Thursday, April 20, 2006

Mon Oncle: An Architecture Film

When it comes to movies that feature architecture as a major theme, the pickings are rather slim. Among only a handful of films that deal with architectural design in any meaningful depth, the best known and most accessible film was the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Even that movie is more about projecting a comprehensive philosophic viewpoint and milking the melodramatic values of the romance between the protagonist and his client than it is about a real debate about the design of buildings.

Instead, students in architecture are led by their teachers to discover films that make heavy use of sets, color and lighting but generally contain an esoterically boring script. Bladerunner, Brazil and almost any film by Peter Greenaway (The Cook, Thief, Wife and His Lover; Belly of an Architect), David Lynch (Blue Velvet) or Wim Wenders emphasize the setting to such a degree that it becomes a character in the film itself. Yet the effect these films have on the designer’s mind is instilling an appreciation of technique by realizing that crafting an environment a particular way can impact the viewer’s perception of reality.

Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle (My Uncle) continues the same pattern, but it distinguishes itself by presenting to the viewer the fundamental debate that confronted architecture of the time. If there is one film that crystallizes the conflict that dominated twentieth century discourse regarding modernization, Mon Oncle introduces this more lucidly than any other. The story is itself rather thin as its entertainment value lies more in a series of visual gags similar to the comedies of Charlie Chaplin in which the main character Monsieur Hulot never speaks (played by Tati, a former mime). Hulot is the uncle of his sister’s young son, whose father is an executive at the local plastic tubing factory. The family lives in a ridiculously modern home, with its absurdly minimalist garden, its fully automated fountain and a state-of-the-art kitchen. Much of the film consists of sequences that demonstrate how the family goes about it its daily routine by submitting to the demands of the house’s harsh design. Corbusier’s “Machine for Living In” becomes reality in the movie, in which the house forces its occupants to suppress the way people would normally live. The people become the props.

Monsieur Hulot lives in another part of town that is representative of the typical small French town, with its animated market square, its charming rustic facades and lively cast of characters that inhabit it. His apartment is on top of tall building composed of a mish-mash of different vernacular styles, accessed by a labyrinth of stairwells. The contrast between Monsieur Hulot’s old-fashioned neighborhood and his sister’s and brother in law’s clinically modern surroundings is deliberate. There is a recurring scene that marks Hulot’s transition from the old to the new part of town, which consists of him walking trough toppled portion of a ramshackle brick wall that frames a view of monotonous modernist housing towers in the distance. This short scene serves as powerful reminder of the ongoing destruction of the old urban fabric in favor of the brand new and alien presence of modern structures. Considering the time the movie was made, it was likely Tati’s way of critiquing the unstoppable trend of ‘urban renewal’ common in his day. Monsieur Hulot serves as Tati’s hapless warrior against modernity, accidentally bungling and ruining some aspect modern convenience, whether it’s at his brother in law’s plastics factory or at the automated appliances of his sister’s home.

Since the Mon Oncle is mostly a series of choreographed comedic sketches, Tati’s argument against the ravages of modernism does not rest on tragedy but rather on light-hearted silliness. Yet this absurdity had very serious message which makes the film’s conclusion ironically tragic, even if it doesn’t come off that way. The charming melodic theme that recurs constantly throughout the film give an inconsequential air about the events within the film, but there is a sense of melancholy in the tune that triggers as sense of loss. It’s a nostalgic theme, a response we have when realized that we have lost something only when there is none of it left. Tati uses nostalgia in describing the old town to a level exaggeration equal to the way the he caricatures ultra-modern life. The depiction of the bustling market square is almost too perfect, and is as much divorced from the actual reality of such a place as his depiction of the machine house governing every aspect of the life of the family. My own observation is that nostalgia for the past can be just as deceptive in solving current problems as an un-tempered confidence in modern solutions. Still, Tati makes a compelling case for the preservation of the traditional life, and his attitude towards modernity is a sentiment shared by most people today. It should be mentioned that this film preceded by several years the first major campaigns against ‘urban renewal’ and provides basis on which much of post-modern architecture theory would based.

There’s plenty in this film for architecture students to study beyond its philosophical point. There was evidently much attention to the details of the sets used, stylistic cues in the architecture, and even the use of techni-color to emphasize the contrast between the ‘natural’ colors old world the artificial tones of the new. Mr. Hulot’s building is a weird post-modernist dream, while his sister’s house reminds students the contradiction of designing a house where inside and outside are one and using an electric gate to imprison visitors within.

In all Tati is to be recommended in bringing to the fore the affect architecture has on people while still instilling humor to make it accessible to the public at large. Although the film is nearly fifty years old, the contentions on modernity and our architectural environment are extremely relevant for situations in our own day.

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