Though not well-known in the mainstream cinema, Monsieur Hulot’s character is one of the most iconic comic characters ever put on film. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Homer Simpson, M. Hulot has a look that’s all his own. One look at his all beige clothing, oversized trench coat, undersized pants, his hat and pipe and you recognize him immediately. Even his gestures are trademark to Hulot, from him standing with his hands on his back to tapping his pipe on his shoe. He is a gentle giant whose awkward bumbling often places him out of touch with worlds outside of his own. In Mon Oncle, Tati looks at Hulot’s place in the modern world.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday centered around….Monsieur’s Hulot’s Holiday. Mon Oncle brings us into Hulot’s personal life. In a cultural French village, M. Hulot (Tati) lives in an apartment with a labyrinth entranceway. The place feels as warm and inviting as the village from Jour de Fete. Its rustic brick layer buildings have a feel of history to them and the streets are alive with casual conversation and dogs running around. You instantly recognize folks in this area from the street sweeper to the vendor selling beaver tails. And then there’s the pretty young lady who’s attracted to the oblivious Hulot.
Walk through a brick wall and you’ll find yourself in the futuristic suburbia of Hulot’s sister, Georgette Arpel (Adrienne Servantie). In strong contrast to her brother, Georgette lives in the classic nuclear family along with her husband Charles (Jean-Pierre Zola) and their son Gerard (Alain Becourt). She’s cooks and cleans in a home full of grotesque Ikea furniture, futuristic technology and that ugly metal fish that shoots water out of its mouth whenever guests arrive.
Tati makes these two places feel like two different worlds with strong contrasts to everything from architecture to characterizations. The most fascinating contrast is the sound. In Hulot’s village, Alain Roman and Franck Barcellini’s musical score always plays over a bombardment of conversations of the residents. There is, however, no music in Arpel’s home. And hardly anyone talks, unless it’s Georgette showing off her house and technology or Charles discussing business. The contrast creates one brilliant gag where music blares through Charles’ phone when he calls Hulot.
Critics often claim Tati’s films are reactionary views against technology. While Tati does contain many sight gags involving technology, I find his films are more aimed at people who take their work too seriously. In Jour de Fete, the villagers mock postman Francois (Tati) for his cantankerous need to be highly regarded among his peers, often getting him drunk at every opportunity. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the beach if filled with people who can’t seem to separate their work life from their personal life, whether it’s the father who’s always getting calls from work to the philosopher who won’t shut up about Marxism. While they obsess over the roles they play, they’ve forgotten how to turn it off and enjoy themselves. We certainly see that in Charles’ relationship with Gerard, who focus on work seems to have disconnected him with his son. It’s only by acting like a kid that he reconnects with his son.
With Mon Oncle, Tati’s target is the snobbery behind the Arpel’s materialistic lifestyle. Thinking he “needs something to work for”; the Arpels attempt to make Hulot conform to their mindset by giving him work at the factory and hooking him up with their fashionista neighbor. They never take into consideration whether or not Hulot wants any of this. In their minds, they know what’s best for him. Of course, Hulot’s too much of a nice guy to say no. Of course, it goes as well as you’d expect.
I suspect Tati is going after the conformist attitude of the 1950’s. In this era was a mindset that pressured everyone’s lives to look like Leave it to Beaver. Everybody is expected to get married, have kids and live in a white suburban house with bright green grass. Men are expected to work full time jobs while women stay at home, clean the house and cook for her family. It’s not enough that they live their lives as such. Others need to live just like they do.
While watching the film, the home décor and the gadgets of the film kept reminding me of those 1950’s short films you see on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The house and furniture look like it came out of an Ikea nightmare, from the low hanging metal chairs to the cup holders that look like compact fluorescent bulbs attached to a garden hose. And the gadgets are a haven of sight gags with their absurdity, from the self-opening shelves to that grotesque metal fish on their lawn that squirts water out if its mouth. One particular moment that amuses me is when the couple moves their chairs outside, not to gaze at the stars but to watch TV from the inside.
The Criterion Collection DVD also includes an English dubbed version called My Uncle, which is the first time I’ve ever seen it add to the satire. In this version, The Arpels and their neighbors speak English and the villagers all speak French. While it can be argued that this was just used to gain an English audience, I argue it adds to the theme of conformity by portraying the misguided idea of sacrificing your culture and identity in the name of materialism. By the way, is it just me or does M. Arpel sound like Thurl Ravenscroft. I keep expecting him to sing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
While watching the film, I wrote the words “the joy of chaos” in my notes. Those words seem to sum up the tone of Tati’s films. What little big laughs Tati’s films have, they more than make up for by taking pleasure in things going wrong. Throughout the film, adults live with the need to control their surroundings. In the Arpel’s case, order comes in the steps around the garden the guests must step on. Chaos finds a way to intervene when guests try to move furniture into the house only go get stuck in a corner. Hulot seems out of a place in a control world when he awkwardly tries to figure out how gadgets or work or what steps to use.
It’s the children who find joy in the chaos, especially the village boys who trick adults into slamming into street lights. Gerard in particular is the only rebellious character in Tati’s movies. The need for a perfect lifestyle has driven a wedge between Gerard and his father. As a result, Gerard sees through the façade and finds small ways to act out, from dressing like an Indian to rigging a book to blow water out of a whale’s blowhole. The reason Gerard respects Hulot could be that he doesn’t try to control him and lets him be he.
Dogs seem to play a big role in the film. The film starts with them running around the streets in packs and in the end; they continue to run in packs through the village. The Arpels have a Weiner dog named Ducky, but even he sneaks through the fence to join the dogs. Their existence proves the uselessness humanity’s need for control is. They run the opposite directions of street signs. They disregard steps and walk anywhere they want. In one very funny scene, Ducky gets the Georgette and Charles locked in the garage via motion control.
If Monsieur’s Hulot Holiday proved Tati’s skills as a filmmaker, Mon Oncle made him a star. It was not only a success with critics and the box office, but it also won the Oscar for best foreign language film. His character M. Hulot became a comedic icon. But critics including Francois Truffaut accused the film of being conventional. Conventional, how? Sure, it follows a plot more than the others, but it still has Tati’s trademark low key jokes, focus on multiple characters and surreal images. If anything, his films are less conventional than Truffaut’s. After this, Tati would take one of the biggest gambles in film history and create one of the most unconventional films of all time.
 A documentary on the criterion DVD says their called crullers. But honestly, they look so much like beaver tails that I’m going to call them that anyway.
 Georgette’s relationship with Hulot is on the most believable portrayals of adults siblings I’ve ever seen on film. It’s clear she loves her brother and is way more used to his bumbling than her husband. She just doesn’t understand that her life is just not for him.
 Who looks a lot like Cruella De Vil, especially with her cigarette.