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Movie Review: Mon oncle (1958)

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The second film in Jacques Tati's M. Hulot trilogy, Mon oncle is a gentle French rebuke to the encroaching modern world, a movie that Chaplin or Keaton would have been proud to make.

In the Old World is M. Hulot — played by Tati himself — a long-legged stork of a man, with his trench coat, umbrella, pipe, and hat. He lives in a frayed little corner of Paris, comfortably crumbling and populated by affectionately sketched characters–the loafing street-sweeper, the half-flirting petite jeune fille — and many children and dogs, all of them strays, scrambling over low, broken walls, hiding in the underbrush, Our Gang pranksters whose mischief Hulot indulges with perfect calm.

The other Paris, unfortunately, is not as easygoing. Hulot's sister and family live in one of those World of Tomorrow houses Warner Bros. was fond of parodying in its cartoons. They smile and bustle, but are trapped in a technological nightmare of barren rooms, blank walls, and clattering machinery. It's foolish, almost funny — but more than a little frightening in its sterility.

Hulot makes his way through both worlds, lingering in the ease of his ramshackle neighborhood, then stepping gingerly amid the unforgiving architecture of a post-War "culture" intent on spending its way into happiness — but of course literally imprisoned by the machines they'd hope would save them from Hulot's lazy satisfaction with Things As They Were.

In about a decade Tati would make his final Hulot film, Play Time (1967), in which Hulot disappears into a steel-glass-plastic Paris, as obsolete as the labor-saving devices of his sister's 1950s dream home. But before he does, we see in Mon oncle the triumph of a laissez-faire life, politely opening doors for stray mutts, springing for his nephew's treats, always ready to please with something small and from the heart.

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