"Here at home we'll play in the city/Powered by the sun/Perfect weather for a streamlined world/There'll be spandex jackets/One for everyone."—Donald Fagen, "I.G.Y."
Disney's Tomorrowland of the 1950s featured a self-proclaimed "Plastics Home of the Future," sponsored by Monsanto. I say self-proclaimed, because a voice-over inside the house would proudly boast that "hardly a natural material appears in its original state" inside. You, as a visitor, were "part of the experiment," guinea pigs in a scientific attempt to manifest Progress in material form.
This was the future of the '50s, the "New Frontier" of forward-thinking technocrats. A "rugged, easy to clean" future that tried to erase the messy past with visions of chrome, nylon, and plastic. And this is the future in which Jacques Tati's indomitable Monsieur Hulot must find his place, walking against the grain of modern, bureaucratic society.
Facts of the Case
In a boxy home with a boxy garden, a clockwork family lives a clockwork life. Mrs. Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) bounces about in her lime green housecoat, wiping everything down with antiseptic glee. When visitors come, she clicks on the metal fish fountain and show off her uncomfortable furniture with pride. Mr. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) drives in his garish sedan, each car on the highway the same distance apart. He parks in his designated box in front of his designated office at the plastic hose factory. Little Gerard (Alain Bécourt) finds his parents' world stifling, and nothing pleases him more than a visit from his favorite uncle.
That uncle is none other than Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati). In Hulot's world, ordinary people follow seemingly free and chaotic trajectories. Hulot's world is not one of clockworks, but of time he invents himself, in his very interactions with the world. When he discovers that the bird outside his window sings in sunlight, he angles his window so that the reflected sunlight makes the bird sing all the time. For Hulot, a little chaos is part of everyday life. But the world of modern technocracy may not have room for him.
So what is "Progress" anyway? We think of it as a moving-toward the future. But can we ever arrive at the future? Take another Disney example: "Progressland" was built for the 1964 World's Fair, moved to Disneyland in 1965, and finally took up residence in Walt Disney World in 1975. In Progressland, it was always "A Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow," as the theme song went. The narrative was goal-oriented: each stage of technology (presented in the show at twenty-year intervals from the turn of the century to the present) was an improvement over the last, part of a great evolution towards perfect consumer culture (with General Electric products, of course). The building's core was fixed, with guests revolving around the dioramas. People move on, but Progress remains the stable center. The implication is that technology is not dependent on social narratives, but exists as an outside agency, an avatar of the Law of Science.
It will always be "A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow," until of course, the subject realizes that Tomorrow never arrives. It is only in the recognition of narrative frames that the illusion of progress becomes visible: shortly after "Progressland" moved to Disneyland, the attraction became "The Carousel of Progress" (suggesting the closed loop of its narrative) and its new theme song was "Now Is the Time" (suggesting that each time-period privileges its own paradigm).
Traditional Progress is goal-oriented, unprepared for the unexpected (as a crash-landing albatross always seemed to disrupt Mr. Morrow's countdown to launch in "Mission to the Moon," later "Mission to Mars"). But "facts" go out of date as scientific paradigms undergo revision and rejection. What looks like a glorious future, made real by commercial products, quickly looks quaint and silly. The plastic house Monsanto built may stay up forever, but these days, it looks like some Ozymandian ruin.
The Arpel house is much like that Monsanto house, a marvelous character in its own right. It is a modernist monolith, filled with conical chairs, willful gadgets, and omnipresent buzzers. It has no patience for chaos, closing it into boxes at every turn. The serpentine path that cuts across the obsessively geometric squares of the garden seems to struggle against the inevitable tide of the house's discipline. The house even has eyes, round windows that seem to follow the lurking Hulot at night like some domestic panopticon.
In Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati pits Hulot against the disciplinary mechanisms of modern technology. Wait, I take that back. In Modern Times (Mon Oncle's closest film antecedent), Chaplin pits his Little Tramp against the disciplinary mechanisms of modern technology. For Chaplin, technocracy (especially corporate capitalism) must be fought, and nostalgia and sentiment must triumph.
