by Jay Seaver
I saw my first film with Jacques Tati as his signature character, Monsieur Hulot, as part of a series spotlighting him along with Charlies Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Tati initially seemed like the odd man out in that group, making his movies a generation after the others, with sound, and in Paris rather than Hollywood. It is, however, immediately clear after watching "Mon Oncle" that Tati certainly resembles that group more than his contemporaries.However, M. Hulot is uniquely Tati's. He's an older gentleman, at least middle-aged, though still possessed of a childlike delight in the world around him. Here, he's the title character, the much-adored uncle to Gerald Arpel (Alain Becourt) who buys him ice cream and teaches him how to use a slingshot, in contrast to the boy's bourgeois parents (Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie). They live in an ultra-modern house with all the bells and whistles, and try to convert Hulot to their way of life, fixing him up with women and getting him a job at the plastics factory where M. Arpel is a manager.
"The heir to the silent masters."
When Hulot is around, though, things tend to spiral out of control. He's an old-fashioned type of gentleman, so his encounters with high technology tend not to go the way he anticipates. Tati's brand of slapstick is gentle, though - nobody gets hurt, and neither Hulot nor the modern world he encounters come off looking totally foolish. Tati's straight-backed, neat, pipe-smoking Hulot is not exactly an agent of chaos; he's simply relaxed even in environments that call for precision and attentiveness. The Arpels' house and M. Arpel's factory is a bit overdesigned, but seldom in ways that seem like they would be obviously bad ideas from the word go. Our sympathies are with Hulot, but not to the point where we feel like deriding the modern world.
Of course, Tati and his collaborators do stack the deck a little. Special note should go to Henri Schmitt's production design, which makes Hulot's home just as absurd as the Arpels' in its own way: Instead of a house constructed out of simple geometric shapes with a gate that only reluctantly allows one to move between the house and the outside world, Hulot lives in an apartment that requires him to traverse many halls and staircases to reach it (up, across the building, down, across the floor, and up again), greeting his neighbors along the way. It's warmer, making the modern world seem more isolating by comparison. The general design for the neighborhood follows the same course - it's trash-strewn, laid out chaotically, with dogs and kids getting messy as they play there. It's inviting and lively, even if it is the sort of area modern parents might look askance at.
Tati follows in the footsteps of the slapstick masters of the silent era, particularly Chaplin, but he's not trying to make a silent movie. There is sound, and there is dialogue, but they are relatively unimportant tools in comparison to color, shape, and facial expressions. That characters go many minutes between speaking - and Hulot barely talks at all - feels perfectly natural, whether because Hulot is given many scenes where he is just interacting with his environment rather than other characters or because the audience gets the point of what's being communicated so well that adding words would quite frankly feel repetitive.
Tati's comedy is not subtle, but it is often rather low-key. He never over-sells a joke, and does great reaction shots without them being exaggerated double-takes. The way he stands, walks, and motions with his pipe are funny, but dignified, and as immediately identifiable as the Little Tramp's gait. Young Alain Becourt is a fun, enthusiastic kid; Zola and Servantie smile too much as his parents. They talk too much yet say little. Everyone's got something funny to do, whether by looking foolish or engaging in slapstick.The movie hums along, putting little smiles on the audience's faces and maybe giving them a little food for thought. Not too much, though - enough to give a little weight to the comedy, rather than overshadowing it.
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originally posted: 02/16/06 14:12:33