Color and Sound: The Symbolism of Solitude in Mon Oncle
Beginning at three minutes into Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958), there is a very significant three-minute sequence that essentially serves to introduce the focal space of the movie: the Arpel family’s new extravagant house in a ritzy neighborhood outside of the grimy city. However, this sequence does much for the viewer than simply introduce a space; in this short segment, the film employs stylistic tools to hint at much larger ideas that provide key information on the issues motivating the film’s plot. The visual and audial cues in this dialogue-less sequence illuminate and epitomize the central themes of appearance and purpose, which are pitched to be at tension with each other throughout the film. The stylization of sound, color and camera distance create a clear contrast between the solidarity of common society and the solitude of the rich neighborhood. This contrast is stylized by way of the general appearance and functional purpose of the property on either side of the fence: the private neighborhood is a spectacle with poor function while the public township functions sufficiently with a lack of polish. For Mme. and M. Arpel, the desire for class secludes them from the society they wish to impress, as well as from their own family.
This film opens on a pack of dogs delightedly running throughout the town. The camera shows the dogs from afar and close-up as they go about sniffing and peeing on the light posts and trash piles [1:30]. Their movement motivates the camera to move from the dirty city to the rich, secluded neighborhood as the one pup donning a small plaid vest returns to his home. Although this dog is dressed differently, his actions make clear that he is not inherently better than the others in regards to maturity or sophistication; like the other dogs, he sniffs the trash, runs along dirty roads, and prances through puddles. He too pees on posts [1:30]. He too sniffs and eats garbage [2:00, 2:28]. The only difference, besides his little outfit, is that at the end of the day’s play, he returns to a much cleaner and more spacious neighborhood. This is where the focal sequence begins, just after the dogs have finished running the city streets and entered the neighborhood of the vest-donning dog’s home [2:40-3:00]. At this point, the viewer still hears the pleasant plucky music of the opening sequence [3:00]. This sprightly song that enlivened the town space and animated the romping dogs stops as the dogs reach the Arpel’s property gate, and it is replaced by the presence of a pesky mechanical mowing noise [3:03].
In addition to the crisp change in sound, the on-screen coloring appears nearly gray-scaled as the dogs enter the neighborhood, with the dog’s red vest and the red traffic light acting as the sole pops of color until the camera turns to the property inside the gate. It is quite clear that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, at least from the perspective of the dogs, which is where the viewer is located through the camera. This idea is a symbolic play on the motif of keeping up appearances, as Mme. Arpel is later shown to be constantly spying on her neighbor and attempting to be just as classy as she. The one then pup wiggles through the gate as the mower roars, and the camera shows Mme. Arpel in the distance as she dusts off the all-glass door [3:10]. The property appears orderly and crisp, a stark comparison to the lived-in and tattered nature of the rest of the city’s space. This contrast in appearance is embodied by the chrome colorings of the modern home and the earth tones of the more populated town, and then even further so in the characters’ dress. Mme. Arpel appears in a bright light green dress and bonnet as she fusses over return of the dog [3:20]. The change in color is evident, as both her green dress and the grass voluminously give color to the scene.
The camera remains distant, showing Mme. Arpel at an extreme long shot, such that the camera seems to be positioned near the other dogs, which are still watching from the other side of the gate. This position of the camera facilitates a more close-up view as it returns to the other dogs than it does on the actual people. Even as M. Arpel enters the scene, standing centered on a circle mat on the steps and finishing his dainty cup of coffee, the camera remains at an extreme long shot [3:45]. The camera does not compromise this distance until it must out of necessity; as M. Arpel holds out his hand waiting for his wife to place something in it, the camera slightly shortens to a long shot in order to reveal that she placed his golden cigarette holder in his hand [4:07] and keeps this distance to next show her hand him his lighter [4:23]. Throughout this sequence, the camera remains on the long side of shots, aligning the viewer with the dogs, whom are privy to seeing everything in both worlds from a certain distance. This distance captures the distance created between the Arpel’s and the rest of society; the consistent distance of the camera symbolizes the inherent seclusion of the affluent house into a sort of solitude.
