In 1953, Jacques Tati introduced his most famous character to the world in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Hulot — no first name given — is the sort of person who, without being the least bit malicious or even mischievous, always manages to get into trouble. “I think when you tell Hulot to turn left, without meaning to, he turns right,” Tati said in 1968. Hopelessly maladroit, he spends his seaside vacation leaving trails of footprints in the hotel lobby, crashing a funeral and even setting off an accidental firework display. To some of his fellow holidaymakers, he’s a menace; to others, he’s charming; at any rate, in spite of his unassuming nature, he constantly causes things to happen. Because he spends the entirety of the film away from home, Hulot’s day-to-day life remains a mystery, all the more so because he vacations alone and scarcely speaks. For the follow-up, 1958’s Mon Oncle, Tati decided to depict Hulot in his natural environment — and some unnatural ones.
Monsieur Hulot (Tati), a rather shabby figure in his raincoat and hat, lives in a rather shabby quarter of Paris, where walls and fences are in disrepair, horse-drawn vehicles fit right in and the perpetually distracted street sweeper never gets around to removing any trash from the road. His house, too, is well-suited to him. With its patchwork architecture and the serpentine path that Hulot has to follow in order to reach his top-floor apartment, it’s as awkward as he is. Still, his neighbors like him, at least as a general rule, and most importantly, he seems content.
Meanwhile, the Arpel family — Hulot’s sister (Adrienne Servantie), her husband, Charles (Jean-Pierre Zola), and their young son, Gérard (Alain Bécourt) — resides in a Parisian suburb that might as well be another planet. Charles is an executive at a plastics company, and his ultramodern-looking house, geometric in style and fitted out with all of the latest gadgets, is tangible proof of his success. He and his wife, who’s at least as proud of it as he is, either don’t notice or don’t care that it’s a bit of a monstrosity, and an absurd one at that. “When I built the Arpel house in Mon Oncle, I was criticized for being against modern architecture,” Tati said. “But if you watch carefully, I’m not against modern architecture but just against the way this couple uses that house: as a house to show off, but not to live in.”
Indeed, for all of its high-tech embellishments designed to make life easier, the Arpels’ home betrays precious little evidence of human occupation. With its nearly empty rooms, relieved only by a few minimalist furnishings, it transcends neatness to approach a state of sheer sterility. This antiseptic quality is made most explicit when Madame Arpel attempts to feed her son in the kitchen. Dressed in a plain white dress and blue gloves, she elevates his chair and serves him an egg using a pair of tongs, while various small appliances sit by the table; it all bears a striking resemblance to a dentist’s office. Even if Gérard hadn’t already eaten, his lack of appetite would hardly be surprising.
To Madame and Monsieur Arpel, the house is a status symbol; to Gérard, a boy of nine or ten, it’s stifling. Unable to run around and play there, lest he make a mess, he prefers to spend time in his uncle’s neighborhood, where everything is much more relaxed. In his neat jacket and cap, he stands out from the other children, yet they accept him as one of their own, just as the local dogs accept the Arpels’ dachshund, Daki, in spite of his own clothing. (Daki’s outfit, for the record, matches his master’s smoking jacket.) Even so, Gérard’s favorite companion is Hulot himself. His uncle picks him up from school, gives him rides on his motorized bicycle and, in short, provides far more freedom and fun than he ever gets at home. They don’t talk much — neither one talks much in general — but their bond is obvious, and extremely frustrating to the boy’s father.
