This evening, we watched the Jacques Tati film Mon Oncle
Kiddo is a big big fan of the Marx Brothers, and we thought he might be primed to appreciate the quieter slapstick of Tati (which he was — when it ended he said “are there any more”?). It has been a while since I’ve watched the whole film through, and of course I remembered the absurd modernist house with its fish fountain and push buttons and stepping stones (especially because of the connections between this kind of house and my current research on bachelor pads).
I had forgotten about the boys whistling at passersby to try to get them to run into the street lamp, which kiddo also found hilarious (he swears the boys in this film are the same gang of boys described in the Petit Nicolas books)
But aside from it being a very funny film, it is also, like Tati’s Playtime, a commentary on modernization in France in the 1950s. The film is structured around the contrast between the traditional social neighborhood of M. Hulot, with its street sweeper and vegetable sellers and horse carts, and the modernist spaces of his sister’s house (enclosed behind high metal walls and gate) and his brother-in-law’s plastic hose factory. Characters move between these two spaces over a crumbling wall, beyond which are rows of spare modern apartment blocks, and we see both new construction in process and old buildings being torn down. (Playtime is in that modern space, but in a more fully urban context, and if you watch carefully, you will see great landmarks of Paris seen reflected on modern glass facades.)
Horsecarts aside, we kept thinking of China as we watched it. The village felt like a French version of the old town of Suzhou, where neighbors sit in chairs in front of their houses, playing cards and chatting. Sidewalks here are swept by older people with brooms made of branches, just like the street sweeper’s in Mon Oncle, although unlike their French counterpart, they do not always leave a pile in the middle of the street (they are more likely to hide it in the bushes). While I haven’t seen a horse, I have seen a tractor and bicycles much like the one M. Hulot rides. The old is being torn apart to make way for the new; just like in France in 1958, the new is celebrated, but like Tati, we mourn much of what is lost. I have heard many Chinese friends say, with more than a hint of sadness, that they no longer recognize their home town.