Monsieur Hulot in the Brave New World
Jacques Tati was not a hurried or haphazard filmmaker. His third feature-length film, Mon Oncle (1958), was released five years after his second, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, and the five years Tati spent making Mon Oncle is apparent in its meticulous conception and execution. One remarkable thing about Tati's films is the clear sense of evolution from one to the next. In each successive film he seemed to take elements he had perfected in the previous film and add new ones to the mix. In this way, his movies grew progressively more complex, more sophisticated, and more ambitious, in both the technical and the thematic sense.
Tati's first movie, Jour de Fête (1949), with its emphasis on physical comedy and the precision timing of its physical gags, has much in common with the work of Buster Keaton. His second movie, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, continues the physical comedy of Jour de Fête, although not in such a purely kinetic way, and builds on that film by intensifying the emphasis on characterization. It takes the concept of that earlier film's main character (François the village postman) as comic outsider and applies it even more assiduously to Tati's new creation, M. Hulot. Leaving in his wake a trail of comic chaos, M. Hulot becomes by the end of the movie the kind of social pariah Harold Lloyd played in movies like The Freshman.
Tati recognized that in M. Hulot he had created a perfect Everyman character, one whose simultaneous universality and individuality enabled Tati to devise nearly any conceivable comic situation around this versatile character. Keeping M. Hulot as the main character of Mon Oncle, Tati added to Keaton's physicality and Lloyd's use of character as the starting point of the story a new element: the topicality of Charles Chaplin. If Modern Times (1936)—admittedly, inspired at least in part by René Clair's A Nous la Liberté (1932)—is Chaplin's take on modernity, then Mon Oncle is the first of two movies in which Tati tackled head-on the same subject: the tribulations of the ordinary man alone and alienated in the mystifying modern world.
Yet in fact the germ of those two elements—modern life and alienation—is present in Tati's two earlier films. Consider François's flirtation with modernity in Jour de Fête, in which his disastrous experimentation with what he believes are modern American methods of postal delivery ends with his abandoning the idea and returning to traditional methods. Consider also the rather melancholic ending of Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, in which M. Hulot, shunned by the adults at the seaside resort where he is vacationing, ends up on the beach with the children, just about the only people in the movie who will accept his childlike but well-intentioned misbehavior. In this ending there is a sense that M. Hulot is for the first time in his life consciously aware of his apartness from other people. With such awareness inevitably comes the onset of existential alienation, and that is precisely the state Tati explores in a satirical way in Mon Oncle.
Mon Oncle opens on a construction site with the sound of jackhammers heard behind the credits. The film immediately switches to a deserted early morning street in an old section of Paris, with mellow, jazzy Parisian popular music playing on the soundtrack. To the sounds of accordion, banjo, and vibraphone, a group of dogs—several mongrels and one purebred dachshund—are cheerfully roaming, romping with one another, scrounging through the street refuse, and marking their territory. The dogs make their way through a transitional zone with the rubble of razed buildings in the foreground and newly constructed apartment buildings that look like concrete boxes in the background, eventually ending up in a new suburban neighborhood in front of an ultra-modern bungalow with a modernistic metal gate. At this point the dachshund squeezes underneath the gate and is home. This is the house of the Arpels—M. Hulot's sister, her husband, and their son, his nephew Gérard.
In the first few minutes of the film, Tati has staked out his thematic territory: the contrast between the modern world of the Arpels and the traditional world of M. Hulot. Like Tati's earlier movies, Mon Oncle is loosely constructed as a series of episodes filled with sight and sound gags. But unlike Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, where M. Hulot is at the center of each episode, here the episodes are linked conceptually, by the idea of the conflict between modernity and tradition. From the beginning it is clear where Tati's sympathies lie: Everything about the modern world is depicted as soulless, characterless, and spiritually enervating as it relentlessly destroys the old to make way for the new, as it consumes the traditional world and dehumanizes its inhabitants like M. Hulot.
M. Hulot's neighborhood, where the movie starts, is colorful and lively. It is filled with people, activity, and life lived in the open. Everywhere we hear the sounds of life—of dogs barking, music playing, and people chatting with their neighbors and with the vendors in the market stalls of the square. In the streets we see eccentric characters—a deliveryman with a horse-drawn cart; a man sweeping the streets with a crudely fashioned broom; a tipsy man in a raincoat, pajamas, slippers, and beret walking his dog on a leash; a group of disheveled schoolboys who have ditched school playing practical jokes on unsuspecting strangers.
