Jacques Tati represents a particular style of European cinema which is contrary to the action of even the tamest American film and much in love with the art of painting. Films designed to draw the viewer not to the story but to the content of the frame.
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Mon Oncle (trans: My Uncle) opens with some dogs nosing around a street and perfectly expresses Tati’s style. The humour becomes apparent as the dogs end up gazing comically through the front gate of a well kept modern house designed by the father of a young boy, to a clinical exactitude which perfectly expresses the bareness of the man’s emotional character. No wonder the boy prefers the company of his clownish uncle, played by Tati.
The uncle is nothing but trouble wherever he goes, not deliberately but through his bumbling lack of foresight and total helplessness in a crisis. Mon Oncle pits man against modernity, where the management class and the upwardly mobile embrace the ideal of the new world and new technology because it is innovative and exclusive. Against this background Tati is the defective n’er do well with tired old mac and pipe, allowing the young boy to wander into mild mischief. The irony is that the new technology is as defective as the uncle.
At with all Tati’s films, Mon Oncle is virtually silent, relying on the sight gags of the clown and when they arrive, Tati turns out to be the master of invention. His gags are always observed, a matter of wry amusement rather than guffaw, though he can deliver those too with ease. But essentially Tati’s great strength is the nature-watch style of comedy filmmaking, setting up his shot and waiting for the gag to amble along; ‘Observe!’. Which is fine if you are of an up and at ’em temperament. In fact these films were probably perfect in the laid back days of the mid to late 1960s, simply set on a loop.
Though not as strong as the perfectly balanced Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday or Jour de fete, which are essential, there are many fine moments to be savoured in Mon Oncle.