There is a growing tendency in any closed part of the universe…for disorder (called “entropy”) to expand at the price of order (called “negentropy”). Suppose, for example, that we deposit a drop of black ink into a glass of clear water. Initially its presence is quite ordered. That is, all of the molecules of ink are located in one small area and are clearly segregated from the molecules of clear water.
As time passes, however, natural molecular motion will cause the black ink molecules steadily to intersperse with the clear water molecules until they are distributed evenly throughout the glass, resulting in a murky homogeneous liquid with no structure or order whatever…(maximal entropy).
–from Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters
As you’ve no doubt guessed from the above quote, the subject of this month’s review is a comedy. Comedy and entropy are virtually synonymous. Not that comedies produce “murky, homogeneous” end products. A universe subject to the laws of entropy still manages to produce snowflakes, higher life forms, and the Sistine Chapel. It’s just that it’s hard to imagine humour thriving apart from maximum disorder. With most of the great film comedians, such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers, the move from order to maximal entropy is usually breathtakingly fast. Sometimes, however, there are moments in their finest work where the subversion is as gentle and subtle as those molecules of ink suffusing the pristine water of the glass. In the case of one of this century’s greatest comics, Jacques Tati, his whole career was devoted to that kind of meticulous, punctilious anarchism. A Tati masterpiece, Mon Oncle (1958), is currently available at the Riondel Market.
Jacques Tati was born in Le Pecq, France, in 1908. Of Russian-Dutch-Italian-French descent, his father sent him to art school to train him to take over the family business of art restoration and picture-framing. Jacques had other plans. He first became a professional rugby player, and then joined the cabaret circuit in the early 1930s. Combining two passions, he was a hit doing pantomimes and impersonations of then-current national sports heroes. Off and on, he found small roles in films. He directed his first short film in 1947. In 1949 he created his first full-length masterpiece, Jour de Fête. Like the other great comedians whose work he honoured throughout his career, Tati controlled every aspect of his films’ production—direction, writing, editing, scoring, and set design.
In the 20 years after Jour de Fête, Tati would make only five more feature films. Few great directors have built so lasting a legacy on so few films. His total dedication to his art, the demands that he put upon himself and his audience, would make of his life and career what his compatriots call a “chemin de croix”—a slow martyrdom. He was beset by financial problems. His audience drifted away in the long intervals between films. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Tati would grow to feel trapped by the very fictional character who had brought him worldwide fame.
Mon Oncle (“My Uncle”) was Tati’s third feature film, his first in colour, and the second with him in the role of the not-so-Everyman Monsieur Hulot. Hulot might be the bastard comedic lovechild of George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret or Peter Falk’s Colombo—a rumpled raincoat-wearing, umbrella-toting, pipe-smoking doofus beloved of children and dogs. He’s the incarnation of the romantic France of cobblestone lanes, street sweepers, Charles Trenet songs, and endless time for wine, gossip and fishing. It’s the kind of place where nothing ever seems to quite get finished because there’s always a joke or some news that must be shared first.
Hulot is an innocent; Tati was not. Right next to Hulot’s idyllic neighbourhood in Mon Oncle is the modern world of motorways, plastics factories, and suburbia. Jacques Tati saw the world he loved losing its identity in a relentless wave of aggressive industrialization, modernization, and Americanization. In a later, stunning film called Playtime (1967) he showed a group of tourists making a surreal journey from New York to a Paris that looks remarkably like New York. No one notices. Tati created Monsieur Hulot as a counterforce to this kind of cultural homogenization.
Astoundingly, coming as they do decades after the great silent comedies, Jacque Tati’s films use virtually no dialogue. What little dialogue there is in Mon Oncle is a deliberately multilingual mishmash, and hardly in need of subtitles. Dispensing with dialogue did not, however, mean dispensing with sound. On the contrary. Tati was a genius with sound effects, both natural and unnatural. Mon Oncle has one of the most amazing soundtracks I’ve ever heard. It reminded me of the brilliant use the Coen brothers made of sound in Barton Fink. One example from Mon Oncle: Hulot’s brother-in-law gives his son an “educational” ball with numbers written all over it. The son is not impressed. His reaction is translated not into words but into sounds: instead of bouncing, the ball bizarrely “clunks,” as if it were the repository of every bad pedagogical device ever foisted on children.
Tati was a technical iconoclast in other ways. In the cinematic era of the extreme close up, he insisted on the long shot. Hulot is never seen in close-up. Psychologically, the distancing created by holding the camera back works towards a subtler, more ironic humour.
Tati’s greatest genius was in his design of the visual gag. Here he had the assurance of Karpov at the chessboard. And just as one can’t appreciate all of Karpov’s moves as one watches a game play out, Jacques Tati’s comic stratagems are even more satisfying the second or third time through.
In Mon Oncle, the particular glasses of clear water that the entropic Hulot gets dropped into is his brother-in-law’s suburban home and factory. The home is a wonder—an architectural cross between Art Deco Zizag Moderne, the International Style, and 1950s Life magazine ads. The kitchen is frighteningly automated, the furniture has maximal style and minimal comfort, rooms are as cozy exhibition spaces in the Guggenheim, the garden could be the work of a crazed zen monk, and at night the round lighted windows give the whole place the look of a frightened cat. And I’m not going to even touch on the fish fountain. (Hulot’s apartment, on the other hand, might have been a collaboration of Edith Piaf and M.C. Escher.)
Monsieur Arpel and his wife are quite content with both their home and their lives. The Arpels’ only real concern is finding a job and a wife for Hulot, who expresses scant interest in either. Monsieur Arpel is also a little jealous of Hulot’s relationship with his son Gérard. Arpel just can’t understand why his son prefers to hang out with an overgrown kid who can’t hold a job, instead of emulating his successful father and spending his time playing with educational toys. Both father and mother fail to notice that in their zeal for modernity they’ve created a home environment slightly warmer than Pluto.
