Directed by: Claude Jutra.
Written by: Claude Jutra & Clément Perron.
Starring: Jacques Gagnon (Benoit), Lyne Champagne (Carmen), Jean Duceppe (Uncle Antoine), Olivette Thibault (Aunt Cecile), Claude Jutra (Fernand, Clerk), Lionel Villeneuve (Jos Poulin), Hélène Loiselle (Madame Poulin).
It doesn’t always help films to become canonized – something that has happened to Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine, and is probably the reason I have waited so long to see the film. The film came out in 1971 to great reviews, and although Jutra’s post-Antoine career never lived up to the film, and he died far too young (committing suicide after learning he suffered from Alzheimer’s at the age of 56), Jutra’s film has consistently been named the Greatest Canadian Film of All Time. It topped the first three polls TIFF did – in 1984, 1994 and 2004, before finally dropping to number 2 (behind Atanjuaret) in the 2015 poll. Having that weight associated with being called the Greatest of All Time doesn’t really help films – and when I knew the film was a coming of age film, I assumed that while the film would be good, that I may well be let down by it. I was wrong. While Mon Oncle Antoine wouldn’t get my vote for Best Canadian Film Ever Made (hello David Cronenberg), it certainly deserves to be named in their company. The film is a heartfelt masterpiece – a tragic loss of innocence story, with an allegorical subject that you can completely ignore if you want to (like viewers outside of Canada probably do). Jutra’s film is simple in many ways, but what it accomplishes is far from it. It’s one of those rare films I would call perfect.
The film is set in late 1940s or early 1950s in a small Quebec town. Most of the men work in the asbestos mines, run by a wealthy, and English speaking man, who treats his workers like crap. Early in the film, we see Jos Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve) get chewed out by his boss, and decide he’s had enough. He and his wife have four kids, but he cannot put it up with it anymore. Instead, he heads off into the woods – to a logging camp – leaving his wife to handle the kids while he’s away.
But it’s not Jos who is the main character in the movie – nor even his teenage son, who will play a major role later. It is Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), who gets to see all his small town’s secrets play out in front of him – either while working as an altar boy, and catching the Priest in his digressions, or working (and seemingly living) at the General Store run my his Uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and Aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault). Their store is the type you don’t see anymore – groceries, dry goods, hardware all sharing floor space together. Antoine is the town undertaker as well. His wife is demanding, his assistant (Jutra himself) a little bit of a goof but basically well meaning. In addition to Benoit, the couple has also taken in Carmen (Lyne Champagne), a young teenage girl from an abusive household. She works at the store, but her father comes in and collects her money. Much of the abuse in her past is simply implied – as is a wordless sequence when the two teenagers are playing, and Benoit places his hand on her breast – provoking a reaction he did not expect.
For the first hour of the film, Mon Oncle Antoine seems to be headed in one direction – a naturalistic, slice of life and coming of age story. We see the type of scenes we except to see – the playful, tentative, wordless flirting between Benoit and Carmen, the Uncle who drinks all day, but doesn’t seem to get drunk, teenage boys sneaking a peak at a woman who thinks she is alone while trying on a bra. The store is the epicenter of the town – and its Christmas Eve, and everyone is coming in. The film was shot by Michel Brault, a filmmaker in his own right, who had got his start shooting documentaries – and the first hour of the film has an impressive mixture of documentary like realism and lyrical nostalgia.
But there are darker edges to some of these – not just the abuse suffered by Carmen, but in other scenes as well. A comic sequence, where the head of the asbestos mine comes through town on his sled, through cheap looking stocking to the children (most of which land in the mud) instead of giving his employees raises, turns into something more when Benoit and a friend throw rocks at him and drive him out of town. Jutra takes this scene to a slightly unexpected place, as he follows Benoit and his friend as the walk down the street to the silent approval of the adults around them. Jutra’s quiet politics are present even in these earlier scenes – although perhaps they do not make themselves as clear until the final passage.
That passage is one of, if not the most, famous sequence in Canadian film history. It’s Christmas Eve, edging into night, and the store gets a call. There has been a death – can Antoine come and pick up the body, which is in the next town over. Antoine has been drinking all day, and takes not one, but two bottles of alcohol with him as he heads out – with Benoit at his side. The ride along in a horse drawn sleigh, a wooden box for the body behind them, thrown the increasing snow and wind. At first, this seems like an adventure to Benoit – but something changes when they arrive at the house to pick up the body, and he is confronted with the reality of the situation. Things get worse on the way home – Antoine has had too much to drink, even for him, and Benoit makes a mistake that has far reaching consequences. When he finally wakes up his uncle, Antoine gives a brief monologue about his life that really does put the movie in a different light.
Viewed simply as a coming of age story about Benoit, Mon Oncle Antoine is a great film – and deserves comparison to a film like Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). Truffaut was a friend and mentor to Jutra, and the last shot in this film deliberately evokes the famous final shot in Truffaut’s. But Mon Oncle Antoine is not just a coming of age story – it acts as a mirror to Quebec society, and Benoit’s journey reflects the one in Quebec culture from the time the movie takes place to the time it was made. The movie deliberately evokes the dark period after WWII, where Quebec workers were being exploited, and their resources sold off, to English speaking Americans. Benoit has his own “Quiet Revolution” – the 1960s in Quebec – when he starts to push back against the strictures place on him by the older generation, and the Church. The movie ends with Benoit frozen with indecision about what to do next – something many in Quebec felt around the time the movie was made - the October crisis had been in 1970, or roughly while Jutra was making this film. It is said that Jutra supported some sort of Quebec independence – but he wasn’t a hardliner, and the violence of the FLQ was upsetting to him others like him.
Jutra packs all this into Mon Oncle Antoine, and it’s easy to spot to Canadians who have learned all this history – but it’s down with such subtlety and humanity, that it’s easy to miss for everyone else. Jutra knows something that I’ve always thought – that if the surface of the movie doesn’t work, no one is going to care what’s going on under that surface. Mon Oncle Antoine works on one level as the story of a young man’s loss of innocence, and on the other as allegorical history of Quebec. It works on both of them brilliantly. Which is why this is one of the best films in Canadian cinema history. You shouldn’t wait as long as I did to watch it.