I saw Jacques Tati’s Mon oncle (My Uncle) at the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night. Playtime is no longer my favorite Tati movie.
Mon oncle may be the funniest visual comedy made after the death of silent film. In typical Tati fashion, you sometimes have to think to get the joke, but that only increases the pleasure. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen where someone accidentally punctures a water pipe inside a wall or beneath a floor—I can only remember the few times the gag really made me laugh (for instance, with Stan Laurel in “Busy Bodies”). But when Tati does it here, it takes you a few seconds to realize what has happened. The result is a delayed, yet deeper, longer, and more satisfying laugh.
By Tati standards, Mon oncle almost has a story. The auteur’s onscreen persona, Monsieur Hulot, has a sister, and as she’s married, he also has a brother-in-law and a nephew (a movie called My Uncle must have a nephew or niece in it somewhere). While the mischievous little devil likes his uncle (adores is too strong a word for this kid), his wealthy and image-conscious parents are none too happy with Hulot. They worry that he’s generally irresponsible and can’t hold down a job.
I used to suspect that Tati intentionally avoided giving Mr. Hulot a first name; now I know for sure. Even his own sister, introducing him to a woman she’s hoping to hook him up with (they’re about as unsuited for each other as is possible with two bipeds), calls him only “my brother.”
Mon oncle is the second Hulot movie, made between M. Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime, and it contains many of the same themes repeated in his next picture. As with Playtime, there are elaborate sets designed to parody modern architecture and gadgetry. A disastrous garden party foreshadows Playtime’s accident-prone restaurant. People in their homes are observed through windows. But Tati did it first in Mon oncle, he did it funnier, and he didn’t go over budget and broke doing it.
But here’s something strange about this French comedy. The print screened at the PFA was dubbed into English, and had French subtitles. I have no idea why.
Now the only Hulot movie I haven’t seen is the last one, Traffic. It’s coming to the PFA on Sunday. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it. Nor will I be able to see it at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on February 4.
Speaking of the YBCA, Mon Oncle is coming there Sunday, Jan 31.