Like the sweet stray dogs that run and play during the opening scenes of Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot lives a free, unstructured life in an older section of Paris. He chats with neighbors, stops in the local pub, and takes things slowly. His only appointment is to pick up his 9-year-old nephew, Gérard after school. Hulot loves Gérard and the feeling is clearly mutual. With his uncle, Gérard can be a kid. He plays with other boys, gets his clothes dirty, and eats too many sweets. He has fun.
It’s different story at home. Gérard lives with his fastidious, status-obsessed parents at the Villa Arpel, a modern, sterile, and completely ridiculous house. Villa Arpel looks as if it were created in a petri dish and has as much warmth as a dentist’s chair. It’s all form over substance — and comfort. Nothing is the right size or shape for humans and there’s not a photograph or personal item in the place. They’ve arranged the house and chosen the furnishings to make a statement rather than to create a cozy place for their family to live.
Gérard’s mother, Madame Arpel, cleans constantly. In one scene, she runs after her husband’s car as he leaves for work, polishing the bumper. She fusses over her husband, her home, and her son. As soon as the boy gets home from school, his mother is on him. “Hang up your clothes. Put away your shoes,” she nags. She’s not mean to him, just cold. When Dad comes home, he gives Gérard a present, but it’s just for show and there’s little affection in the interchange.
The Arpels exist awkwardly in their squeaky-clean home. The appliances, including a vacuum that runs on its own, are loud and overly complicated; the seats are stiff and hard; and the floor is so slick and shiny, every footstep clicks. That doesn’t dim Madame Arpel’s opinion of the place. The hostess delights in giving her guests the grand tour, gushing, “Everything’s connected.” She’s right, but not in the way she thinks. The dwelling is connected in the way a house of cards is. Move one and the rest come toppling down.
Did Tati predict the modern smart home? It’s not a huge leap from a panel of dials on a wall to a voice-activated oven. And are Villa Arpel and its owners as vulnerable as they look? Does the complexity of the home reduce the homeowners to simpletons, unable to fend for themselves? Tati might have enjoyed satirizing the smart home as all-knowing, all-seeing monolith, with its time-saving and information-collecting appliances. Carried to the Swiftian extreme, a crisis might reduce these overly-dependent tenants to desperate brutes, like the residents of the titular High-Rise in the 2015 Ben Wheatley film, who go a bit nutty because the power’s off.
Items in the house are interconnected, but the Arpels live apart from normal people outside. Their electronically-gated property separates them from the locals, almost as though they live on an island — in Paris. Even the dogs notice. When Daki, the Arpels’ pampered pup, comes home after cavorting with the street dogs, Mme. Arpel brings him into the house as the other dogs watch longingly from the other side of the fence, unable to enter.
By contrast, Hulot is involved fully with the world around him. His neighborhood is full of street vendors, merchants, pubs, and life. He’s messy. He laughs and jokes and makes mistakes. He even apologizes for them. He’s a mensch. He’s also stymied by his sister’s lifestyle and his brother-in-law’s company. You see, Madame Arpel thinks her brother could use a little civilizing. She figures a steady job, a wife, and a home will transform her oddball brother into a solid citizen and a more acceptable role model for Gérard. To that end, she convinces Monsieur Arpel to get him a job at the Plastac factory where he works. Unfortunately, Monsieur Hulot’s not exactly built for factory work.
All through the film, people put on a show for others. When Monsieur Arpel arrives at the factory each morning, his dog precedes him. As workers notice the little pup scamper by, they know Arpel is not far behind. To avoid getting their pay docked, they quickly switch from gossiping, flirting, and joking to hammering, scurrying into offices, and typing. Hulot, however, sees Daki and bends down to pet him. After the dog runs away, Hulot sits for a moment before resuming work. Arpel sees only the resting Hulot and assumes he’s goofing off. The fact that this was only a momentary respite doesn’t matter. Arpel can’t tell the difference anyway. The best example of this posing is the weird fish fountain in the Arpel’s garden. In a running gag, the water is only switched on for company. When the doorbell buzzes, Madame Arpel turns on the fish and then opens the door. In one scene, when he hears the water come on, her husband waves over the gate to say, “It’s only me. Shut off the water.”
Jacques Tati and Jacques Lagrange designed the Villa Arpel, the Plastac factory, and the world of Mon Oncle as a comedic social commentary. Tati saw the materialism of the West as dehumanizing and oppressive and the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality as a waste of time. The Villa Arpel, with its modern, uncomfortable furnishings, precariously-placed décor, and antiseptic look serves as a perfect example of the kind of showy phoniness Tati detested.
The film’s not a dry sermon on the dangers of consumerism though. It’s a witty, nearly silent, well-choreographed comedy. The cast speaks very little and even that dialogue is purposely unintelligible. They relate the story through a naturalistic sort of mime, which can be subtle or incredibly broad.
Using his charming brand of thoughtful slapstick, Jacques Tati and his character, Monsieur Hulot poke fun at the materialistic 1950s and the people who are convinced their life will improve if they have the right car, lawn furniture, or toaster. Their attitudes baffle Hulot, who watches them, amused, from a distance. With all his lethargic goofiness, Tati’s rumpled hero is smart enough to know better.