Friday, March 11, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Mon Oncle d'Amerique (1980)

Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980) ****
Directed by: Alain Resnais.
Written by: Jean Gruault based on the writings by Henri Laborit.
Starring: Gérard Depardieu (René Ragueneau), Nicole Garcia (Janine Garnier), Roger Pierre (Jean Le Gall), Nelly Borgeaud (Arlette Le Gall), Pierre Arditi (Zambeaux), Gérard Darrieu (Léon Veestrate), Philippe Laudenbach (Michel Aubert), Marie Dubois (Thérèse Ragueneau), Henri Laborit (Himself).

Every major religion teaches us that we have free will – that although God put us on earth, the decisions we make are ours and ours alone. Of course if you’re an atheist, you also believe in the concept of free will. What makes Alain Resnais’ Mon Oncle d’Amerique so fascinating is that it flies in the face of all of that. Here is a movie where God is taken out of the equation, and yet the characters are still slaves – still not free to make their own choices. We are conditioned to behave the way we do, so even though we think we are making our own choices, we really aren’t.

The film is based on the research of Henri Laborit, who shows up occasionally in the film to talk about his findings – mostly involving lab rats. When a rat knows that an electric shock is coming, and can escape by jumping through a door, he does so with no ill effects. It only takes a couple of shocks before he gets the gist of it. When the escape is taken away from the rat, and he gets punished no matter what he does, he starts to display physical breakdown not related to the shocks. When there are two rats trapped and getting shocked no matter what, they do not comfort each other to make it easier on themselves – they begin to fight, and once again, physically they are fine. The other rat is not responsible for the shock, and yet the first instinct is to fight the other rat. The point made by Laborit, and Resnais in this film, is that we are exactly the same as rats. But because we are smarter than rats, we should learn to move beyond this. If only things were that simple.

Humans are smarter than rats, and what contributes to their behavior is more complex, yet the fundamental principle is that we are essentially shaped by our parents and our upbringing. To make his point, Resnais tells the story of three people – Jean (Roger Pierre) the son of intellectuals, who becomes an intellectual himself, Janine (Nicole Garcia), the daughter of communist factory workers, who becomes an actress and Rene (Gerard Depardieu), the son of Catholic farmers who becomes a businessman. To a certain extent, all three of these characters think they are rebelling against their parents – Depardieu most directly when he calls his father old fashioned, and leaves the family farm. And yet their behavior through the years this film follows them is very much dictated by the values they were raised with. Resnais starts with them all separated, and then slowly starts to bring the storylines together – they all hinge on Janine, who knows both Jean and Rene, but the men never meet each other.

The title of the movie is interesting, because we never meet anyone American uncle, although at different points in the movie, each claims to have one. Listen to when they talk about their supposed American uncle, and you can see the way each was raised has effected their outlook on life –the fate they dreamed up for the American uncle they never knew, and aren’t even sure existed, tells you everything you need to know about these three people.

I’ve probably made Mon Oncle d’Amerique sound more like an intellectual exercise than a film. And to a certain extent, it is an intellectual exercise. But Laborit’s research that is peppered throughout the film is not dry and boring, but serves to bring the overall point of the film home. This is a film that despite its academic roots is entertaining and involving, drawing us into the people in the story, only to show us that they are trapped like rats, and have no control over what they do. It’s sad really. Resnais, one of the founders of the French New Wave, and the only director still around from the movement doing decent work (yes Godard is still making films, but I don’t think too much of them), has always been a daring director – a director willing to push things both thematically and aesthetically. I haven’t seen all of his films (and will have to see Providence and Muriel at some point in this series), but out of the films of his I have seen (including Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Wild Grass), this one is my favorite. It is a challenging, thought provoking film.

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