From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Mon Oncle ("My Uncle") is a 1958 film by Jacques Tati. It was Tati's first colour film — not counting the colour-debacle of Jour de fête — and that same year won him the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, a Special Prize at Cannes, as well as the prestigious New York Film Critics Award, making it the most-awarded of Tati's films.
The film centers on the character of Monsieur Hulot (who had already appeared in Tati's previous comedy, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot) and his comedic, quixotic and childlike struggle with postwar France's mindless obsession with modernism and American-style consumerism. As with most Tati films, Mon Oncle is largely a visual comedy, with voices and dialogue merged into the background noise of daily life.
M. Hulot is the dreamy, impractical, and adored uncle of young Gérard (nine years old), who lives with his materialistic parents in an ultra-modern geometric house and garden (Villa Arpel) in a new suburb of Paris, situated just beyond the crumbling stone buildings of the old neighborhoods of the city. Gérard's parents, M. and Mme. Arpel, are firmly entrenched in a machine-like existence of work, fixed gender roles, and the acquisition of status through possessions and conspicuous display. (A running gag involves a fish-shaped fountain at the center of the Arpels' garden that Mme. Arpel turns on only for important visitors).
Each element of Villa Arpel is representational rather than functional, an environment completely hostile to the comfort of its occupants. In choosing modern architecture to punctuate his satire, Tati once stated, "Les lignes géométriques ne rendent pas les gens aimables" ("modern architecture does not produce amiable inhabitants"). From pas japonais positioned like mine fields, to impossible-to-sit-on furniture, to a kitchen with the decibel level of a jet engine, every facet of Villa Arpel emphasizes the supremacy of superficial aesthetics and electrical gadgets over the reality of daily living.
Despite the facial beauty of its modern design (the set was so admired by one film fan that a real-life version of the house was constructed near Paris), the Arpels' home is entirely impersonal, as are the Arpels themselves. In fact, M. and Mme. Arpel have completely subordinated their individuality to maintain their social position and their shiny new possessions. Tati emphasizes his themes surrounding the Arpel lifestyle (as well as M. Arpel's automatonic workplace, Plastac) with monochromatic shades and cloudy days; vivid colors and bright light coincide only with the arrival of visitors, particularly Uncle Hulot.
In contrast, Uncle Hulot, the quintessential poète des terrains vagues, lives in a small old corner of the city. He is unemployed, and gets around town either on foot or on a rather tired VéloSoleX. Though he is obviously without possessions, he does not seem to notice; color, light, and frivolity inhabit Hulot's world. Young Gérard, utterly bored by the sterility and monotony of his life with his parents, fastens himself to Uncle Hulot at every opportunity. Uncle Hulot, little more than a child himself at times, is completely at home with Gérard, but also completely ineffectual at controlling his horseplay with his school friends, who take delight in tormenting adults with practical jokes. Exasperated at their uncle's perceived immaturity, the Arpels soon scheme to saddle him with the twin yokes of family and business responsibilities.