Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mon Oncle: A Lesson in Urban Design

This week, I went to see a screening of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) at MoMA. Mon Oncle focuses on the absurdity of the bourgeois' obsession with modern invention, which imprisons them as much as it sets them free. The film's main expression of this condition is the ultra-modern home of Monsieur and Mademoiselle Arpel, Monsieur Hulot's (Tati's cinematic alterego) sister and brother-in-law. The house (Villa Arpel) is strikingly sterile -- outfitted entirely in modernist furniture that no one finds comfortable, cabinets that open and shut with complex mechanical programming and a garden consisting of concrete stepping stones, steel edges and plants so manicured they hardly seem real.

There's a fantastic scene in Mon Oncle, where the Arpels host a garden luncheon. During this scene, Hulot's nephew, stifled by Villa Arpel and bored to tears by the shallow social display, rips down a portion of climbing vines, destroying the sad, manicured symmetry. The party rapidly deteriorates, ending in insult and injury (due in no small part to Hulot's bumbling navigation around the awkward "natural" space) and the nephew running around the garden in a Native American headdress. Later that night, when Hulot sneaks back to the house to finish tearing down the vines, the circular windows of Villa Arpel transform into patrolling eyes (the silhouettes of the Arpels' synchronized heads).

Obviously, I got a kick out of this battle enacted between the attenuated natural world and the anthropomorphized built environment. In reading Eric W. Sanderson’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York (as noted in a previous post, this study is also an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York), I learned that the Lenape, the Native American inhabitants of Mannahatta, created the structural beams of their wigwams by transplanting tree saplings in a circular plan and bending them inward. The contrast of the Lenapes literally building shelter from live nature with Villa Arpel's precise, tamed gardens brings me back to Anne Whiston Spirn, who posited in 1984 that to ensure the continued success in the urban environment, "nature in the city must be cultivated… rather than ignored and subdued." I think Tati would have agreed.

1 comment:

  1. Not terribly cultured of me I know, but this post - and the film you describe - remind me of the dinner party scene in Beetlejuice. There, too, the lifeless, overly stylized meal is disrupted by the children who, arguably, have a deeper connection to the natural world than their overly "civilized" parents.