Mon Oncle is a 1958 French comedy film by Jacques Tati. It was the first of Tati’s films to be released in color and is almost entirely without dialogue. The plot follows an old-fashioned, eccentric, and charismatic hero, M. Hulot (played by Tati himself) who lives in a small apartment in the old district of Paris. Tati channels the silent film star Charlie Chaplin in Hulot. Chaplin gained enormous popularity in the twenties for his similarly ragged but charming characters. The storyline of Mon Oncle moves between scenes in the romantic and beautiful old Paris and modern architecture and consumerism from France’s post-war invasion that has taken over the rest of the city.
Slapstick comedy prevails in Tati’s French film as he creates humorous scenes of daily life and simple gags. The French dialogue is barely audible except in certain scenes. The majority of the film consists of muffled arguments, idle banter, and movements of the characters and machines that add to the comedic effect. The soundtrack of the film plays mostly in scenes of the old district to connect the lively and colorful music to Hulot’s comedic, independent, and happy-go-lucky lifestyle.
The movie begins with a series of scenes of dogs making their way along cobblestone sidewalks, past children playing, and grownups arguing and laughing. Soon, the dogs cross over a crumbling wall, jumping over the fallen stones as modern apartment buildings rise in the distance. This wall represents the divide between the old Paris and the new. Once across the wall, the dogs run back to their homes that are staggeringly modern and uncomfortable. This neighborhood is where M. and Mme Arpel live in an ultra-modern and geometric house and garden. The Arpels’ son, Gérard, is utterly bored of the rigid, materialistic, and suffocating world of his parents and spends the majority of his time with his unemployed uncle, M. Hulot.
We meet our hero in a small marketplace wearing his signature attire: a tan trench coat, brown fedora, and black pipe. As we follow him through his neighborhood, we stop to watch people buying vegetables, customers arguing over prices, and friends talking. In one of the movie’s most cinematic scenes, M. Hulot enters an apartment building, and through the messy, irregular windows of the building, we watch him go through doors and gates, walk past neighbors, and move up and down the stairs and through corridors. He ultimately makes his way to the top floor of a rundown but still charming Parisian apartment.
Every day after school, Gérard is picked up by his uncle. Hulot follows his nephew and his school friends back toward the old district where they play pranks and games. Hulot, childish himself at times, does not interfere with Gérard joking and finding joy in tormenting adults with pranks. As Gérard continues to spend more time with his uncle, M. Arpel becomes jealous and exhausted by Hulot’s immaturity. In an attempt to conform Hulot to their modern way of life, M. and Mme Arpel find him a job at M. Arpel’s monotonous workplace, a local plastic company, resulting in humorous scenes of factory disasters at the hands of Hulot.
M. and Mme. Arpel’s life, entrenched in fixed gender roles and a machine-like existence alongside the chaotic and child-like one of Hulot, makes this film so spectacular. The film concludes with the departure of M. Hulot from Paris. As the Arpels drive through the old district in the closing scenes, we watch construction workers beginning to tear down more of Hulot’s neighborhood as the modern world expands. Tati used his artwork to comment on the social and economic values of the era. He laughs at the reality of the world around him filled with a lack of individuality caused by the need to maintain social status and materialistic ways. Tati was able to get the attention of a society so enthralled in consumerism and caused the public to recognize what matters in life.