#329. Mon Oncle (1958)

When I was in high school my parents chose a couple of arm chairs for their bedroom, chairs that, since they’d be seen by nobody, were—unlike every other piece of furniture in the house—going to be selected on grounds of comfort and convenience. Not aesthetic. Just whatever best fit their respective frames.

            They’d be different sizes, mismatched in color—a free-for-all. Sheer madness.

            Such madness that finally my mom kinda cracked, and bought a chair that looked much better than it felt: a wide-set thing with a beige cloth body, covered in ornate swirly designs, lowset arms and stubbley wooden legs. My dad shook his head about it in the way that my dad shakes his head about things, saying it was uncomfortable and she’d regret it, but my mom held out.

            They bought the chair.

            And for a few years she’d curl and contort on that chair and do her best to like it but after a while it became too terrible, and the expensive fancy chair was moved to my dad’s office and, in its place, there came an Lay-Z-Boy. Plump and dull and grayish-beige and ugly—but comfortable. It put you in a better mood. It helped your posture.

            Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle could be a metaphor about my mom’s chair: a slapstick and mostly silent comedy about the gray, lifeless, sleek and sterile modernization of postwar France where appliances rule domestic life, the décor of every fashionable living space is either metallic or sunwashed white, the furniture is sparse and skeletal and hard to figure.

            Every man is neatly shaved and every outfit is perfectly fitted, women’s hair is elaborate and hard to map.

            The simplistic way of putting it is to say that Mon Oncle is a satire of modernization. But same as with the work of Chaplin or Keaton you can find reams of critical writing where authors argue that it’s a statement of this or of that, a critique of politics or certain issues of the day. And a lot of those arguments are backed by things Jacques Tati has said in interviews. Critical remarks about postwar France.

            But I think it’s kind of silly to suggest that Mon Oncle or its prequel, M. Hulot’s Holiday, is a cerebral movie. It’s a lark. A compilation of comedic set pieces. And yes it’s clever that the whole thing is satirical and it’s wonderful that modern audiences can watch it within a historical context and see some or other scene as a great metaphor, and yes the director was a technical and comedic genius, but a lot of the exegesis about this movie’s alleged political subtext feels kinda silly, and I tend to read fawning appraisals of the movie’s gut-busting  hilarity as similarly phony.

            The most unbearable pseudo-intellectuals I’ve ever known were those who had to show passion for works of the extreme highbrow and the extreme low-. They’ll riff about Neitzche with a flippant eye-rolling derision, and then talk about how they can only eat their cereal if they add a handful of Skittles to the milk. They tend to seem asexual without being asexual, it’s just that sexuality was too human and raw a thing, a campus of human activity where being an intellectual doesn’t really sway the trees. And if they were dicey about what they found sexy, they were dicey about what they found funny, and seemed only willing to really guffaw at things that were clever. Silliness was off the table. Everything was made cerebral.

            They won’t just laugh at Tom & Jerry, they have to expound about Tom & Jerry. About the texture of its brilliance, or some shit like that.

            And I guess there’s something helpless about being an intellectual commentator who’s moved by something, emotionally, but your normal mode of expression is a cerebral one—your way of expressing love, int hat case, would, I suppose, come out sounding like a sort of lopsided intellectualism.

            Anyway: I think Mon Oncle is absolutely beautiful and brilliant, a total display of genius, but also that it would be best consumed in fifteen-minute episodes. The reason Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd succeeded with this sort of smart visual comedy is because the jokes were broken up with scenes of characterization, of pathos.

            In that sense, I’ve been finding Tati’s work a little bit one-note; and a lot of these set pieces seemed to go on too long, particularly a scene of a garden party and the rightly iconic scene where Hulot unspools and makes a mess of a hose whose candy-red skin makes a nice kind of visual snack against the muted set, but maybe the scenes weren’t too long for my liking; maybe it was the scope of the whole movie, all those scenes in succession, that started to wear on me. Like what’s said of Tarantino about how he makes better scenes than he does movies.

            Whatever the case: I don’t have much to say about this movie, just as I didn’t have much to say about its prequel, except that it’s a work of creative genius; it isn’t a masterful mingling of high philosophy or political commentary with visual humor. Also, it’s the first movie on the List for which I’d provide a viewing strategy: watch it in set pieces over the course of a weekend. Whenever each three- or eight-minute scene switches over to the next, turn it off for a while, go do something else, and come back to resume it after your palate’s cleansed.

            The flavor might be better preserved that way.

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