Mon Oncle is another Jacques Tati satire of all things modern, efficient and soulless, this time represented by a sleekly geometric, automated home that looks (and functions) like a robot.
The house belongs to the Arpels, a vain and materialistic couple with a young, browbeaten son named Gerard (Alain Becourt). The boy happens to be the nephew of Monsieur Hulot (Tati), who takes him on ramshackle adventures in the old town center, where Hulot himself lives.
Architecture does much of the satirical work here. Hulot’s apartment complex looks as if it was built by dropping a bunch of incongruent houses on top of each other. It’s a mess of intersecting stairways and crowded common areas, yet compared to Villa Arpel – with its high walls and steel gate – it fosters real community. Similarly, in town Gerard flies through crumbling alleys and across grungy fields with other boys, while in his parents’ “garden” he has to stay on strictly prescribed walkways, most often by himself.
Sometimes, the architecture simply allows for light visual gags, as when Mr. and Mrs. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie) poke their heads up in the two circular windows of their bedroom at night. Silhouetted against the light, they look like the pupils of a giant robotic head, consumed by the very building they designed to serve them.
My favorite bit might be the recurring one in which Mrs. Arpel uses a dial in her house to control the fish fountain out in the garden. It is, conceivably, a peaceful feature, yet she only turns it on – in a desperate flurry – whenever a guest arrives at the gate. Mon Oncle zeroes on in the way we often use our homes as status symbols first, and places of care and comfort second. Thank goodness for the Hulots in our lives, who help us reset our priorities by falling in fountains.