Screenshot: Mon Oncle (1958)

"Our world becomes every day more anonymous… and is in the process of becoming an enormous clinic." - Jacques Tati

Jacques Tati is a filmmaker that was greatly inspired by architecture and the role it has to play in our lives. Playtime is his most acerbic attack on modernity, the one most noted for its use of set design and focus on the ill effects of modernist architecture. Mon Oncle, however, the film he made nine years prior in 1958, about the relationship between a bored boy and his quirky uncle, has more to say about personal relationships to homes, the ways in which they reinforce our sense of self and how we wish to be perceived by the outside world.

The second Monsieur Hulot film and Jacques Tati’s first color film, Mon Oncle tells a simple story about the challenges of living in an increasingly mechanized and consumerist society, and the effects this has on family relationships -- in this case the relationship between Monsieur Hulot and his sister’s family the Arpels.

Monsieur and Madame Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie) keep a tidy house. Villa Arpel is a temple of modern rationalist ideals that substitutes order and efficiency for humanity and warmth.

It’s also a funny looking place with big round eye-shaped windows and an imposing (but plainly ridiculous) water spurting fish fountain in the front garden. Lawns are meticulously manicured, paths to and from the front door are rigidly plotted and the landscaping is a mathematically composed grid. Furniture is for statement rather than for comfort and kitchen appliances are components of a functional assembly line for nourishment.

The Arpel’s son Gerard (Alain Becourt) is a bored prisoner in this sterile suburban enclave, whose only solace comes in the form of his uncle's weekly visits. Seen by his sister and brother-in-law as a wastrel and bad influence on their son, Monsieur Hulot shares Gerard’s mischievous nature and so the two of them spend much of the film escaping from the confines of Villa Arpel in the posh suburbs to Hulot’s more ramshackle neighborhood on the other side of town. 

The dichotomy between the two parts of Paris as shown in the lives of both Monsieur Hulot and his sister’s family are an obvious nod to the old and the new, tradition and progress. Progress in this context is the Arpel’s suburban utopia where neighbors all look to out-modernize each other with increasingly loopy gadgets and gizmos that plainly alienate themselves from ‘real’ human interaction. People are as much part of their home’s mechanics as their gadgets, and are the living embodiment of Le Corbusier’s adage that "a house is a machine for living in."

The Arpels are subject to their own inhuman living environment, trapped by an endless quest to be "ahead of the times," trying desperately to protect themselves from the instability, uncertainty and messiness of everyday life. This is the perfect set-up for a Monsieur Hulot film as he represents exactly what the Arpel’s fear most -- impulsiveness, clumsiness, accident and incident. Monsieur Hulot is not built for the modern world but his intervention is wholly necessary to ensure that the modern "machine" has some semblance of a soul. Like Charles Chaplin before him in the 1936 film Modern Times, Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot is the loose screw in the machinery of progress, causing havoc with each of his bumbling actions.

Monsieur Hulot’s home on the other hand is a mish-mash of styles -- looking like two houses squashed together, neither quite matching as the journey up to his modest loft apartment is viewed through different sized windows and gaps at varying heights. Perfectly summing up his quirky character and meandering path through life (which is anything other than straightforward), the house -- although ramshackle and unconventional -- is full of character. The cobbled together style of the building is like the rest of this small rural enclave of Paris; a noisy bustle of colorful activity conducted by a menagerie of shopkeepers, housewives, flirtatious girls, drunkards and a street sweeper who never quite manages to clean up.

Unlike the Arpel’s modern suburban idyll on the other side of town inhabited by rigid automatons, his neighborhood is full of life’s rich pageantry as people argue, flirt, haggle, drink, lounge around, fight and love. The Arpel’s strive to control their environment while Monsieur Hulot’s neighbors live in harmony with it.

I know where I’d rather live.

Screenshot is an ongoing column from Gabriel Solomons, Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England, Editor-in-Chief of The Big Picture magazine and Series Editor of The World Film Locations and Fan Phenomena book series. Screenshot examines a single shot from a film and presents an in-depth analysis.