Wednesday, June 26, 2013

“Mon Oncle D’Amerique” (1980) Dir- Alain Resnais

What I Remember:

Hoo boy. Here I go, babbling on about psychology again. This time it’s Behaviorism, the psychological principle that conditioning is the cause of much of our behavior, both normal and aberrant. This theory comes in handy if you want to blame your parents for everything, as many in my generation are wont to do.
Our parents were maybe the most traumatized generation in the past few centuries, thanks to the double childhood/teen whammy of the Great Depression and World War 2 to deal with as they grew up. This conditioning caused them to overreact and try and make everything wholesome and wonderful in the ‘50’s for us Baby Boomers. It turned out that this was a big mistake. When we realized how hypocritical that was, we spit out the pacifier.
So yes, behaviorism made sense to our generation. Yet it is not cultural behaviorism that this film represents, but individual. Or is it? Honestly, I can't remember what was the theoretical basis of “Mon Oncle D’Amerique”. I recall that we follow three different people, all of whom are facing a crisis, and that the film intercuts their actions and reactions with a scientist and laboratory rats who represent the same kind of behavior. This would seem contrived, but in the hands of a genius like Resnais, I remember it as both riveting and very moving.
Alain Resnais is perhaps the most oblique auteur this side of Michael Haneke. “Inscrutable” would be the first word that comes to mind when watching “Last Year at Marienbad” or “Hiroshima Mon Amour”.  I recall that “Mon Oncle D’Amerique”, while not exactly being “Rambo”, was also a bit more intelligible than some of Resnais’ earlier work.
This film also marked my introduction to the great French actor Gerard Depardieu, who had previously been in International hits “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs” and “1900”, neither of which I had seen yet. Subsequently he appeared in Truffaut’s “The Last Metro:, and famously in “The Return of Martin Guerre” on route to being a world-famous star.
I waited patiently for this film to show up in Netflix either streaming or DVD, but to no avail. I finally broke down and bought a copy. Just for you, my fair readers! Good move.

After re-watching:

“I thought happiness was something I had coming to me, like an inheritance from an uncle in America”--Janine
“America doesn’t exist. I know, I lived there.”—Jean


Three people from very different backgrounds find their life stories intertwined, and all face a crisis regarding either their love lives or their careers. These stories are also intercut with the theories of Dr. Henri Laborit, who posits that societal and individual conditioning causes unhealthy response to these types of crises. Wealthy, privileged Jean (Roger Pierre) is a successful Radio producer with political aspirations, which get sidetracked when he meets a young actress named Janine (Nicole Garcia). They start an affair which breaks up his marriage. Meanwhile Rene (Gerard Depardieu) is asked to change jobs which pits him under much pressure and causes him to be separated from his family.


I was right to be confused about whether the target of Laborit and Resnais was individual or societal malady. It is both, we find out, as the film wraps up. Laborit and his theories are the focal point of this film. I am not as versed in behaviorist psychology as I probably need to be to fully understand him, but that’s not necessary to be moved and informed by "Mon Oncle d'Amerique".
All three stories are familiar to an audience: a loveless marriage, a wayward career, parental disapproval, societal and personal stress. Indeed, though we are constantly getting the science treatment, we are also very caught up in the stories. It is a sugar coated pill that Resnais presents to us. He gives us plot and character development, beautifully acted and scripted. What we don’t realize is that it’s all part of the experiment; the scientific study. If you had to watch two hours of Laborit babbling on about conditioning, you would tune out 20 minutes in. The genius of Resnais is to give us these universal stories to illustrate, and Laborit shows us how certain situations cause aberrant behavior.
As you watch, you start to think, “now hold on a minute! We are not all rats in a cage! We have more than our basest instincts to rely on. We have reason! We have free will!” Of course, that’s what they want you to think. This movie convinces you that you are still acting and reacting based on childhood training and trauma. Only the most enlightened of us is able to transcend this. Being aware of it is the first step. 

But what of Nature vs. Nurture? Separated twins with completely different parents grow up to both be firemen, or both be horse trainers. And apparently, it doesn’t matter if you smoke three packs a day or eat only organic food. If your Dad had pancreatic cancer, you’re doomed. If your Mom was Bipolar, then you are probably not going to be a stable person. The answer is probably a combination of these things. The point that Laborit and his lab rats make, is that certain highly stressful situations are of our doing, thanks to our conditioning. These situations cause a lasting and deep harm to not just the psyche, but also to the body, thanks to illnesses brought on by the stress. Common knowledge now, but back in the 80's it was anything but. 
Look, if a film gets me to think on subjects as important and deep as these, then it’s very special indeed.

 What is facinating is the turn it makes at the end, when Laborit goes from micro to macro, explaining that these same conditioning influences are what cause a society to malfunction. War, genocide etc. can all be blamed on actions that we are not aware of, that our societal unconscious can be as easily polluted as our individual unconscious.
Go watch this, then follow with Haneke’s “The White Ribbon”.  That film posits the idea that a strict upbringing enforced by morally corrupt adults will turn a young generation into.....well, into Nazis! Societal conditioning indeed!