“Enough! This is madness! That’s the last straw!” Charles shouts when Hulot brings home a dirt-covered Gérard. “That’s going too far! No, no, no, no! If the boy doesn’t like it here, he can just say so. After all, who built this house? I did. His schooling, his clothes — all my doing. Perhaps someone wants to take my place? Don’t be shy. Why not? Go on.” The last part of this is addressed directly to his brother-in-law, who sees fit to retreat. Madame Arpel is more forgiving, but she wants to put Hulot’s life in order: “What my brother needs is… a goal. A home. All this.” She spreads out her arms to indicate the house and its grounds; who could possibly desire any other kind of existence? Although she means well, and her attempts to help Hulot have some merit — at the very least, one wonders how he supports himself — he simply doesn’t fit into the Arpels’ world. In his own neighborhood, he’s still gauche and prone to minor mishaps, but it doesn’t seem to matter as much there. It’s when he’s placed in an organized, regulated environment that disaster is sure to follow.
Hoping to set Hulot up with her single neighbor (Dominique Marie), Madame Arpel invites both of them and several other friends to an outdoor Sunday luncheon. At first, everything goes according to plan: Charles discusses business, his wife shows off her home and its features, and everyone stays on the rather restrictive paths laid out for them in the Arpels’ needlessly complicated yard. Before long, though, Hulot inadvertently punctures the plumbing that leads to the fish fountain, the yard’s pièce de résistance. (It’s turned on whenever important people arrive; tradesmen and Hulot don’t qualify.) Despite his best efforts to hide his error, a geyser of blue water shoots out of the ground instead of the fountain, splashing the guests. While Charles’s right-hand man, Pichard (Lucien Frégis), sets about fixing it, the others decide to move to a drier spot, so they pick up table, chairs, umbrella and drinks and try to find one — in vain, as it turns out, because so much space is off limits. And then something funny happens: everyone starts to loosen up. Maybe it’s because they recognize the absurdity of the situation, or maybe they’re united by adversity, however trivial. Whatever the case, formality is forgotten as they take an active interest in Pichard’s work, to the point where they even step outside of the areas designated for walking. Thus, Hulot’s clumsiness gives them more excitement and pleasure than they would have had otherwise, though, notably, Hulot himself remains a largely peripheral figure in their party. He may bring people together, albeit without meaning to, but that isn’t quite enough to make him one of them. When he does take an active role in catching a runaway dog shortly thereafter, he just ends up offending the single neighbor; so much for Madame Arpel’s matchmaking scheme.
In another attempt to put Hulot’s life in order, Charles obtains a job for him at his own factory. Few environments could be more artificial than a plastics factory, and Hulot is even more out of place there than at the Arpels’ house. Before long, he’s dozing off at his desk, a fact that goes unnoticed by one of his fellow employees. “I’ll be right back,” the man tells Hulot as he hurries down the hall. “Keep an eye on Number Five, okay?” Number Five is a machine that produces plastic hoses, and by the time Hulot takes any notice of it, it’s malfunctioning horrendously, spewing out a hose full of huge bubbles and pseudo-sausage links. As with the fountain, he tries to fix it but only makes things worse; however, the ensuing collective effort to dispose of the evidence, once again, draws people together and gives them some unexpected fun.
Tati maintains a light touch throughout Mon Oncle, creating a charming comedy, yet it’s a comedy with serious ideas behind it. In a way, it’s not so far removed from some of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, like L’Eclisse (1962) and Red Desert (1964), in which the characters and their modern environments are closely tied. The construction of a high-rise is seen during the opening credits, and near the end, workers are shown demolishing a building in Hulot’s neighborhood. It’s clear that his quaint way of existence is dying out and the Arpels’ lifestyle — with its shiny new cars, automatic garage doors and fake flowers (“They do smell like rubber,” Madame Arpel says with delight) — is taking over. Although it has its benefits, theirs is a less interesting world, so standardized that Gérard’s school and his father’s factory are practically interchangeable. However, it’s not hopeless. What matters is human connection, and that can still happen in places designed to make messiness, error and even humanity obsolete. It might take extra effort, or it might just take an accident, courtesy of someone like Monsieur Hulot.
Goudet, Stéphane. “Everything’s Connected.” Mon Oncle. The Criterion Collection, 2014.
“Mon Oncle.” Once Upon a Time… Dir. Camille Clavel. 2008.