The other dogs continue to curiously look on for several moments before quickly retreating for additional adventure [3:36-3:40]. For them, the rich property is a sort of spectacle that captures short interest, but ultimately serves no purpose or social functioning since they are not allowed past the gate. At this point, the mowing noise has been substituted by a slight hammering sound and the clink of M. Arpel’s coffee cup back onto the plate as his wife comes to retrieve it for him [3:45]. This scene is the epitome of the later attempted neighborly gathering that Mme. Arpel hosts, as all the guests are initially intrigued and impressed by the landscaping until the sporadic fountain actually impedes on the social gathering and prevents any genuine conversation from forming, all while Mme. Arpel bustles around playing host. The landscaped lawn is the space for occupying guests due to its manicured adornments of hedged bushes, spouting fountains and delicate pathways; it represents luxury as an image of beauty and wealth. This space is bound by the chromatic steel gate and sturdy structure of the house. Unlike the shiny house and gates, which provide safety and space to sleep, the lawn serves only as a spectacle.
Strikingly, due to the facilitative nature of the long camera distance, Mme. Arpel’s green dress stands out on screen as symbolically linked to the green lawn. Both she and the lawn serve as a sort of welcome mat for guests; just as the lawn is bound by the property gates, constantly demanding upkeep, Mme. Arpel is continually shown as bound to the house as she tries to keep up with the dusting and arranging. Additionally, as an even stronger symbolic unit, M. Arpel’s dress captures the essence of the house itself. He appears in a suit of all the same color, a crisp silver gray, including hat, with an accentuated thick royal blue tie. His gray suit is the same color as their gray house, and his royal blue tie vertically aligns with the thick same-color-blue stripe featured prominently down the side of their house. Also, their house has two large circular windows near the top of the structure. These windows appear as a sort of eyes for the house, just as big, black round glasses frame his eyes. His gray suit is stiff and solid, just like the structure of the house and gate. Not only is he symbolically the human embodiment of the appearance of the house, but also both are kept tidy for and by Mme. Arpel.
As this sequence continues, the wife is shown fussing about him as he smokes a cigarette. She hurries in and out of the house to theatrically complete the task of giving him his necessary accessories for work [4:15-4:50]. The final item she gives him is his briefcase, after wiping it down. This shot is the closest the camera ever gets to them in this sequence, which is still only a medium long shot [4:55]. She continues her fussing about in a series of long and medium long shots, as she wipes down a cactus plant [5:00], opens the chrome gates guarding their property [5:15], and then wipes down the exterior of the gate, the visible part, all with a pleased smile pasted to her face [5:18]. During this time, M. Arpel walks from the front step along the intricate paved path to the garage gate, a process not keen on efficiency [4:50-5:18]. Their son, Gerard, finally appears as he runs out to the car, only to impatiently wait an additional few moments for it to pull up at [5:25]. His actions are very different from his parents’ as he does not allow himself to be bound only to the cemented pathways [5:33]. Gerard’s running and stepping out of bounds stand as a symbolic foreshadow of his later revealed resistance to the decadent appearance and style of their newly located life.
From a long shot, the camera shows Mme. Arpel open the door for Gerard and wipe down his black briefcase with golden latches before handing it back to him [5:36]. She wipes the exteriorly visible part, just as with the gate. Then she goes on to wipe down the outside of the vehicle, continuing down the car to the rear bumper as they drive away; she tries to shine all of the car’s silver accents as quickly as she can before they are out of reach [5:44-5:55]. The segment ends with the camera behind both Mme. Arpel and the distancing car. From an extreme long shot, she fervently and gawkily waves goodbye to the result of covering herself in the dust from her busy rag, a rather ironic ending note to her depicted obsession with clean appearances [5:58]. At the end of this segment, the happy-go-lucky music picks up again, this time with a stronger tempo and building rhythm. The inclosing music to this segment is spirited, energetic and positive; the notes have direction as they follow the movement of the running dogs and car driving between the spaces of the public town and private property. Meanwhile, the sound in this sequence is mundane, unexciting, and monotonous as it is merely motivated as a result of humans using tools and machines, i.e. mowing, hammering, coffee plates clinking, cigarette case clasping, gates unlatching, car starting, and the engine running. The stylization of this mundanely mute segment wedged between these sprightly songs stands as a strong symbolical cue in shifts from spaces of solidarity to solitude.
