Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mon Oncle (1958): Great example of consumerism, gadgetry, and the next great "thing"

model of Villa Arpel
M. Hulot (Jacques Tati) is the dreamy, impractical, and adored uncle of young Gérard (nine years old), who lives with his materialistic parents in an ultra-modern geometric house and garden (Villa Arpel) in a new suburb of Paris, situated just beyond the crumbling stone buildings of the old neighborhoods of the city. Gérard's parents, M. and Mme. Arpel, are firmly entrenched in a machine-like existence of work, fixed gender roles, and the acquisition of status through possessions and conspicuous display. (A running gag involves a fish-shaped fountain at the center of the Arpels' garden that Mme. Arpel turns on only for important visitors).
Each element of Villa Arpel is representational rather than functional, an environment completely hostile to the comfort of its occupants. In choosing modern architecture to punctuate his satire, Tati once stated, "Les lignes géométriques ne rendent pas les gens aimables" ("geometrical lines do not produce likeable people"). from Wikipedia From pas japonais, stepping stones,  positioned like mine fields, weird, hardly comfortable furniture and a kitchen with booby trap-esque controls and appliances,  Villa Arpel emphasises the supremacy of superficial aesthetics and electrical gadgets over the reality of daily living.  All this to impress those who work FOR M. Arpel and the neighbors (who live in smaller, less impressive homes).  The Arpels were huge show off to those who did not "have" and looked down their nose to the less ambitious uncle (who never was honored with the fish fountain being turned on).

Looks like the this guest deserves the honor of the fish fountain being turned on.

The Arpels might have been ridiculous, stuck up, and all around pretentious but this film is worth checking out.  The set design was so much a part of the film that one might not notice the entire dialogue is in French.  A few scenes come to mind when hardly a word was spoken, other than mumbles and rambling.

The uncle in the booby trap of a kitchen
Mme. Arpel has a special garage door installed for M. Arpel's anniversary gift.  The door opens and closes automatically when the sensor is set off.  Mme. gets locked in the garage when the dog walks in front of the sensor, with his tail UP.  Meanwhile M. Arpel comes home, walks in front of the sensor, opens the door.  Both walk back into the garage marvelling at the gift.  Dog walks back in front of sensor, door closes, locking BOTH inside.  They yell and make all kind of noise, trying to get the dog to walk in front of the sensor, again, to let them out.  Does not work because now the dog's tail is DOWN and he is not tall enough to set the sensor off.  Maid hears the commotion and FREAKS out.  She will NOT help them as she is scared to death of all the modern contraptions around the villa and thinks if she walks in front of the sensor devastation will happen. I know I am not doing the scene justice, you must watch it to get the humour and enjoy it yourself.  There are several other scenes, few involving the glorious fish fountain, that command little dialogue, I will not butcher them.

There are subtitles, although not many, as there is not that much dialogue.  It is a very physical and scenic movie, not much dialogue is needed to tell the story.  Please do not let it being a foreign film turn you off. I highly recommend this film if only to see the Villa.

Mme.  Showing off to the neighbor.
M. Arpel "relaxing" in the courtyard of the villa.



  1. Very interesting and I must take a look. I love the part about the environment being hostile to the comfort of its occupants. I love modern design which translates to there not being one comfortable seat or couch in our house. But to make up for (or counter) the physical discomfort our guests might experience, we serve them lots of good wine and food. They keep returning, so I we must be doing something right. ; )

  2. Where can we find the movie?! On Youtube perhaps? I love you blog, be sure to drop in an say Hi over at Everyone Goes to Mick's!

  3. The movie was on TCM as part of their 31 days of Oscar. Netflix might have it or If you have TCM, you can find their schedule online.