One of the most beloved faces in comedy is Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean. Mr. Bean first graced the screen in 1990, and his slapstick antics have become an icon of British television ever since. In addition to the show, Mr. Bean has appeared in two feature length films, Bean (1997) and Mr. Bean’s Holiday (2007). Although Mr. Bean is an excellent example of slapstick comedy, Rowan Atkinson acknowledges the immense influence of the greats. Although the silent era masters of slapstick such as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton clearly influenced Mr. Bean, perhaps the greatest influence was French filmmaker Jacques Tati and his own character Monsieur Hulot.
Monsieur Hulot appeared in four feature films of his own, played by the director, Jacques Tati. Like Mr. Bean, Hulot bumbles his way into ridiculous situations, driving the viewer to both madness and laughter with his incompetence. Both characters speak very rarely, and approach everyday situations in strange and hilarious ways.
Mon Oncle (1958), the second of Tati’s films starring Monsieur Hulot, is the perfect blend of slapstick comedy and atmosphere, evoking perfectly the slow transition of a rustic suburb in Paris into modernity. From the start, noisy construction gives way to a peaceful cobbled street where a pack of local dogs happily search for snacks. This contrast continues throughout the film and forms the basis of much of the humor. Hulot, who represents the sleepy atmosphere of the past, comes into conflict with his brother-in-law, Mr. Arpel, a business executive who lives a fast paced life. Hulot’s nephew, Gérard Arpel, looks up to him, and the two spend time getting into mischief, much to the dismay of Gérard’s mother.
Unlike Mr. Bean’s devotion to its title character, Tati does not stick too closely to Hulot, allowing the camera to follow the people around Hulot. Tati uses these people to satirize many aspects of modern life. Slight exaggerations, such as the neighbor’s ridiculous lawnmower, force the viewer to laugh at things which would normally be taken for granted.
The sets as well provide some of the greatest moments of humor. Hulot’s apartment is cobbled together and chaotic, but is paralleled by the Arpel house, ridiculously modern and full of furniture which is everything but comfortable. Tati takes full advantage of the brilliant set design, keeping the camera at a distance and letting every chaotic detail unfold. Because of the high level of detail, there are often small reveals which lead to natural moments of comedy. The impracticalities of the Arpel’s modern home constantly vex characters in new and subtle ways. A path of pavers laid for appearance rather than use force Hulot to dance awkwardly as he politely tries to use them as intended. Automatic cupboards test Hulot’s reflexes as he tries to put away a pitcher. Every detail seems natural until Hulot exposes just how ridiculous it is.
The film forgoes a strong central narrative in favor of a looser collection of gags. Because of this, the film takes a meandering pace at times, which might have gotten boring if the town wasn’t so quaint. The catchy theme of the film accompanies scenes of the town, making it feel charming rather than dull. By the time the film ends, it seems as if you’ve been transported to mid century Paris.
Although slower paced than Mr. Bean, Mon Oncle is an excellent example of slapstick comedy with beautiful sets and a hint of social commentary. Mon Oncle is available for streaming on The Criterion Channel but there are also versions available on DailyMotion and Youtube.