REVIEW – Mon Oncle (1958)

FilmJuice have my review of Jacques Tati’s satirical comedy Mon Oncle.

When I recently reviewed Tati’s Jour de Fete, I was struck by how little satirical power the film actually possessed. Jour de Fete‘s satire is entirely toothless as it attempts to mock the desire for improved professionalism and efficiency by telling the story of a local postman who falls for an American propaganda film portraying American postmen as militaristic supermen who ride motorbikes through flaming hoops in an effort to deliver the mail as quickly as possible. The problem with this ‘joke’ is that exaggerates both American efficiency and the French desire to emulate American efficiency to the point where neither the subject nor the satirical instrument bear any relation to reality. Judged solely as a satirical piece, Mon Oncle is a far superior film to Jour de Fete as it not only nails the bourgeois aspirations but also the way in which these bourgeois aspirations bring nothing but ugliness and misery to the world. Set in a city of two halves, the film sends Tati’s slovenly Monsieur Hulot out of his charmingly tumble-down apartment and into the corporate suburbs where everything is clean, modern, American and monstrously ugly:

The plot of the film revolves around a battle for the soul of Arpel’s son Gerard who adores his uncle despite the fact that Hulot has no job, no ambition and no material possessions outside of his hat, raincoat and pipe. Realising quite early on that Hulot appears to be have an undue influence on his son, Arpel attempts to lure Hulot into his life of bourgeois consumerism first by fixing him up with a wealthy neighbour and then by offering him a job in his hose pipe factory. Tati chronicles these doomed attempts at embourgeoisement with a good deal of charm and inventiveness as Hulot brings chaos to dinner parties, family meals and the workplace. Hulot turns gardens into building sites, hosepipe manufacture into sausage making and expensive sofas into unfashionable beds. Like a virus with hat and pipe, Hulot spreads authenticity wherever he goes resulting not in his elevation to the bourgeoisie but the collapse of his in-laws into the same happy slum where he (and by implication most French people) live their daily lives.

I liked this film a good deal more than I liked Jour de Fete as Tati’s gentle slapstick takes a back-seat to his desire to criticise the French middle-classes.  On a technical level, the film is also a good deal more impressive as Tati attacks French society in quite complex ways but without using very dialogue. The result is an absolute masterclass in visual storytelling.

REVIEW – Jour de Fete (1949)

FilmJuice have my review of Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fete, which has just been given a dual-format re-release by the BFI.

Tati has always been something of a problematic figure for me. Having seen Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, I have always been aware of Tati’s skills as a performer but I have never quite grasped why it is that Tati is taken seriously as a filmmaker whilst the work of most comic directors is studiously ignored. One answer to this perplexing problem is that Tati’s work was championed by a certain group of critics at a certain point in time and that nobody has since bothered to question the assumption that he is a great film-maker. Another answer is that Tati, though a director of comedies, not only developed a coherent voice but used that voice to critique French society.

Set in a small French town in the midst of a carnival, Jour de Fete is a whimsical slapstick comedy featuring a country postman who takes it upon himself to modernise the entire French postal service, one delivery at a time. Unfortunately, while I appreciate both the uniqueness of Tati’s vision and his skill as a performer, I found the satirical elements a little too broad to be genuinely effective:

Jour de Fete is often spoken of as a treatise against American-style modernisation and while it is easy to see that Tati is attempting to satirise the ludicrous idea of an efficient French postal service, the satire is so broad that it fails to gain much traction on the world. Indeed, the best joke in the entire film is the idea that American postmen are so fast and efficient that they train for their jobs by jumping through flaming hoops on motorbikes. However, as beautiful as this idea may be, its absurdity completely overcooks the gag and boils away the film’s satirical edge leaving only a whimsical residue. The point of satire is to mock things that actually exist but surely even the most zealous of corporate reformers would allow postmen to get off their bikes when delivering letters. By presenting the desire for economic modernisation in such ludicrous terms, Tati’s satire fails to connect with anything real.

Or maybe it’s just me.