The primary goal of the average joke in the average comedy is to make you laugh. Sometimes there are secondary goals, such as fleshing out a character or pushing along the plot, but most of the times the jokes are just for kicks. There’s nothing wrong with humor for humor’s sake, but the great comedies are the ones that have something both beyond and within the jokes.
With Mon oncle master comedian Jaquese Tati weaves a series of physical gags into a social commentary, creating a rich comedy that can be enjoyed both by casual and intellectual audience. For Tati the joke is almost more about the setup than the payoff. Each gag has a meticulous setup that makes the joke all the richer.
Tati has always dealt with humor that was a bit more sophisticated that most. Sure, it’s still mostly slapstick, but Tati has a way of doing it with class. There’s a buildup to most every joke and the payoff is generally a riot. But the jokes are rarely just for kicks. Each joke is working on another level. Either it’s some kind of social commentary or character development. The recurring pole joke in particular has one of the most brilliant payoffs of any joke.
The hero of this tale is Tati’s signature character, Monsieur Hulot, also played by Tati. This small down man lacks grace but makes up for it in heart. We find him in the town square with his head tilted, reading the newspaper clippings the butcher uses to wrap the meat. Monsieur Hulot is somewhat of a preposterous man, bumbling his way through life in a most awkward fashion and he often leaves a mess in his wake.
But for all his ridiculousness he is a gentleman. He showers small gifts on the young girl who lives in the apartment beneath him and always makes sure to greet her when he arrives or leaves. Although he is often accused of doing something wrong he always stops to apologize. He may be a silly man but his sweetness makes him solid gold.
Most of his troubles comes when he moves beyond the little town and tries to fit into the big city. His sister has just moved into a modern home and Hulot finds it all quite baffling. The center of their modern world is the most ridiculous fountain that they only turn on when important company arrives. As Hulot tries to make it in this world humor ensues as even the simplest electronic devices baffle him.
But perhaps what is even more baffling is how ridiculously preposterous the modern man is. There’s such a mechanical rigor to the modern man that he can hardly be said to be anything more than a cog in the machine. Throughout the film Mr. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), the brother-in law, scolds Hulot for simply wandering through life without having a goal. Yet his only goal seems to be to make in order to impress his peers which he doesn’t seem to like. He is such a serious man and so proud of his status that he can’t help but be a buffoon. Mrs. Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) insists that in order for Hulot to be a modern man he needs a modern wife.
Yet the couple seems ignorant of their own marriage. Their small son, Gérard (Alain Bécourt), lives in this sleek and sterile modern building but finds it far from fun. They want him to be studious and smart like his father but he’s more interesting in running around in the countryside and being a little prankster. The father often garnishes gifts on him but he finds them dull. Yet when Uncle Hulot brings the tiniest of trinkets Gérard takes delight in them. In fact, Gérard thinks his uncle is a hoot.
Hulot causes quite a ruckus when he attends a small dinner party at his sister’s house. As they shuffle through the sleek and sexy modern lawn, impracticality hits the party at all sides. Soon Hulot has broken that silly fountain that they take such pride in. One of the guests insists on fixing it and soon he’s digging a pit while wearing his Sunday’s best. Such pride is taken in such a silly thing that a man is willing to make a fool of himself in order to maintain it.
Tati contrasts this modern world with the old world. The small town marketplace is bustling and many an argument ensues but it’s lively and active. The Arpel’s dinner party is filled with such pretense that it’s a bore and uneventful until Hulot breaks the fountain. But the old world has its own impracticalities, such as the complex apartment building that looks like several small buildings mashed together. It’s less practical than the modern world, but it makes up for it in warmth and charm.
One of the last scenes of the film is a payoff to a long running gag throughout the film. In that last moment, which I won’t spoil here, there’s a hint that Hulot may have rubbed off on the modern world. Monsure Hulot is neither bright nor skilled, but wherever he goes he brings warmth and laughter. The modern man may have more money, success and skill but he hasn’t a heart. The modern man may be the great achiever but all he seems to accomplish is making life far too serious an affair. Sometimes the only way to appreciate life is to bumble through it.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing