I’m always glad when someone decides to show one of Jacques Tati’s films because Tati is a filmmaker—and comic—whose work I’ve grown to appreciate over the years, but one who I don’t think of very often. I’m always agreeably surprised when I’m made to stop and watch one of his films. Mon Oncle (1958)—a pointed satire on modern times—may not be my first choice, but it’s certainly a good one.
Tati appears once again as his M. Hulot character, the well-meaning bungler who goes through life spreading chaos. But this time, the chaos serves a very distinct purpose, because he’s (inadvertently?) spreading it through bourgeois suburbia. In essence, Mon Oncle is Tati’s 1958 take on René Clair’s A Nous la Liberté (1931) and Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The targets have changed a bit, but the overall tone is the same. What perhaps most differs with Tati’s film is that his “old” Paris sits right next to the “new” Paris that he trounces with a certain glee. Tati’s Paris is quirky. It’s inconvenient (perhaps no apartment was ever so awkwardly located as his) and it’s dirty, but these things just happened somewhere along the way. The Paris that he wanders into—that of his sister and her industrialist husband—is just as inconvenient. It’s cleaner—to the point of sterility—but it seems deliberately designed for a maximum of work and a bare minimum of comfort.
In most ways, Mon Oncle is the first blatantly anti-consumerist film. Tati isn’t just against the foolishness of the consumer society. He also finds nothing in it that’s actually worth consuming. Everything is engineered to impress someone other than the owner. Nothing is of genuine merit—either on a useful or aesthetic level. It’s just so much useless junk. In other hands, this could have been little more than a bitter diatribe. Tati, however, simply uses it to develop ever-more-complex comic set pieces that conspire to demolish it and make it look ridiculous. As such, the film delights more than it outrages, and that’s the secret that makes it still such a fresh and vital work.