This is an image from 1:00:00 into Jacques Tati’s playful, faultlessly composed Mon Oncle (1958). It’s a kind-hearted comedy set in a Parisian suburb where modern homes coexist with ramshackle tenements, and where the hopelessly unfashionable Monsieur Hulot (Tati) must get along with his sister’s ultra-bourgeois family. Hulot may be the main character, but he’s not the film’s real focus; unlike, say, Chaplin’s comedies, Mon Oncle has no interest in extracting pathos through close-ups. Instead, Tati patiently observes Hulot’s environs – especially his sister’s gray, gadget-filled house of the future – and constructs subtle jokes along the margins of the frame. Through these wide shots, Tati invites the viewer into his colorful, unpredictable, and very funny world.
All of these traits and techniques are on display in the image above. That well-dressed little boy is Gérard Arpel, Hulot’s nephew and the “mon” of the film’s title. He’s been forced into a suit and tie so as to look refined for his mother’s garden party, but he has no intention of playing the part. He’s peering out into the street and whistling at an approaching guest; moments later, the guest (distracted by the whistling) bangs into a streetlamp. It’s a perfectly timed, childish joke – one that’s reprised at the end of the movie – and its punchline isn’t even explicitly shown, but rather manifested through the wiggle of the streetlamp and a loud “BANG” on the soundtrack.
Whereas many comedy directors feel compelled to hammer home the point of every joke, Tati gets more done by sparingly applying a few precise tools (i.e., a wide shot, judicious editing, sound effects). He takes his comedy seriously, and takes a similarly subtle approach to characterization. Tati shies away from psychologically profiling his characters, preferring to develop relationships and attitudes visually. (The content of the dialogue is almost irrelevant in his films, especially Playtime .) For example, we get the sense that Gérard gravitates toward his bumbling uncle because he’s so alienated by his family’s pretentious, repressive lifestyle. He never says this (I mean, he’s 9), but it’s clear through his actions and the way he’s filmed relative to his parents and the house itself.
Just look at the image above: Gérard, the petite, curious troublemaker, stands in stark contrast to the flat, monolithic barrier in front of him. He’s creeping around its edges and peeking through its slats, counteracting the fence’s primary function, which is to separate the Arpel household from the outside world. Gérard, by virtue of being an energetic kid, can’t and won’t be fit into his family’s narrow constraints, whether social or architectural; this aligns him with his uncle, even if Hulot’s unsuitability for bourgeois life is more a matter of clumsiness than rebellion. Both characters contribute to the film’s overall critique of technological modernity, and I think Tati sympathizes with Gérard’s youthful mischief as well as his alter ego’s frustrations in the Arpels’ cutting-edge household.
This gets at one of Tati’s greatest strengths. Even though Mon Oncle is a gentle, deliberately paced study of a small-town community – with an eye for the absurdities of everyday life – it’s still an ideologically potent (and sharply insightful) film in ways that flow organically from the comedy. The contrast with Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) – a film I absolutely adore, which also exploits the comic properties of antagonistic machinery – grows more relevant here, because Chaplin inserts his political message directly into his Tramp’s melodramatic struggle. Tati, meanwhile, expresses it through the ironies and rhythms of day-to-day life. He doesn’t use a single language, but speaks through the sights and sounds of the sensory world.