In "Mon Oncle d'Amerique", Resnais mixes a lot of different narrative techniques together, yet it never feels jumpy or confusing. The film starts with a montage of the backgrounds of all three characters, described using voice-over, with cutaways to something that looks like a giant cork board filled with images of them. Not much later he introduces us to his main character, our real-life Dr. Laborit. This mixture of documentary and fiction is seamlessly presented. When Laborit describes his upbringing in an area of France that was victimized by the revolutionary government, it feels like another character backstory. (Yes! So THIS is why he wants to take the work of Pavlov and Skinner to a societal level). There is another point where our characters tell their stories as superimposed faces over the action, taking the voice over concept one step further. 

The film smoothly morphs into a typical multi-story narrative, kind of like the precursor to films like "Crash" and "21 Grams". It doesn't  seem typical, what with the fourth story being the good Doctor butting in with his commentary that usually reflects where the story is at. The other undercurrent that is highlighted by our story juxtaposition is the story of class struggle. One character is bourgeois, one a not-to-bright worker bee, the third a child of the Proletariat. Our Bourgeois leaves his Proletariat lover and returns to his wife, so his career can advance. Our disappointed Proletariat woman becomes a Fashionista and oversees our Worker Bee, making his life miserable. Again, our two authors show us the effects of societal trauma on the world at large.

My two favorite moments are cinematic, of course. The first is when our worker bee, Rene, is threatened by someone vying for his position at the textile company. Laborit describes a lab rat experiment that ends with two rats trapped in a cage and turning violent. He cuts to Rene and his competitor wrestling with each other wearing giant rat heads over their khaki suits. It is comic and whimsical, but at the same time, quite jarring. 

The other moment I love is the concluding series of shots. A city building in somewhat a state of decay has a large 10 story tall mural of a pastoral forest scene. The camera jump-zooms in until you only see the rotting bricks of the building, and of course the immediate connection is made that no matter the beauty and power of the individual or society, it is only as healthy and strong as its underlying foundation.


I'm not going to say that any one of the three stars has a standout performance, but they are all equally suited and well cast. My only complaint is that I'm not entirely sure what the attraction is between Janine and Jean-- the chemistry is never really spelled out, and not very evident on screen. Depardieu is very convincing in his anguish. Also the frustration and depression that Nicole Garcia shows during her scene when she realizes that Jean's wife has duped her is very convincing. Roger Pierre as Jean is maybe the least impressive of the three, but that doesn't mean that it's a poorly acted role. He is just more reserved, and plays the love-torn rich guy with suitably Waspy undertones. 

One of the interesting sidebars by the filmmakers was the assigning to each character a fandom of a famous French actor. For Jean, it's Danielle Darrieux, famed for her portrayal of Madame de in the masterpiece "The Earrings of Madame de..". For Janine it's Jean Marais, a superstar of early French Cinema, famed for his role as the Beast in Cocteau's "La Belle et La Bete". For Rene, it's Jean Gabin, actor from the anti-war classic "Grande Illusion" and "Le Jour se Leve". These are the Hepburn, Gable and Grant of France. Resnais intersperses cutaways to the character's favorite actors in quick takes representing how our characters feel at a certain moment. When Janine feels like a hero for giving back Jean to his dying wife, we cut to Marais as Bete carrying a fainted Belle back to her boudois. Again...our reactions to life's situations are conditioned. We react as our cinematic heroes reacted. 

WAIT- my cinematic hero was Zero Mostel! Does that mean I react to everything by either yelling, cajoling or mincing around like a buffoon? Don't answer that.

The supporting cast is actually quite a standout collection- especially the two wives. Nelly Borgeaud as Arlette, Jean's wife, is very convincing. But even better is Rene's wife played by Marie Dubois, who I remember as Jim's girlfriend, Therese, from Truffaut's "Jules and Jim". She truly encapsulates the put upon wife, widow to her husband's job, but still very sympathetic.


When you see one of those lists with the 100 greatest films of all time, sadly "Mon Oncle D'Amerique" is never on it. I don't get it. It has all the right requirements. It was made by a respected auteur, it is a powerful thinking man's film, it works as drama and documentary, it is highly original, and very influential. At the Cannes Film Festival it won the FIPRESCI prize, and Resnais won the Grand Jury Prize. Richard Corliss of Time Magazine rated it his best film of 1980. Why is this a forgotten movie? When critics rank Resnais films, they always default to Marienbad or Hiroshima, or maybe even the weakest of the three, La Guerre est Finie. This is a beter film across the board than those, and it deals with a very serious subject. If there is a flaw, it's a bit preachy. Otherwise, I think it's a masterpiece.

On First Look: ✭✭✭✭        On Second Look: ✭✭✭