Gigi (Directed by Vincent Minnelli)
The Nominees: Auntie Mame, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, Separate Tables
Mon Oncle (Directed by Jacques Tati)
My Nominees: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks), Gigi (Vincent Minnelli), The Horse's Mouth (Ronald Neame), Touch of Evil (Orson Welles), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
|Vincent Minnelli was given three million dollars by MGM to bring Collette’s novel "Gigi" to the screen. The story, which has a beautiful French girl (Leslie Caron) being brought up by her aunt to be a courtesan, is essentially the French equivalent of My Fair Lady. In my opinion, I think it is better than My Fair Lady because there’s a better investment in the characters. I can believe that Louis Jourdan would fall in love with Leslie Caron long before I could find any romantic connection between Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.
Gigi was a beautiful Technicolor production with songs from Lerner and Lowe (the same team that put together the songs for My Fair Lady). It was nominated for nine academy awards and won all nine, but for some strange reason, not one member of the cast got a nomination. There was no nomination for Caron, nor Jourdan nor even the wonderful Maurice Chevalier as Jourdan’s rascally uncle who sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” a performance that would become his legacy.
Gigi was the only film nominated for Best Picture of 1958 that didn’t have a dark side. The other four all dealt with tense, dark subject matter and I find that this is true of most of the year’s roster of films. My favorite film of 1958 is just the opposite. Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, like Gigi, is also French and is one of those films that is bright and cheery and as happy as a spring day. This is the second film from Tati to feature Mr. Hulot, his odd creation first brought to life in the wonderful Mr. Hulot’s Holiday in 1953.
In that film, we met Hulot on a holiday at the beach in Brittney, getting into various misadventures as he attempts to relax. In Mon Oncle, he is freed from circumstance and Hulot is let loose in the gadget-happy world of the 1950s. Also, in the previous film, he had no intimate ties. This time we meet his sister Madame Arpel, who worries about him and asks her husband Monsieur Arpel, who is a big man down at the rubber hose factory, to get him a job.
The Arpel home is, in a word, baffling. It is constructed like no other movie set I’ve ever seen - starting with a strange automated front gate that is only accessible by someone inside the house. The front lawn looks like it was borrowed from a board game, with its cement block walkway that winds up to the front step and a yard that is established in colored squares and centered by a ghastly metal fountain in the shape of an upstanding fish that spits water straight up into the air. The fish fountain becomes a running gag as Madame turns on the fountain for guests but turns it off for anyone else. We become so accustomed to her habit of turning the fountain on and off, it leads to one wonderful sight gag as a stranger comes to the gate. Our view is obstructed by the fence and when he rings the bell, we see the water shoot up from behind it.
The house itself has a strange cubic shape with two circular windows near the top. Late in the film, Madame and Monsieur Arpel spy on Hulot who is down at the front gate, and the silhouettes of their heads in the windows look like moving pupils. Their garden is made up of an architecture that doesn't look like it was built for human comfort. The walkway is gravel with small blocks cemented in the center and the way to the patio is made up of circular concrete on which one has to play hopscotch to keep from ruining the lawn. Their furniture doesn't look like it was made for humans either, there's an odd running gag about a cone-shaped wire chair that look like it was never built with no intention on supporting the human pelvis. Hulot becomes the only character in the film with enough sense to put the chair aside and replace it with one that is a bit more reasonable.
Hulot comes in and out of the frame, always with this trademark hat, coat, pipe and his lurching walk. He doesn’t quite understand the world he lives in and, unlike most of those around him, seems quite content in his quieter space. He has a quietly beautiful moment early in the film when he opens his window and hears a song bird. He finds that when he turns the window a certain way, the reflection from the sun shines on the bird's nest and the birds begin singing. Later he adjusts the window like he's turning on a radio. He occasionally crosses paths with a young girl who stands outside the tenement. We suspect that she is quietly in love with him and what little contact they have is very sweet.
The soundtrack is a dazzling orchestra of odd sounds coming from the world that surround Hulot. There is a brilliant ballet at the beginning as we see a line of moving cars and instead of hearing honks and squeals and motors, it is replaced by a jazz soundtrack which provides jollier noises for turn signals, honks and cars that arrive into the frame. Other odd sounds are provided by gadgets, new-fangled thingamjigs, not realistic but heighted noises that supply a more angular sound. Oddly enough, for all the noise in this crazy little world, Mon Oncle features a main character who never speaks. Hulot never says a word in the film although those around him are constantly jabbering. What they have to say means nothing if you don't speak French and, based on the subtitles, doesn't mean much more if you do. This is a film about images and visual ideas rather than dialogue.
It was five years between Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle and if you know what a tireless craftsman Jaques Tati was then you understand why. Tati worked tirelessly over his shots, his sets, his set pieces so that they were put together in exacting detail. Like Chaplin or Kubrick, he didn’t make a film every year because he wanted to wait until he had all the pieces down to the miniscule detail.
Tati never seemed to like tight shots, he preferred wider shots so that everything that happens in the scene appears in the frame. He wanted the entire room to be seen and for the characters to be seen from head to foot. In most films, the camera is interested in the head and shoulders of the person who is speaking with no thought to the space around or behind them. Tati wanted a space where a person doing something was also occupied by something going on behind them.
He also loved to play with our visual perceptions. Take for example, Hulot’s home. It is seen in one very curious shot in which the front of the entire tenement is framed by the camera. Hulot enters the building from a door at the bottom right, and we see through a series of windows, Hulot ascending various flights of stairs and we realize that at least one of the windows is on the floor. As he arrives at the top flight, he crosses a stairwell and enters a door then appears from a walkway on the other side of the set. Looking over the makeup of the building, it did not occur to me until later that entire west side of the tenement is made up entirely of stairs. When he arrives at the tenement at the end of the film, he passes the floor length window and at the same time a woman runs past him wearing a nighty. We only see his feet and realize that he, being a gentleman, has turned around.
What makes the film so special is that Tati creates an entire world, a movable feast of treats for the eye, of an odd assortment of people who move in and out of the frame. His streets are populated by vending carts, automobiles and a happy pack of stray dogs. He packs his frame so full of visual treats that no matter what scene you're looking at, not one bit of his frame is empty. He keeps the film essentially plotless so that he has more freedom to move his characters and try new things. What passes for a plot involves Hulot's relationship with his 10 year-old nephew who is utterly bored by the automated world that enraptures his mother. He escapes the confines of his home to spend time with a group of mischievous boys while in a similar subplot, his dachshund, donning a plaid sweater, escapes to play with the local strays.
Mon Oncle, in concept, is reminiscent of Chaplin's Modern Times. In that film, Chaplin threw the Tramp into the machine age and cast his endless survival skills to the age of gadgets, escalating politics and the never-ending search for food. Mon Oncle is only similar in that they both take place at a time when human beings are becoming dependent upon absurd kinds of new technology. While the Tramp is nearly killed by this modern age, Hulot lives in it but not of it. Just as he did in his beach vacation and as he would in his next two excursions Playtime and Trafic, he still exhibits an old world style, his pleasant walks, his gentle politeness and his refusal to let the world get under his skin.