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MON ONCLE

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Zola, Adrienee Servantie, Alain Becourt
Director:  Jacques Tati
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Terry Jones Introduction, short film “L’ecole des Facteurs”
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  January 13, 2004

Film ****

Mon Oncle is a satire…and it’s refreshing to write a sentence like that without having to say “biting” satire.  The film pokes fun at industrialization, class differences, and modernization/dehumanization, but does so without any anger or mean spiritedness.  Writer/director/star Jacques Tati conveys his ideas with a mischievous grin and a wink to let you know the wickedness is all in good fun.

Tati reprises his role as M. Hulot, who made his first screen appearance in M. Hulot’s Holiday (also available from Criterion).  But while that film was a playful, joyous, nostalgic romp, Mon Oncle, Tati’s first color film, is a tongue-in-cheek (and somewhat prophetic look) at the future of how we work, live, and play.

The subject of technology becoming dominant and unmasterable is not a new one in film, and Mon Oncle settles comfortably between Charlie Chaplin’s funny and poignant Modern Times and Stanley Kubrick’s computer run amuck in 2001.  Not only does it serve as a temporal medium, but a stylistic one as well, I think.  It has all the laughs and imagery of modernization-dwarfing-man as Chaplin, and some of the sterility of Kubrick, but manages to venture away from whatever seriousness those films has to offer.  Mon Oncle may offer food for discussion afterwards, but watching the film is undemanding joy.

There are two styles of living depicted here:  the world of Hulot is a simple, unstructured one that we often see from a medium distance shot, without close scrutiny.  Indeed, his apartment building is an ingenious set design, even though we never get inside it!  Hulot enters from ground level, and glimpses can be seen of him through windows and openings as he works his way up.  Hulot, of course, is a man who delights in the simplicity of his world, and takes little notice of other things.  His idea of joy, for example, is aiming his open window so that it reflects the sun on a distant bird’s nest, causing the bird to twitter happily.

The other world is the world of the Arpels, his sister and brother in law (Servantie and Zola).  Obviously more well off and self satisfied, their home and garden is a jaw-dropping set of geometric precision and sterility, equipped with as many gadgets as would later be seen on The Jetsons show.  The father is a successful factory operator; the mother is borderline obsessive-compulsive, which works for her world, as she never stops cleaning.

Their young son, Gerard (Becourt), seems more enamored with his whimsical uncle than with his father and all his expensive toys.  The two embark on some hysterical journeys into the city together (some of the boy’s friends pranks are hysterical), and Hulot, true to character, remains charmingly oblivious to just about everything.

His sister, however, wants something more for Hulot, and convinces her husband to get him a job at his factory.  This leads to two laugh fests:  the first time, Hulot finds himself fired before he ever performs a lick of work, and the second time, he causes a machine to crimp its production of red plastic hose, creating what appears to be a long link of sausages!

Is there a message?  Yes, of course, but it’s so self-evident that Tati doesn’t dwell on it the way Chaplin might have, or elevate it to the nightmarish proportions of Kubrick.  He is interested in comedy, which he attains through his amusing situations and masterful uses of set and art design.  The premise is simply that Hulot doesn’t fit into this newly modern world:  would we fare any better?  (One could argue that his siblings don’t even make that good a fit, considering their constant trouble with their own gadgetry and how it sometimes complicates, rather than simplifies, their lives).

Mon Oncle is a visually rich yet stylistically grounded comedy that delivers laughs and entertainment galore.  It’s been called Tati’s greatest achievement, and rightly so.

Video ****

Wow!  I would have never believed a 50’s era film could look so good, even on DVD.  Mon Oncle surpasses even the likes of Ben-Hur for consistency in clarity, coloring, and cleanness.   The print doesn’t look 40 plus years old…heck, it doesn’t even look a few years old.  Dirt and specks are remarkably few and far between.  Sharpness and image detail is stunning throughout, as is the color rendering.  Most of Tati’s sets look like pre-art deco nightmares, and this transfer captures all of its beautiful, gaudy glory.  Once again, Criterion has quietly set the standard.

Audio ***1/2

As mentioned, sound is so important in a Tati film, and this digital mono track renders it perfectly.  From the cacophonies of voices and effects to the intrusive sounds of ‘modern living’ to the wonderful music score, the audio is lively, clear and engaging from start to finish.

Features **

Comedian and filmmaker Terry Jones offers a brief introduction to the film with his memories of it.  In addition, there is the Tati directed short “L’ecole des Facteurs” (School for Postman), which is a clean looking and gag filled black and white gem.

Summary:

Mon Oncle is an ingenious comedy masterpiece from the mind of Jacques Tati.  Anyone who loves to laugh or appreciates visually inventive cinema would do well to give this Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language film a spin, especially with this bar-raising, beautifully pristine color presentation from Criterion.  C’est manifique!