Mon Oncle (1958): Jacques Tati’s Brilliant French Oscar Winner

Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, 1956-present

Year 3: Mon Oncle (France, My Uncle), 1958
Mon Oncle
Mononcle poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster


In Mon Oncle, the inventive comedy from the brilliant French writer-director Jacques Tati, the main target is the depersonalization of modern life–not so much the mechanization that Charlie Chaplin satirized in Modern Times (1936), as the sterile and tasteless tedium that modern life and its innovations have inflicted on our lives.

The film contains many genuinely funny moments: the little boys gambling on whether passers-by will fall into their lamp-post trap; the old man directing a chauffeur who is trying to park an inordinately long car; the willful garage doors; the wonderful use of the modern house as a cartooned face (heads at the circular windows become eyes looking out).

The film tackles wider issues than Tati’s other films, such as Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday).

Mon Oncle was one of the few major works that was produced outside mainstream French cinema.

It attacks the soullessness of modern life in the manner of Rene Clair’s A Nous la Liberte.

At the center of the film is the contrast between the worlds of Hulot and his brother-in-law, Arpel. Arpel lives in an ultra-modern house with a bare, functional interior and a completely symmetrical garden; it is so tidy and geometrical, that even a single leaf on the path is a cause for surprise. By contrast, Hulot lives in the dilapidated old quarter of town, where life is more humane.

Mon Oncle
Mononcle poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

The contrast between the two men is expressed in Jean Bourgoin’s color photography and in the soundtrack (there is a huge gulf between the mechanical rattling and whirring of the gadgets in the Arpel house and the laughter and the talk in the square overlooked by Hulot’s apartment.

Tati’s sight and sound gags are meticulously worked out, though the overall tone of the film remains relaxed, leisurely–and cool.

Occasionally, there are touches of surrealist humor, which are well integrated into the main narrative.

Running Time: 90 minutes


Oscar Alert

“Mon Oncle” won the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar of 1958 in a race that included “Arms and the Man” from the Federal Republic of Germany, “The Road a Year Long” from Yugoslavia, “Big Deal on Madonna Street” (aka “The Usual Unidentified Thieves”) from Italy, and “La Venganza” (“Vengeance”) from Spain.