The world of the Arpels couldn't be more different. In their neighborhood the streets are empty except for automobiles. The buildings either present blank facades to the street or, like their own house, are sequestered behind fences. While M. Hulot either walks or rides his motocyclette, M. Arpel drives his huge American Oldsmobile everywhere, delivering his son to his newly built school that looks more like a factory or prison than a school, or to his own modern factory, where his company, Plastac, manufactures plastic pipes and hoses.
In Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, Tati used locations to convey moods, and more specifically he used the Hôtel de la Plage, where M. Hulot spent his vacation, essentially as a character in the movie. In Mon Oncle, Tati also uses architecture and buildings as characters. M. Hulot's apartment building is a rambling, improvised structure clearly added to many times over the years without any thought of overall design. M. Hulot's apartment, on the top floor, is reached by a circuitous route up staircases, across an interior landing, down another flight of stairs, across an exterior terrace, around the side of the building, and up another flight of stairs that leads to his apartment, which appears to be a series of small rooms perched on a former rooftop.
The Arpel house, perhaps the most striking modern residence ever seen in a non-science fiction movie (it easily outdoes the houses in Leave Her to Heaven and North by Northwest), stands in total contrast to M. Hulot's building. To call this house futuristic would be an understatement. The yard leading to the front door is fragmented into geometric shapes that are paved or filled with gravel or tiny patches of precisely manicured grass. In this environment artificial flowers are preferred to real ones because "they're made to last." The few examples of real vegetation are topiary pruned into rigidly geometric forms—cubes, spheres, cones. Two plant-like structures espaliered on the wall of the house appear to be made of barbed wire, the barbs imitating leaves. Dominating all is a hideous fountain with a large, upright metal fish that vaguely resembles a marlin, spewing water dyed a cyanic blue color.
The house itself is a streamlined, two-story, block-like structure with two round windows resembling eyes in the main room of the second floor. The rooms in the uninviting, minimalist interior of the house are boxy, nearly empty of furnishings, and relentlessly colorless and monochromatic. In this house even a single leaf that has blown in from outdoors mars the perfect order and must be gingerly picked up and disposed of by the obsessively tidy Mme. Arpel. Everything in the hi-tech house that can be automated, mechanized, or turned into a gadget has been; even opening a kitchen cupboard is a complicated mechanical procedure that thoroughly confounds M. Hulot. To call this setting sterile would be putting it mildly.
But more importantly, this environment precisely reflects the way its inhabitants think and live. Theirs is a totally planned and controlled world with no room for spontaneity, a humorless place where playfulness is inappropriate, where every thing and every activity must be serious, practical, and functional. Being tidy, methodical, and productive are the most highly prized personal traits in this world. Having wholly internalized this ethos, M. and Mme. Arpel are the ultimate conformist consumers, with an almost worshipful attitude toward modernity and a fetishistic devotion to all things fashionable and up-to-date.
Only two people seem uncomfortable in this environment: M. Hulot and Gérard, the Arpels' young son. Gérard's parents attempt to instill in him their own belief in the value of the totally regimented life—scheduling his day, urging him to apply himself to productive pursuits like school and study, and discouraging him from any activities they deem frivolous. Naturally, the last includes most of the things Gérard would prefer to be doing. Just as the Arpels' dachshund Daqui enjoys roaming the streets with the mongrels of H. Hulot's shabby but colorful neighborhood, Gérard understandably prefers to play hooky and loaf with his uncle or the street kids in M. Hulot's neighborhood.
When Mme. Arpel decides that her brother is a bad influence on Gérard, she urges her husband to find M. Hulot a job in his plastics factory. This results in a long set piece—one of several in the film—that is essentially an extended version of one of the series of small misadventures in Monsieur Hulot's Holiday. Assigned a simple, mind-numbingly routine job—to oversee a self-regulating machine that extrudes lengths of what appears to be red plastic garden hose—M. Hulot turns an apparently foolproof job into a comic disaster. As his attention wanders, his lengths of hose, rather than being of regular and unvarying diameter, begin to resemble a string of sausages, all bulges and pinches. M. Hulot is unable either to keep up with the speed of the machine or to stop it before it extrudes a tremendous length of irregular hose that must be discarded.
Unable to perform this simple task, M. Hulot is in the end exiled by the Arpels, sent off to a new job at another factory in a different part of France. The last we see of him is as he is dropped off at the airport by M. Arpel and Gérard. It will be nine years before M. Hulot lands—in Tati's next film, Play Time (1967)—in a world even more unsettling than this one. In the brave new world of Mon Oncle, we at least see vestiges of a recognizably human environment precariously enduring the onslaught of modernity. In Play Time even those last vestiges of humanity will be gone forever.