"Un but", the term employed by Madame Arpel, can be translated in English as an end, a purpose, an ultimate intention. In the machines for living where her family lives, works and goes to school, everything has an end, anything and anyone serves a purpose: her son Gérard must eat the sterilised egg she serves him, the fountain fish must spurt when a guest arrives, the jar must jump. The garage door must open upon the intersection of a body with an electromagnetic beam — be it the family's dachshund or their faint-hearted maid.
In 1958, thirteen years after the end of the Second World War, entire European cities on both sides of the Iron Curtain are raised from the ashes, or simply from nothing, to house the citizens who will build the old continent anew. As with many other of the twentieth century's great middle class families, the Arpels fill their houses, factories and public buildings with the tools and appliances designed with the aim of making life easier, cleaner, healthier and more efficient.
But Hulot seems to have a problem with "all this." Mounted on a VeloSoleX bicycle, he travels from his ramshackle apartment building on the old town square to his sister's villa, through cobbled streets, horse carts and market sellers, but also the paved roads of frustratingly slow-moving cars and misbehaving children. On his way, he disturbs traffic, breaks the glass that won't jump, makes sausages out of a rubber hose, throws the car lighter out of the window and rotates his sister's green bean canapé to sleep on. As neither the places, things or people around him seem to allow for second uses or guesses, whenever he interacts with the modern world, it all goes terribly wrong.
Jacques Tati, Mon Oncle's director and the man wearing Monsieur Hulot's hat, brought gags from his burlesque and silent movie past into the 1950s present, to reveal how people interact and interfere with their newly designed surroundings. That's what makes both Mon Oncle and Playtime, Tati's 1967 masterpiece that addresses modern living on an exponentially larger scale, essential films for designers and architects alike. For Tati's comical flânerie goes beyond the awestruck, yet detached observation of modernity as celebrated by the writers of the 1800s: his is an actual, critical handling of its artefacts. By removing from things the function for which they were designed, and assigning them a comical role instead, Tati doesn't just create hilarious, unforgettable satire; he comments on a world where he, and others like him, didn't seem to fit.
Tati designed this world in collaboration with painter and decorator Jacques Lagrange, who also co-authored set design, art direction and screenplays on four of his feature films. Shooting Mon Oncle in historic Saint-Maur-des-Fossés and neighbouring Créteil — then a city in full construction, today a large Paris banlieue — they built Villa Arpel in a studio after sifting through magazine clippings in search for the latest trends in design and architecture. Each of the house's elements was built or chosen for scenic effect rather than function or comfort. While some furnishings included real products — wall lamps by Serge Mouille, tubular steel frame and plastic wiring "Scoubidou" chairs from A.R.P. (Atelier de Recherche Plastique), the "Dubrocq" vase by Pol Chambost — others were nothing but modern props. The green bean canapé, for example, was in fact composed of four separate pieces of furniture, that throughout the film establish varying relations of scale and interaction with the actors.
Much has changed since Mon Oncle premiered in Paris 54 years to the day tomorrow, 10 May 1958. Once a main engine of Western Europe's post-war social, economic and political miracle, France too, like Hulot, has a problem. The recent presidential election exposed a nation weary of ideology and reform, resistant to immigration and globalisation, confused about its role in a continent in crisis and a world that even for Gérard's uncle seems turned upside down. The men and women of Gérard's generation, their children, and their children's children are now more disillusioned than hopeful with their future. For them, nothing lasts forever anymore. Not even the dream of progress.
Yet revisiting Mon Oncle after all these years, we feel moved by the cantilever stairs, the tubular steel chairs, the juice of the steak, the streamlined vehicles, the factory and school's italic signs. The overly designed, modern world of the Arpels makes us nostalgic for a time long gone. Today, we may try to recreate it by surrounding ourselves with modern, "midcentury" stuff — in a choice of original versions, expensive re-editions or cheap knockoffs. Or by visiting, and revering, the buildings, neighbourhoods and cities built in that time. The ones that are worth admiring, that is: some experiments by architects and designers often too obstinate about form and insensible to context or the consequence of their actions led to design mistakes subsequent generations have had to correct or tear down. If only Monsieur Hulot was around to critique their work.
With great flair (and a jazzy tune), Hulot escapes from his sister's modern life plan and into Orly airport. While in this final scene we understand that the character's main function in this film is to reunite a father with his son, we may also realise it's not just in — or what's left of — the plans, buildings and objects of this past modern world that we ideally want to live. After all, our common history and our personal stories are found and accumulated in the houses, streets and century-old squares we live in, work in, learn and fall in love in. Monsieur Hulot's purpose may just be to let us know that what remains can be just, or even more important than what is designed.
Frederico Duarte (@freduarte) is a Lisbon-based design critic and curator.