Mon Oncle was my first encounter with “Monsieur Hulot,” the Jacques Tati character from multiple movies who is often described as “Chaplinesque.” The Hulot films are not silent (this one’s from 1958), but they’re vaguely like the old films with the Little Tramp in that there are long stretches of pantomime with little or no dialogue. Like the Little Tramp, Hulot is a sweet naïf, seemingly both overwhelmed and unfazed by the pace and insanity of so much that happens around him, and his films include slapstick and social commentary.
Unfortunately, while this and the Hulot films in general get very good reviews, I don’t think this is remotely as good as Chaplin. There are a few things here and there that I laughed at, but the bulk of the physical comedy is awkward and ponderous compared to the sometimes stunning choreography and timing of Chaplin.
Hulot lives in a cozy apartment in a lively district in Paris with plenty of street vendors and such. He has no visible means of support, but he seems unstressed about it, so evidently he gets money from somewhere. He’s a happy-go-lucky sort, exchanging friendly greetings with all he meets on the street.
His sister, brother-in-law, and nephew live in a satirically modern home filled with gadgets. Even though it’s basically right alongside a rundown area of Paris, because it’s behind an electronic gate it feels like you’re in some fully isolated suburb. The constant sounds of buzzers, motor noises, and the spurting water of the fish fountain make for an unpleasant cacophony, as the inhabitants make use of all the modern labor-saving conveniences that are decidedly time-consuming and inconvenient, like automatic stoves that burn the food, modernistic chairs that no one could comfortably sit on, and automatic garage door openers that leave you locked in the garage.
The film draws a humorous contrast between the flawed but genuine people living in the “natural” urban environment of Hulot’s neighborhood, and the appallingly artificial, affected lifestyle of the isolated, status-conscious rich folks.
The nephew would much rather hang out with his uncle, who among other things so loosely supervises him that he can just run off and play pranks with his school friends. The brother-in-law especially is not crazy about Hulot’s influence on his nephew, or really Hulot’s lack of ambition and lack of a conventional life in general. The sister and brother-in-law do whatever they can to try to fix up Hulot with a woman and get him a job, so he can be normal.
The goofy modern house has some funny elements, and I got a kick out of the traffic scenes (the cars line up in perfect rows and look like they’re engaged in some coincidental ballet), and the secretary who kind of half trots half skips from place to place in high heels, but really if you took all the elements I found entertaining or humorous and lay them end to end, this would be about a ten to twelve minute film.
Unfortunately those ten to twelve minutes are scattered throughout close to two hours, meaning for a great deal of this minimal-dialogue movie I was frankly bored, rooting for the end to hurry up and get here.
Hulot is a likable character, and Mon Oncle has some decent moments, but overall the humor of this foreign film did not translate well for me, so I have to say thumbs down.