Thoroughly Modern Milieu
Second go-rounds mostly fail to live up to memory and are better left ungone. Like the old neighborhood or childhood chum, sometimes the original has changed, and always we and the times have moved on and altered. Thus Mon oncle, first seen as a college student not long after its dubbed American release, and now as “not a dubbed version,” according to director-writer-star Jacques Tati, “but an original English version, in which the same actors were used.”
That My Uncle appears at all is a miracle of luck and technology. Never before seen and having been considered lost, the severely damaged negative turned up by chance. Some thousand hours’ coolie work went into photochemical restoration to correct scratches, stains, blurs, enlarged perforations and other deteriorations, while other imperfections were remedied by digital processes (including sound, remixed but left monophonic), then returned to 35mm format. A four-minute “Restoration” short comes with it, a comparison of various frames wise enough to question its own “before?” and “after?” labeling.
Cultural historic event as well as a film, to be accompanied by rushes and other “unseen scenes,” this version opens to fanfare here and at festivals in France and Italy, is inspiring exhibitions of related furniture and architecture, and will appear in a fall DVD. Differences between the “French” and “English” versions are academic, though it is worthwhile to note that signs were relabeled for the latter; duration of scenes tailored to fit speaking-time variations in the two languages (with actors coached appropriately), and some takes appearing in one or the other but not both, with others re-shot and therefore inevitably varying; and the original French allowed to remain for the good folk of Saint-Maur to set them apart from the affluent snobs. Tati was notoriously slow, obsessive in pre- and post-production detail. As with almost exact contemporary Orson Welles, this cost him: only six features, plus shorts and TV shows, over forty years, strapped for cash in spite of initial commercial-critical success, and his films often impounded as debt collateral.
His first color venture and the second of four M. Hulot films -- logical progressions from Jour de fête, an expanded L’école des facteurs, about the mishaps of U.S.-film-inspired, time-efficiency-obsessed rural mail carrier François -- My Uncle/Mon oncle uses the sight effects of the Golden Age slapstick its author so admired. A fan of W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton in particular, like them -- and Chaplin -- the ex-professional rugger and cabaret mime created one of cinema’s recognizable character/alter egos in lanky Hulot (Tati), his fedora, rumpled raincoat, too-short trousers and striped socks, an umbrella and long-stem pipe as props, springy ball-of-the-foot gait and an aura of determined befuddled innocence and good heart.
Colette pegged it right in noting “something at the crossroads between sports, dance, satire and ‘tableau vivant,’” for, once the minimal complication is set up, what follows is a series of vignettes both obvious and resulting from fixed character interacting with unchanging object. Brother-in-law Charles Arpel’s (Jean-Pierre Zola) “Plastac” plastic-hose factory is ultramodern sterile. With a pebbled artificial garden, his and his wife’s (Adrienne Servantie) appliance-serviced house is the vacant-eyed, aluminum fish-fountained antithesis to life, which is found in the hero’s humble neighborhood characterized by faux-squalor, a street cleaner (André Dino, uncredited) who chitchats but never quite sweeps, and annoying poor people of Paris theme music. Son Jimmy Arpel (Alain Becourt, whose character’s name is Gerard in the French version) is bored at home, even the tartaned family dachshund prefers running afield with four mutts, and snooty bourgeois neighbors are poseurs.
Expectedly, out-of-it Hulot will be thwarted by -- and yet unwittingly show up the emptiness of -- gadgets, workplace, formal gardens, prefab schools, automobiles and traffic. In a nineteenth century bent on mechanical progress, American Thoreau’s was a voice in the wilderness, just like Frenchman Tati’s a hundred years later. Today, when not only garage, but also car, doors are opened by distant buttons, there is wider concern about the pitfalls of technology, and some of My Uncle’s set pieces emerge as prolonged beating an accepted dead horse and in fact can be rivaled by vintage 1950s ads.
The dénouement is unsatisfactory, Hulot rather de-personalized, and the separate bits sledgehammer repetitious, though as a whole the story is easygoing. As at a circus, sometimes people laughed more because they felt they should than because bits held up. Socially and politically simplistic after all, like also mostly silent Modern Times, it nevertheless contains enough well-observed visual gags and even surpasses itself in its limited moments of mechanical sound beyond the horrible stilted English -- listen, for instance, for the clacking of heels.
This tale put in motion by an anti-protagonist of old-fashioned sensibilities, is one of those classics whose totality proves less than the reputation. But the viewer’s reward lies in the sprinkles of comic genius.
(Premieres at the Museum of Modern Art on June 20, 2005. Released by Les Films de Mon Oncle; not rated by MPAA.)