I am reminded again why Jacques Tati is one of my favorite filmmakers. Recently I sat down with my daughter Lily and we watched Mon Oncle
(1958). This film is considered Tati’s best film by many, and it truly is a masterwork of the artform. Although my heart leans more towards Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
(1953), I still love Mon Oncle
– and so does Lily. I must say both films are glorious.
As I was pondering why Tati’s films endear themselves to my sensibilities so, I thought of Jean Renoir. Renoir may be my favorite director, if I could actually have such a thing. What grabs me and holds me fast about Renoir’s film is their unabashed portrayal and love of humanity. Tati, though more stylized in his aesthetic, has the same generous and loving characteristic. Tati’s characters are closer to types than Renoir’s, but they are types as only the French can do them – a kind of multifaceted simplicity of forgiven sinners.
With this love of humanity in mind I was struck afresh by the opening credits. They stand out as an example of creatively dealing with two problems: 1) How can the credits actually be an entertaining part of the film rather than something merely tacked on? and 2) How can the credits actually contribute to the meaning of the film?
Workers labor, as do the filmmakers
As the film opens we catch a glimpse of a construction site and hear construction noises. In the left foreground are signs with name on them. As I understand it, these signs correspond to the common practice of placing signs with the architect’s name and builder’s name on the construction site. We soon realize these names, however, are of the “architects” and “builders” of the film we are watching. It is both a clever and interesting way to present the film’s credits. It also says something about the story we are about to see and the kind of filmmaker who is giving us this film.
Tati’s name is last, and no more prominent
By juxtaposing the film’s “construction crew” with an actual building construction site the viewer is asked to see the film’s crew as laborers and collaborators. This film is a product of human effort, creativity, sacrifice, and love. Tati’s name is last, but not last as it is with most films for the purpose of being more prominent. Tati has set himself within the circle of collaborators. Yes, it is his film, but it is their film too.
And then we cut to this:
The other world: Decay as Life
To my mind this is one of the great edits in cinema. Still within the credit sequence, we have the juxtaposition of this shot with the previous which loads it up with meaning – a meaning that the rest of the film will explore. We have gone from the new to the old, from a world of freshly built to a world of decay, from life as death to death as life – for it is in this world of decay that we witness the vibrant bustle of humanity interacting with itself rather than with machines and objects. Mon Oncle is a meditation on these two worlds. As we will see, buildings and houses, which are evidences of human activity and intention, seem to stand for the people who inhabit them. In other words, the artifice becomes the humanity. Thus, this run down street, which exudes a deep and flawed beauty, is the truer humanity.
Tati plays Hulot, and one can assume Tati loves Hulot for all his bumbling and goodheartedness. But Tati’s name, as per the credits, is associated with the new, the world of construction and building, the forever present. Hulot, the oncle of the title, is instantly associated with the old and crumbling. It is as though Tati recognizes that he lives and works in the modern world but finds himself reaching back vicariously to another, more romantic time and place. Hulot then may be his avatar as well as his clown.
I’m not the only fan of Jacques Tati. So is Frank Black:
I will now consider Frank a close friend.