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Sep 9, 2007

Mon Oncle (1958)

This is how I saw my first Jacques Tati movie. I'd heard about them, read a few reviews on the web and I was intrigued. I made a mental tick next to his name and when, in March 2004, Sally and I found ourselves at the Virgin Megastore on Boulevarde Poissonieres in Paris, I went hunting for them. I found M. Hulot's Holiday, or more correctly Les Vacances de M. Hulot. In spite of locating this gem of French cinema, the selection at Virgin was disappointing. Too much Hollywood, not enough Studio Canal or Pathe.

Zip-pan back to Australia where I work my way through the carry-on bag of DVDs we had acquired in our pan-planetary travels and I watched M. Hulot for the first time. It took me about twenty minutes to slip into the relaxed pace and whimsical headspace of Tati's comedy but after that, I was hooked.

Two days ago, I got a copy of Mon Oncle. This time I was ready for Hulot from the word go and this film is currently on my list of all time favourites.

It starts with a scene of small, scampering dogs roaming the streets of an old vilage in France, rummaging in garbage bins, playing in the gutters, pissing on park benches and in general, having a great time. The dogs serve an important purpose. Their instinctive randomness and curiosity highlight the futuristic sterility of the town nearby where M. Hulot's sister, brother-in-law (Mr and Mrs Arpel) and nephew Gerard live. One of the roaming dogs, an adventurous dachshund, belongs to the family. Instinctively shunning the modern town, it chooses to wander with the mutts in the old town where a horse and cart pick up junk, the street sweeper always seems to have a neat pile of litter in front of him and the bistro looks like the kind of place anyone would love to spend a few hours playing pool and sipping cognac.

Hulot is unemployed and aimless, living in a garret apartment from which he seems content to wander the town, pick up Gerard from the hideously sterile school he attends and observe the World. His sister (Adrienne Servantie) decides that Hulot should work in the plastic-tubing factory that her husband manages. This of course doesn't work and Hulot manages to manufacture pipes that look like sausage links. She's also trying to matchmake him with her neighbour, a Hedda Hopper look-alike who has nothing in common with Hulot. A garden party (held in the Arpels' outrageously silly, hideous, minimalist, human hostile garden) turns into disaster as Hulot innocently punctures the pipeline to the fountain, amputates a climbing vine and looks more bemused than usual. One of Tati's keen observations here is that the attendees of the party interact more genuinely when things go wrong than they had before Hulot arrived.

But the plot isn't essential. The heart of this movie is the interaction between Hulot and the World. The whimsical village life where a potential punch-up evolves into a friendly ride on the junk cart after a sojourn in the cafe, the way the little dogs always seem to know where Hulot is and are drawn to him as a kindred soul and most central, how Gerard understands Hulot the way that adults rarely can are the aspects that turn the mundane into the magical. Charming isn't a word I use often, but I keep thinking of it when I remember this film. This is a film to treasure.

(Originally posted Wednesday, December 15, 2004)

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