But Tati is not so confrontational. There is an ambivalence about modern life in Mon Oncle. Even the film's very structure undermines the prospect of narrative progress. More a series of sketches than a linear plot, Mon Oncle operates much like a clockwork: a series of gears, repeated movements that set off countermovements. In one balletic 20-minute sequence, the Arpels hold a garden party that begins to resemble a game of Twister held by P.G. Wodehouse. A series of simple comic devices set up earlier in the film—Mrs. Arpel's obsession with her fish fountain, Mr. Arpel's fawning assistant, the unctuous next door neighbor, Gerard's penchant for minor acts of mischief, and of course Hulot's ability to cause the perfect tiny accident—all interact in a marvelous display of chaos theory in action. Each tiny mishap interacts with all the others, in iteration after iteration, until the party spirals out of control.
Hulot himself is a strange attractor, a chaotic variable in an otherwise organized system. Visibly out of place wherever he is, with his raincoat and pipe and goofy aimless walk, his presence seems to cause the order of reality to break down, even when it is not his fault. But Hulot is no special case, and Tati takes care not to let Hulot dominate the film. As with M. Hulot's Holiday, Tati avoids close-ups, setting the camera back from the action so that we can see the interaction of multiple figures. This is the clockwork of human life, one that breaks down every now and then, in spite of the efforts of technocrats to rein it in. If Progress desires a fixed future, then the Hulots of the world will always thwart it, the elements of chaos built into the system itself.
Jacques Tati's masterpiece, Mon Oncle is presented by Criterion in a restored print. There is a little fading here and there, making the bright pastels of the Arpel's world seem a little warmer after so many years. But the print is still sharp and free of major defects. Although the film boasts little dialogue, the sound effects are vital to the film's comic timing—where would we be without that desperate gargle of the fish fountain? And the constant ticking sounds that mark the inescapable clock of Progress: kitchen timers, shoes tapping bare floors, a clacking pedal lawnmower?
Monty Python's Terry Jones provides a solid five-minute introduction to the film, commenting on Hulot's place (or lack thereof) in the modern world of the film. This film might have benefited even more than M. Hulot's Holiday from a full commentary track (and again, my choices would have been Jones and Rowan Atkinson), but Jones manages to hit the key points in his introduction. An intelligent viewer can figure out the rest.
Criterion also includes a 1947 short directed by Tati, "L'ecole des facteurs" ("The School for Postmen"). In this fifteen-minute sketch, Tati plays a postman trained to be an efficient delivery machine. We follow him on his rounds, as he negotiates a series of potentially chaotic situations and always managing to get the job done. Tati's comic timing is shown to great effect here, and the theme of this short fits nicely with the feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fans of slapstick humor who are looking for furious action and bawdy jokes may find Tati's style too elegant for their tastes. Tati takes classic silent comedy style into the realm of art, like ballet or chamber music. If you are looking for superficial entertainment—well, you probably have not read this far in the review anyway. There are plenty of laughs in Mon Oncle, but you will find that the images and themes linger long after you are done with the film.
A few years ago, Disney abandoned its attempts to make Tomorrowland look like a "realistic" portrait of the future and resorted to a "retro-future," with cogwheels and burnished chrome. This is a future that will never go out of date, because it is really the past. And to heighten the irony, the Carousel of Progress returned to its original 1964 show.
And so, Hulot's legacy lives on, always showing us that our best-laid plans for the future never quite materialize as expected. But if you appreciate brilliant satire, your plans for the future should include a visit from Mon Oncle.
Whatever the sentence of this court, we expect that Monsieur Hulot will pull through all right. In any case, we find Hulot not at fault and commend him, his creator Jacques Tati, and Criterion for their collective efforts on behalf of comic art.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Terry Jones
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