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

Mon Oncle (France, My Uncle)

Spectra-Gray-Alter Films, in association with Films del Centaure

In” Mon Oncle” (“My Uncle”), the inventive comedy from 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 has produced.

There are many genuinely inventive 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).

Mon Oncle was one of the few major works, produced outside mainstream French cinema. The film tackles wider issues than Tati’s other films, such as Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday). 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 the town, where life is more humane. The contrast between the two men is expressed in Jean Bourgoin’s color photography and in the sound track (there is a huge gulf between the mechanical rattling and whirring of the gadgets in the Arpel house and the laughter and talk in the square, overlooked by Hulot’s apartment.

Tati’s gags have been meticulously worked out, thought the tone of the film is relaxed and leisurely. Occasionally, there are touches of surrealist humor.

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.