The complete stylization of M. Arpel in both action and dress also serves as a perfect foil to the beloved uncle of the film, M. Hulot. Whereas M. Arpel embodies the sleekness of their house in his gray suit, the uncle encapsulates the dusty and familiar space of the public sphere. M. Hulot is shown soon after in a variety of light browns and neutrals; his pants are either a faded black or a murky gray while his sport coat and hat are the color of dust. Additionally, the uncle is shown sporting a quirky brown bow tie, a traditional pipe cigar and long umbrella rather than a royal blue tie, cigarette and briefcase. These distinctions are made possible by the mundane theatrical nature of the three-minute sequence of M. Arpel leaving the house for work. By emphasizing each aspect of M. Arpel’s appearance, via the wife’s antics and the distant camera, the viewer can then take note of this contrast with the uncle’s more traditional and functional approach. Also unlike the uncle who is steadily bumping in and chatting with his neighbors and other townspeople, the Arpel family in this sequence never actually touches or communicates with each other. Any interaction is mediated by objects: Mme. Arpel pulls the bottom of her husband’s suit down, takes his cup, hands him his work accessories, and then does the same with Gerard’s briefcase. This is enforced by the absence of expressive and emotive quality in the noise of this segment; it is all technical, robotic, and nonhuman. This type of sound is characteristic of this space, as shown in later scenes as their kitchen whirrs loudly whenever any of its numerous gadgets are in use. This segment of the film highlights the importance of appearance for Mme. Arpel and M. Arpel by stylizing its secluding effects through the shift from sprightly song to the mundane noises of human commodities at work. Symbolically, this segment works to show that the upkeep of appearances stands for a loss of the urban humanity that is vibrantly present outside of the neighborhood through music, conversation and interpersonal interactions. Ironically, the themes drawn from this segment reveal the central issue of the film: the fact that the uncle has garnered Gerard’s personal favoritism, which results from their inept prioritization of appearance over function to the extent that familiarity and fun of familial life are lost to whirring machinery and stiff costumes.
The ending of the film circles back to this segment’s portrayed solitude and solidarity, such that this segment may serve as a metonymical representation of the entire film thematically. M. and Mme. Arpel empty their pockets for a lavish orchestra performance and quiet ride home in their new colorful automobile with only each other as company, while Gerard and M. Hulot jovially joke and socialize with others in the back of a horse buggy. To even further emphasize this point, the next morning, M. Arpel is prevented from communicating with his wife because of the loud motorized whirring of household gadgets, which echoes the mundanely mechanical noise of the discussed segment. These modern gadgets emphasize appearance over function, just like the dog’s handled vest in the beginning of this segment, which causes him to be nearly dropped as Mme. Arpel tries to carry him [3:32]. The pitting of purpose and appearance against each other is evident as the film repeatedly contrasts the clean, empty mansion with the humming utility of the public. The sole purpose of their new property is to keep up appearances by showing off their expensively innovative and spacious home, but in the film’s reality, this house of gadgets actually limits productive work and communicative interaction. The more dilapidated townhouses and market area may sacrifice appearance, but they are flourishing in utility and social interactions; people are coming and going and buying and selling, all interwoven by casual street bump-ins and conversations. There is solidarity in the town, just as there is solidarity in the running dogs, and in both cases, the solidarity turns to solitude at the gate of the Arpel property.