The whole film is an unvarying social commentary, upon the times we live in, upon the way rich and society-conscious people live, and upon the simple ways that give you pleasure in life and that never change with time, not just an uncontrolled slapstick comedy, says Ankur Agarwal about this 1958 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film.
The most amazing thing about Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle is that it never attempts to make you laugh, and yet it succeeds in doing so. But it is not an uncontrolled burst, a mindless burst, that is induced from you. The whole film is an unvarying social commentary, upon the times we live in, upon the way rich and society-conscious people live, and upon the simple ways that give you pleasure in life and that never change with time. There are so many things that you tend to reflect upon while watching this film; I have probably never seen the camera used so aptfully and so masterfully in any film. Tati seems to be a master of his craft. The whole film is visualized mid-distance – the viewer is always the third party, the voyeur, another one of those guests who stand at the door and wait for the fish to be turned on. Not even a close-up shot of M. Hulot is spared to us – there is only one proper close-up that I can remember, that of the single neighbour (Dominique Marie), when she tries to ingratiate herself to the boy. What a brilliant visualization by the director! The woman looks as if she is going to gobble up the boy in her jealousy and frustrated single life.
There are many other scenes in the film that save it from a Chaplinesque fate. Not all imminent comic tragedies do happen. When the Arpels are trapped in their new-fangled garage, and the dog never seems to come there, there still is a maid after all who releases them, in spite of all her apprehensions about electricity. When M. Hulot tries to make the automatic gates dysfunctional one night and the gates come in his hands, two heavy gates and he trying to balance them somehow without waking up his sister and brother-in-law, he does succeed somehow – at least with all this build-up, this anticipation of a slapstick scene, there never does appear a slapstick scene. It provides a relief from the umpteen slapsticks made until now – after all the build-up, instead of the slap you just get the feeling of what might have been. In my opinion, it takes the film to a slightly higher sphere of the comedy, saves it from being called a slapstick.
The film is replete with minor details, minor characters, minor idiosyncrasies. There’s the girl where Hulot lives, who always looks a bit soft in the head, always showing her new dresses, getting or giving a toffee, and never seems to do anything except play about with a permanent wide grin marked on her face. There are the boys whose company Hulot’s nephew prefers, boys who gamble on whether their new trick of making people collide with a pole succeeds or not (this also reminded me of Fanny, where the old men around the bar play a similar game, this time revolving more around a guilty pleasure that people indulge in, so a bit more psychological). There is the woman whose social duty is to laugh (Tati doesn’t even succumb to the temptation of showing her big, fat mouth open for once in close-up). And then there are the roaming vendors, the barmen, the haggling customers, the drunkards, who create little spectacles of their own in the main show.
It’s a long time that I’ve seen a real comedy – the last time was Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, many, many years back. I am eager now for more of Jacques Tati.