If you’ve been reading along this week, I don’t need to tell you all about Mon Oncle as a comedy masterpiece. But I do think it’s interesting to take a close look at how much of the physical comedy is focused on the modern abode of Monsieur Hulot’s sister and brother-in-law. For me, these were some of the most hilarious parts of the film, so I wanted to break down what makes it so funny.
Monsieur Arpel works for a factory that creates home goods and appliances so, naturally, his house [Villa Arpel] is entirely furnished in these modern, “stylish” products. Madame Arpel’s dedication to this way of living is meticulous, as is her habit of keeping everything clean to the point of sterility. She is unabashedly invested in what others think of her and her home and, by extension, her husband.
The fish fountain is a centerpiece of her lifestyle. At the beginning of this scene, about a half hour into the film, someone unexpectedly buzzes at her gate. She turns on the fish fountain and ensures the stream of water is emitting from the fish’s mouth before admitting the guest.
The guest is a new neighbor who is sufficiently awed as Madame Arpel shows her the house. The furniture is all odd geography, the kitchen gadgets are abruptly useful and, of course, the house is fully air conditioned.
One aspect that struck me as I watched this film is that the sounds made in the house match the discomfort of everything else about it. When the women walk on the hard floors in their high heels, the sound is like marbles being shaken in a glass bowl. The buzzes and rings of the gadgets are startling. The shrill voices echo unpleasantly in the sterile environment.
While the neighbor is still visiting, Monsieur Arpel comes home. He sees the telltale water rising from the fish’s mouth above the gate, and he straightens his suit in anticipation of a guest. After a brief conversation, she leaves and the family prepares to eat dinner. Just as they are settling in, however, the gate buzzer rings again, and Madame Arpel rushes to turn on the fish. When she opens the gate and realizes it is just her brother, she, annoyed, switches the fish off. No need to impress him.
Madame Arpel fetches one of their stylishly modern chairs for Monsieur Hulot, which folds him up like a rag doll. Once again, the furniture that is designed to look shockingly, impressively modern does not cater to human comforts. It’s interesting that the rest of the family have normal-shaped chairs. Is Madame Arpel trying to show her brother that he is not welcome by offering an uncomfortable chair? Or are these the only chairs she has available besides their own dining seats?
Then, in one of the most Chaplin-esque parts of a very Chaplin-like performance, Hulot extracts himself from his chair and messes about in the kitchen. He accidentally touches an odd bar that then sets off an alarming buzz. In trying to figure out the source of the buzzing, he opens an automated cabinet and finds an odd pitcher. He drops it but, miraculously, it bounces back up! The following routine is charming as he amuses himself with bouncing the pitcher first off the stove, then off the floor.
It follows that if one item in a cabinet is bouncy, they must all be bouncy. So Hulot grabs a glass and drops the glass to the floor. Of course, it shatters, and he gracelessly pushes the glass aside with his foot.
He then goes back to the family, collects his nephew and they go off for fun and adventures leaving his sister and brother-in-law to their coffee in their stiff, sterile environment.
Mon Oncle demonstrates the juxtaposition between what adults consider important and what children consider important. Monsieur Hulot is the bridge between those two worlds: he is an adult but with the innocence and fascination with the world that children possess. While the adults somewhat uncomfortably revel in the world of modernity and investment in others’ opinions, the children largely ignore all of that. Hulot, however, is interested in and perplexed by this world of adults, but he doesn’t seem at all concerned with what other adults think of him. And what adults think of him, apparently, is that he is not worth impressing with a fish fountain.