Sunday, May 13, 2007

Paris in Pictures: New Wave Visions of the Modern City pt. 3

Sterility is a major theme throughout the film. The old sect is constantly littered with garbage; a man is put to the seemingly never-ending task of sweeping, and can be seen constantly, but contently, attempting to clean up after his fellow townspeople. Madame Arpel is obsessed with cleaning as well, but their overly aseptic home provides her with little opportunities for any actual work. So, she can be seen constantly scrubbing windows that are already clear, objects that aren’t dusty. The best example of this comes in the Arpels introduction, in which she can be seen washing windows, pulling at creases on her husbands suit, fixing his tie, and scrubbing strange objects: a plant, the front gate, her sons briefcase, the car. Everything she touches she has to give a good once-over with her washcloth. Madame Arpel especially treats her son, Gerard, with a germicidal zeal. “Gerard, don’t mess up your room! Take off your shoes and wash your hands!” she tells him when he enters the house. Gerard can be seen rubbing his feet furiously on the mats outside, and his mother, dressed like a nurse in a long white coat and blue gloves, sprays him with a large hose.

Sterility can be found in the kitchen as well. The Arpel’s modern home allows them to cook without ever touching the food. Cooking is impersonal, handled at a distance by buttons and machines. Madame Arpel flips a grey, sickly-looking steak by pressing a button under the stove; she butters a pan by spraying it with a hose-like object. This is shown in stark contrast to the way food is handled in the old town. The local market features carts of vegetables and fruits fingered by all sorts of people; an old woman picks up a head of lettuce, weighs it in her hand, and puts it back for a different piece. Later, a man grills meats and sweet bread for children on a large wooden cart, handling the food with a charred spatula. The children accept readily with their hands.

This idea of sterility stems from the Arpel’s obsession with status. Madame Arpel gives three separate tours of the house in the film, each time pointing out insignificant objects and highlighting the ultra-modern aspects of the space. One object, a ridiculous looking fish-shaped fountain, is particularly telling of this obsession with status. Madame Arpel rushes to turn it on whenever someone enters the gate. However, if it’s not someone she is trying to impress (Hulot, peddlers), she shuts it off in disgust. Likewise, Monsieur Arpel’s car is an object of status. However, once it enters the main road, we that everyone in town owns a car that appears only slightly different. The cars show that the modern society upholds an ideal of massified individualism funneled through consumerism.

It would appear that Tati is making a concrete criticism of modern society – that so-called ‘progress’ leads to disconnect with humanity, with an over-emphasis on status quo – however, that’s not entirely the case. While the characters in the old section are presented as livelier and less preoccupied than that of the new one, there is no evidence to show that the residents of the modern world are discontent. In fact, it would appear that the Arpels are perfectly happy in their tech-savvy world. Likewise, Hulot’s inability to adjust to their world stems not from his disinterest, but rather his lack of familiarity and physical awkwardness. We must, then, view these people as social types, representative of ways of being and not specifically critical of any particular way of life.

It is only in Gerard, the indelible young nephew of Hulot, that we see any true character-based critique of the modern society. Gerard seems stifled by the trappings of his parent’s modern ways, and is sternly attached to the lackadaisical Hulot; he prefers the simplistic toy presented to him by his uncle to the complex motor engine given to him by his father. When in the modern home, Gerard appears despondent, bored, and lifeless. He seems to desire nothing more than to join the group of mischievous troublemakers who play freely in the old town; and, when he finally does join their company, his face exudes pure joy. Here, Tati presents perhaps his most biting criticism: that the shiny conveniences of modern life stifle the imagination of youth.

Check out Paris in Pictures pt. 2 and pt. 1!

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