19 July 2004 | flickershows
Come For The Pretty, Stay For The Witty
This was my introduction to the world of Jacques Tati...and I liked it. If Tati's filmmaking M.O. was to remind us of Charlie Chaplin & Buster Keaton, mission very successfully accomplished. 'Mon Oncle' could have been a silent film. It uses sound effects and music to tell 75% of the story anyway, just as Charlie and Buster and their contemporaries did so well in the talk-free era. He also has their simplicity of camera movement. And as with those film giants, Tati is the star/director/producer and co-writer of this project. His recurring Monsieur Hulot character isn't as famous as the Little Tramp, but the quirky Frenchman is just as bumbling and likable.
In line with Chaplin's 'Modern Times', the theme of 'Mon Oncle' is the inability of one man to adapt to new technology. The slapstick sequences that result from the clash of man versus machine are more amusing than truly hilarious. There are a few big laughs, but you'll smile more than than you'll guffaw. There's no standard plot. Hulot's sister, her husband, and their son live in an ultra-modern '50s house. (This weird set is truly magnificent.) Occasionally, they have trendy guests---the out-of-place Hulot among them---and he inadvertently gets the ball of chaos rolling. If his sister's house is too bizarre for him, he still gets to enjoy old-fashioned pleasures in other areas of France. He doesn't fit in with these social climbers, but the man is charming and unflappable in his own eccentric way.
This movie looks as stunning as Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' (also released in '58). Both pictures use colour extraordinarily well (especially green) and Tati's film would be worth seeing for the visuals alone. He also makes it a delightful aural experience with a jaunty music score and comical sound design. It's not all a cold technical exercise, though. The acting is a bit exaggerated (except for Tati's underplaying), but they only look foolish in the name of laughs. Will you enjoy a French comedy from nearly 50 years ago? Is 'Mon Oncle' just a critical darling (Oscar for Foreign Language Film, a prize at Cannes) and not an audience picture? Hey, I didn't think I'd be entertained by a two-hour French trifle, but I was. Rent the Criterion DVD and drink in the plush visuals, then have some grins. Come for the pretty, stay for the witty.