Distributed by: Continental Distributing
Released: May 1958
If your issue with foreign films is having to do all that reading, then your best bet is to watch a foreign film made in the silent era. I haven’t watched a ton of them, but a couple classics stand out: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921) and Nosferatu (1922), both from Germany and both dark expressionist films from the Wiemar Republic days. The former is especially a good film, creepy and strange and having an ending that M. Night Shyamalan would be proud of.
Both of those films predated the Best Foreign Film award given by the Academy, and both are very different in tone and content from 1958’s Best Foreign Film, Mon Oncle. Now to clarify, Mon Oncle is not a silent film—it is a full color “talkie”—but it might as well be a silent film. It's is a comedy, not unlike the films of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, but with sound. The closest modern day comparison would be the Rowan Atkinson’s "Mr. Bean" shorts and films. But perhaps more like Chaplin, Mon Oncle has social commentary running through it.
|Monsieur Hulot and his nephew, Gérard|
The main character is Monsieur Hulot, played by director Jacques Tati, who never really drives the plot but somehow insinuates himself into every situation. He is sponging off his sister and her middle-management husband, Monsieur Arpel, a short-tempered, but good-intended, modern man. Also living in the home is Hulot’s nephew Gérard. Gérard loves his uncle, much to the frustration of Arpel, since Hulot is a major-league screw-up and Arpel wants his son to grow up with the aspirations and drive that he has.
Those may be the main human characters of the film, but perhaps more important as a character is the house in which they live. The home is a strange-looking place of right-angles and unfortunate modernity. It is filled with gadgets intended to make cooking and cleaning easier, but which have the unintended consequence of sucking the life out of those who live there. There is the garage-door opener that traps the Arpels when the dog hits the wrong button; the art deco-inspired stepping stones and shrubbery; and most amusingly, the standing fish in the small pool that spouts out water to be turned on whenever guests arrive. Mrs. Arpel is most proud of all the “conveniences” of the home, wanting to show off her home to whomever visits. Yet living in such a home seems like it would bring more work than leisure.
|The Arpels at home, complete with standing fish and eye windows|
Mon Oncle is filled with sight gags and long dialogue-less scenes that make this seem like a modern-day silent talkie. One especially funny visual joke: Hulot is outside the home at night, trying to get back into the gated yard. As he struggles, the lights come on in the house, two round windows with heads looking out. As Hulot continues making noise, the heads move in unison, making them look like eyes looking around the neighborhood. It’s that kind of subtle gag that fills this film (if you aren't watching carefully, you may miss some of them), and Tati perfectly blends this humor with his message.
And there most definitely is a message. Hulot might be lazy and useless, but he is living life without worry, which is why Gérard loves him so much. He joins in the young boys’ tricks and doesn’t worry about whether he has a job or not. Meanwhile, the Arpels are social climbers, and look ridiculous over and over again in being that way. Monsieur Arpel considers himself important at his job, yet has to take the humiliating meetings with his boss like the rest of us. Madame Arpel turns on the fish whenever the doorbell rings, then turns it off just after a guest leaves. It’s all pretty silly.
|Rich Uncle Pennybags (The Monopoly Guy)|
When the film came out, many were critical of the film’s anti-modern message, but no matter if you like water-spitting fishes or odd-looking furniture, the bottom line is this is a funny movie. Tati directed a number of films with Hulot, played by himself, as the main character, and this one is considered by some as the best of the series. And this, I might reiterate, is the perfect film for anyone who has decided they don’t like foreign films because of all the reading.
The Title: My Uncle. No, this is not a movie about the eyewear of another uncle, Rich Uncle Pennybags, a.k.a, the Monopoly guy.
|Harold Lloyd in Safety Last|
The culture: There is a juxtaposition of the charm of Old World France, which seems to be the realm of Hulot, with its crumbling buildings and dogs running through its streets, and that of the modern post-war sterility of the Arpel’s home. Tati starts with a gag—the actor’s names are shown on the signposts of the streets, with the cutest dogs you ever saw running all over the place. There doesn’t seem to be room for that sort of creativity and warmth in the confines of the Arpel compound.
Agenda danger: Those that took offense to the film’s criticisms of modern consumerism must have been real fun at parties. This is a funny movie, poking fun at all of us who feel we need the latest car or computer gadget. Nothing would ever get done in a world of Hulots, but it would be a sad and dull place living with the Arpels.
Best Picture that year: Ben Hur.
Rating: The jokes may come off as corny from time to time, like watching Harold Lloyd with his clock in Safety Last (1923) or the slapstick of the Marx Brothers or Three Stooges. Be that as it may, I like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, and I liked this film a lot.