Jacques Tati’s comedies are divisive, not because they contain sex or violence (they don’t), but because some viewers wonder what’s supposed to be funny. Emphasizing visuals over plot, dialogue and story, Tati’s style is gentle, subtle and laid-backnot the type of comedy most people are used to in today’s cinema of footballs in the head and kicks in the groin.
Mon Oncle (My Uncle), which screens at 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 8 as part of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s “Masters of French Film” series, won the Oscar for best foreign-language film of 1958 and was one of Tati’s biggest hits, on the heels of the international success of his previous comedy, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.
As in that film, Tati portrays Hulot, a befuddled, mostly silent figure who drives a strange, low-riding car and observes the absurdity of the world around him when he isn’t inadvertently causing chaos. Finding himself out of work and out of place, he takes a job in a plastic hose factory run by his bourgeois brother-in-law, who lives with Hulot’s sister in a grotesquely trendy automated house with a horrid aluminum fish-fountain that serves as one of the film’s running gags. Though he’s terribly inept at fitting in to the modern world, Hulot still inspires the affection of his young nephew Gerard (Alain Becourt), whose parents find Hulot’s influence alarming.
Inspired by such silent stars as Chaplin, Tati is able to make the very environment part of his story, creating gags from Hulot’s apartment, ugly fashions and the awful house. In an essay for the Criterion Collection DVD release of the film, Matt Zoller Seitz writes, “Tati’s gift was his ability to see how his own goofy, oblivious singlemindedness was reflected not just in others, but in Western civilization, which became increasingly crowded, hectic and gadget-obsessed during the middle part of the 20th century.” The humor in Mon Oncle is slow, poignant, and lingers in your memory. You might not laugh, but you’ll definitely smile.