There are no centrepieces in this film. Each scene is its own gem: the pranks of the neighbourhood kids, Hulot vs. the automated kitchen, the dinner party for a prospective très snob fiancé, Hulot setting a new world-record time for getting and losing a job (30 seconds), Hulot at his brother-in-law’s PLASTAC factory demonstrating that a society which prides itself upon mass-manufacturing extruded plastic pipe should never take itself too seriously.
I hinted earlier that entropy is not necessarily negative. It’s a partner to evolution and to modern Chaos Theory that finds order within apparent disorder. By the time Arpel and his son bid farewell to Hulot, he’s managed to draw them closer together than they’ve ever been. Perhaps Tati was saying that while our society might crank out plastic pipe like surreal sausages, our humanity is never farther away than a shared laugh and the touch of a hand.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“The soundtrack [of a Jacques Tati film] strips words of their significance, substituting a language of sounds and noises. Although drawing on burlesque, [Tati] rejected the irrational and surrealist. “Je veux que le gag ait le plus possible de verité,” [I want a gag to be as close to reality as possible.] Traditional burlesque heroes made their environment serve them, but Tati’s let their world reveal its flaws. Some gags are so subtle they’re virtually invisible….Sight gags are set up with such patience that they seem to expose hidden functions in the clockwork of the universe.”
“[Tati was] a chessmaster of modern film comedy, a creator of complex comic structures in which gag constructions and audience expectations became pawns on his cinematic board.” –James Monaco, The Encyclopedia of Film
Jacques Tati is the Chopin of film comedy. Like Chopin’s Etudes and Nocturnes, Tati’s films are exquisitely crafted, meticulously composed, aesthetically marvellous. And because Mon Oncle is a perfect blend to the two main themes of Jacques Tati’s handful of films—nostalgia for a rural, slow-paced French lifestyle that was vanishing as he recorded it, and wry mockery of the streamlined, faceless, frenetic modernism that erases borders and identities— it remains my favorite of all his works. Mon Oncle also has the perfect Tati ending, combining a profound sadness at the exile of Hulot and the demolition of his endearing-but-improbable home, and a profound joy at the re-emergence of his anarchic spirit where one least expects it.
In retrospect, though, I’d recommend that anyone not familiar with Tati’s work at all watch his films in the order that he created them. There’s a natural evolution from the rustic to the almost-surreal that’s unlike any other director’s journey one might follow in the history of movies. Seeing the films in chronological order, I think one gets a better sense of Tati as the master of cinema as oxymoron: he made the last of the great silent comedies by using sound effects with such finesse that dialogue became irrelevant. It’s as if Tati wanted to prove that “talkies” were a misstep in the history of cinema. Tati’s are the films Buster Keaton might have made had his career had a second act as spectacular as his first.
There is much that is silly in Tati’s films, even downright stupid or absurd, but never anything that is truly ugly or cruel. Befuddlement reigns supreme. If the creators of Monty Python’s Flying Circus have never acknowledged a debt to Tati, that’s surely an oversight. Everything I love about Tati can be encapsulated by a story he tells about the dogs he featured in Mon Oncle. More a genial brotherhood of mutts than anything that could be labeled a “pack,” Tati had gotten his canine stars from a local animal shelter. When filming was completed, he couldn’t bear the thought of returning the dogs to the place he’d found them. He put ads in the newspapers to find them new homes. The response was overwhelming. Had he had two hundred dogs instead of half a dozen, none would have been homeless. Jacques Tati had the same affection for all of the human characters in his films, even the most foolish, that he had for those dogs that seem to wander free through all his films.
A couple of decades after I wrote my review of Mon Oncle, I was able to pick up the new Criterion box set of Tati’s complete work. As one comes of expect of Criterion, each film is a pristine print, and each is accompanied by hours of supplementary materials. There are only half a dozen feature films here, along with some shorts, but that was enough to earn Tati a place on at least one major poll of the greatest directors in the history of film. I look forward to reading a biography of Tati; I know that he struggled towards the end of his life, his perfectionism at odds with the demands of the marketplace and the attention spans of audiences. I’m not sure that a definite biography has yet appeared in English, but David Bellos’s Jacques Tati: His Life and Art is a serious work of scholarship and readily available, as is Malcolm Turvey’s more recent Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism. In French, Marc Dondey’s Tati and Armand-Jean Cauliez’s Jacques Tati look like good places to start. I believe the latter was written in collaboration with Tati himself.
One of the finest testaments to Tati’s genius is how contemporary his satire feels. Toss in some cell phones and a Tesla, and Mon Oncle wouldn’t look out of place in 2020. And let’s not forget the fact that Tati saw the humor in plastics 10 years before Mike Nichols made The Graduate.
As I so often do, I’m going to send you off to read Roger Ebert’s review of Mon Oncle. You’ll find it here:
Here are some of my favorite lines from that review:
“These are not the kind of sight gags that would inspire envy in Jim Carrey. They tickle us with their quiet bemusement; they involve us in a conspiracy with Tati to discover serendipity in a world of disappointment.”
“I love Monsieur Hulot. I love him because he wishes no harm, causes no harm, see (whenever possible) no harm. He does not forgive his trespassers because he does not feel trespassed against….”
“Jean-Luc Godard once said, ‘The cinema is not the station. The cinema is the train.’ I never knew what he meant, until Monsieur Hulot showed me. The joy is in the journey, the sadness in the destination.”
I-swear-to-God-and-hope-to-die that I wrote my comments on Tati’s dogs before I read Roger’s review. I’m pretty stoked that we shared a moment.