My Uncle's almost certainly the most high-minded film ever to begin with dogs: cute, adorable street urchins, bring-them-home-and-take-Photobooth-snaps ruffians. Jacques Tati revels in their cuddliness, even as they serve as a link between the rural French village and the newly high-tech spaces — a house and one very unlovable "Plastac" company — My Uncle gently but unaffectionately satirizes. First comes the cute fun, then the serious stuff before you realize what's happened.
My Uncle is the English-language version of Mon Oncle, which played New York in 1958 (the French version was also on tap at another theater), then lay forgotten until its 2005 restoration. Most of Tati's films come in at least two versions: 1949's Jour De Fete was released in black-and-white until technology could catch up with Tati's original color version. 1953's M. Hulot's Holiday came in both French and English, and Tati added new footage in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Playtimehas never been restored to its original form (the restored default version couldn't find all of the footage cut by a panicked distributor), the bitter capstone to 20 years of tinkering. The film's meanings don't change much: My Uncle has alternate takes and some small bits that aren't in Mon Oncle, but watching either version will give you the basic idea.
That idea, roughly, is part of Tati's ongoing trajectory from disgruntled citizen of an inappropriately complacent post-WWII republic to optimistic proponent of technology. Monsieur Hulot's Holiday indicated that Tati was less than pleased with his fellow countrymen in the early ‘50s: viewed from the right angle, it's a horror-show of stupid student Marxists, fatly complacent vacationers ignoring radio dispatches about the Algerian War and faux-intellectuals surrounding the heartily bluff Hulot. Mon Oncle, with its house-of-the-future space, is kind of a dry run for Playtime‘s celebration of the entropic pratfalls of increasingly unwieldy technology— but it's far more embittered.
In Playtime, the possibility for enjoyment comes in part because everyone's realized there's no way to keep all this stuff in order, a realization underscored by legendarily complex mise-en-scene, where the viewer has to choose which of the many extras and corners of the screen to focus on and what to see for maximum fun and profit. My Uncle is less overwhelming: only three main locations, not nearly as many as people, and less options in general, its compositions always carefully understating where you should be looking. Garden paths direct people's footsteps and arrows regulate the parking lot. There's a terrific moment of two women advancing from opposite ends of the yard sidewalk, afraid to twist their bodies just enough to speak at each other; instead, their voices project to random parts of the fence. Everything can only go one way; it's worth noting that the father-son reconciliation that comes at the end is the only time anyone drives against the arrow. People won't even step on the grass if stepping stones are there to guide them; the game Tati's nephew (Alain Becourt) and his friends play—whistling at people from an unseen angle, distracting them long enough to walk into a lamp-post—almost has the effect of a Buddhist master rapping them with a scroll to encourage meditation and awareness.
Describing My Uncle in these terms risks making it sound dour or theoretical; in truth, it's a relaxed bath-soak of a comedy, with plenty of gags and even more atmosphere. Desperation fringes it — an obsession with keeping things dust-free seems more pathological than necessary — but the center is a remarkably confident, non-verbally-oriented comedy. (Not for nothing did Buster Keaton allegedly deem Tati the true inheritor of silent film.) Seen today, Tati's style — a penchant for long master shots from distance and plenty of frames composed for rectangles within rectangles — is as clear a predecessor to the modern Festival Film as anything by Ozu or Antonioni. And it's funny too.
Opens September 8 at Film Forum