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"Mon Oncle" standard DVD review

1088 Views 0 Replies 1 Participant Last post by  Richard W. Haines
French 'auteur' comedian, Jacques Tati is certainly an acquired taste. He made five
features starring as 'Monsieur Hulot'. Tati was a former mime and obviously influenced
by silent comedian Buster Keaton. He's rather overated and has been called the "French
Chaplin" although his movies have nothing to do with Chaplin's style of comedy. If I were
to compare him to any comedian I would say he's similar to Rowan Atkinson's "Mr. Bean".
Unfortunately, Monsieur Hulot as a character doesn't have the distinguishing characteristics
of Bean or Buster Keaton's personas. He's basicaly a blank slate. He wears a raincoat, has
ill fitting pants and carries around an unlit pipe and umbrella. All five features are virtually
plotless and have him wandering around getting into trouble or getting lost in Tati's fictional
high tech (for the era) modern world.

Tati's satire of consumerism and 'plastic' society is very mild mannered and dated. Since
everyone is high tech now (computers, DVDs etc.) I'm not sure contemporary viewers will understand or relate to his objections. The famous line from "The Graduate" where a character says "Plastics, Benjamin" to mock society in a similar fashion seems equally out of touch now. Norman Mailer rants about plastic in the sixties are ludicrous in hindsight.
It would be difficult to claim today that electronics and plastic have been a detriment to our society but there was an anti-modern attitude about it decades ago. (Some in the Green
movement/cult have adopted remnants of the anti-modern mantra).

The most I can say about any of Tati's movies and themes is that they are quirky and have some humerous moments but no big laughs. He shot all of them in wideshot with few, if any
close ups. His wacky set design, staging, compositions and exagerated sound effects are
where most of the comedy derive from.

In this particular film in the series which translates to "My Uncle", Monsieur Hulot arrives to visit
his sister, her husband and their adolescent boy. They live in a nutty modern house which is all
push button but the electronics keep malfunctioning. The boy seems to idolize his eccentric Uncle
who doesn't work and just wanders around getting into trouble. His brother in law tries to get
him a job in a plastic factory but Hulot messes with the machine causing it to go haywire.
After a series of misadventures he goes home and that's it.

It doesn't sound like much but if you're in the right mood, his slow moving low key humor can
be charming and fun. A typical Hulot gag has the character opening up a window that has
a sun reflection. When he cracks it open, he hears a bird singing. Confused, he opens and
closes it as if the window was making the bird sounds. Then he cuts to another angle and
shows the reflection of the sun from the window lighting up a bird cage across the street which is where the sound came from. Another gag has his inlaws purchasing a then new
automatic garage door that opens and closes when a light beam is crossed. They try it out but a dog wanders by causing the door to close locking them in. Other bits have Hulot
trying to operate a modern kitchen where the equipment seems to have a mind of it's own.

The problem with Hulot movies is that they all run on too long. He also breaks the 'rule of
three' about re-occuring gags. You're not supposed to do the same gag more than three
times in a movie because it becomes tiresome. Hulot does a fountain gag well over three
times in this picture and it isn't funny after the third which legitimizes that rule. My favorite Hulot adventure was "Playtime" which was shot in 70mm and had six track sound effects.
It had an innovative soundtrack for it's time. However, it cost so much to produce, Tati went bankrupt.

"Mon Uncle" is a mood piece. If you can get past the first 10 minutes and find it amusing you'll probably like the rest of the film. Very little dialogue and like Mr. Bean, Hulot rarely speaks. Since
there is so little dialogue, the French subtitles are not intrusive in the 1.33 frame. It's a typical 'art house' type of picture but they can be entertaining in certain circumstances.

The color photography looks okay for a 51 year old Eastmancolor film. No fading but some flashing
and damaged frames. The soundtrack is mostly a theme tune played over and over along with off the wall sound effects. The tune is catchy but I got sick of it after two hours.

I thought the film was light fun from a bygone era but if you're used to modern comedy you might not like Tati's brand of humor. But for those who want to try something different, they might want to give it a shot. This is an expensive Criterion DVD release but I was able to take it out of the library. If you can find it in a video store, I suggest a rental to make sure you like Tati before committing to a purchase.

Tati's other "Hulot" films are "Jour de Fete" (The Big Day), "Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot" (Mr. Hulot's Holiday), "Playtime" and "Traffic". "Jour de Fete" was the first French color film
but was originally released in black and white in the US. Tati's daughter restored the color
version so it's available now. "Playtme" was also restored to 70mm. It only played 35mm
when it was originally released here.
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