Mon Oncle, by Jacques Tati, 1958
The word "delightful" is surely applied to a lot of films, but few embody delight as wholeheartedly as Jacques Tati's gently satirical comedy, Mon Oncle. I think I was probably smiling through the whole film. Winner of the 1958 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Mon Oncle is the story of, well, not so much a story as an episodic progression of events, of Monsieur Hulot, played by Tati himself, his signature character. He lives a relaxed life in an old building in a more traditional part of France. He is worshiped as a hero by his nephew, a little boy whose parents take great pride in their ultra-modern, high tech, comically unwelcoming, house of the future. There's a series of events, and a beginning and end, but that simple premise is pretty much the bulk of the story.
Mon Oncle is basically a silent film. There's dialogue, but it's mostly inconsequential. The narrative is carried by elaborate comedy set pieces and sight gags, commenting on, among other things the coldness and lack of function of modern 1950's design, as compared to the warmth and charming inefficiency of the old world. Monsieur Hulot's sister is obsessed with showing off all the pointless flourishes and gadgets of her home to all who visit, eager to impress them and be the envy of her neighborhood with her spitting fish statue, which she noisily turns on whenever somebody walks to the front gate. Her front yard is a labyrinthine series of stones, the lawn is off limits.
Hulot, on the other hand, fumbles through the modern world, never quite in step with it. This is demonstrated as his meddling sister tries to get him out of her son's life by getting him a job and setting him up with a lady. Tati plays Hulot much in the way Buster Keaton played his characters, with a cryptic expression that we the viewer can apply all sorts of emotions to. Is he annoyed or is he just baffled? Or is he amused? He quietly observes, and never seems to judge, or at least is too polite to do so openly.
The comedy set pieces are truly masterful. These aren't big pratfalls and stunts. Tati's physical comedy is much smaller in scale and more mundane. He sets up a plethora of motifs and recurring jokes and then builds them through repetition and slight variation, and they get funnier and funnier as they progress. The timing of the gags are some of the most intricate I've ever seen, and not just the comedic timing of the actors, but also of the world around them. It's like watching a symphony of comedy.
And speaking of music, the music and sound effects are just as important as the visuals. Tati does some truly incredible stuff with sound. Each location has a theme, and each recurring joke has its own recurring sound effects to go with it.
This is the first of Tati's scant six films I have seen, but I have a feeling I'll be seeking the rest out in the coming months. I think Tati is going to join the ranks of my favorite filmmakers.