, we follow a bunch of dogs running around pissing on stuff and having a ball with life in general. They run around the old town, and then jump over a broken wall, which is another key metaphor. The wall is destroyed by the war, and it represents the divide between Hulot's France (pre-war) and the Arpels' France (post-war). So the dogs run from old town to the new town, and one dog (the one from the poster) leaves the pack and goes home to the house of the Arpels. He belongs to them. See what's happening here? Tati is hopeful and a believer in humanity. We're all running in a pack pissing on things - none of us are better for living in a fancy-dan house.

Man, all this critical thinking is tiring me out. I need a nap. Seacrest out.

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