I am not really a fan of what are generally called the “great” silent comedians. Although I love Buster Keaton’s films, the very mention of the name Charlie Chaplin makes me yawn. Granted, he was an early pioneer of film, but I never have found his humor even remotely funny; for all his pathos, his humor remains almost exclusively nasty and mean-spirited. Harold Lloyd had many funny moments, but wasn’t his best in Preston Sturges’s
Mad Wednesday, a sound film? The one comic who did make great silent-styed comedy though, was Jacques Tati, a fierce original who made brilliantly funny films in the style of silents, but with a contemporary sensibility that showed a perceptive and healthy disdain for progress that rings much truer than anything by Chaplin.
Tati’s masterpiece is his 1958 Mon Oncle, his first color film, and his second as Mr. Hulot, a kind of old-world everyman he introduced in his classic 1953
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, one of the most sweet-natured comedy films ever made, with an overriding intelligence that gave its comedy an edge. In Mon Oncle, we see Hulot living a leisurely paced lifestyle in a rural French village. His sister and brother-in-law, the Arpels, live in a hilariously modern house, an architectural nightmare somewhere between Corbusier and Bauhaus and the very model of what was thought of as space-age modernism in living. It’s a sterile, automated home with decorations that look like Braque and Miro sculptures, and a wonderfully ugly fountain in the shape of a fish.
The Arpels are proud of their modern middle-class life and try to show Hulot what he’s missing by letting him take care of his nephew, and by giving him a job at Arpel’s plastic factory, but all efforts to get make Hulot conform seem useless in the face of his ongoing battle with the logic of modern living. If there is a message here, it’s a gentle warning against progress, but that’s not really Tati’s agenda. He seems as fascinated with all the useless gadgets as anyone else, giving them a sentience that makes them like characters in the film. The sound in this film is remarkable too: each gizmo has its own unique, exaggerated sound, from the gurgle of the metallic fish fountain to the whirring of electric garage doors and the electric buzz of the Arpels’ front gate.
Tati would play Hulot twice more – in the amazing
Traffic – but this is the Hulot film that best combines his relaxed style of physical comedy so apparent in Holiday with the more cerebral concerns of Playtime.