Director Claude Jutra's 1971 period piece Mon Oncle Antoine is a cinematic pseudo-memoir that fits snuggly in the category with films like Fellini's Amarcord or Hallstrom's My Life As a Dog in that it's evocative of a certain time while also capturing the specificity of being a young man of that time. Jutra's tale is dreamy, awkward, nostalgic, and sexy, all words that could be applied to those other films, as well; yet, the setting of a mining town in 1940s Quebec means Mon Oncle Antoine is a story that is entirely unique to Jutra and co-writer Clémont Perron's experience even as they express the great commonalities of growing up.
The filmmakers' stand-in is Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), a quiet altar boy who works for his Uncle Antoine and his Aunt Cécile (Olivette Thibault) in their general store. Antoine is also the town mortician, which creates a dynamic of life and death in his store that is intriguing for his nephew but also a little scary. It's Christmas Eve, and the shop is newly decorated for the occasion, serving as a gathering place for the townspeople just as much as it is a venue for buying goods. Thus, everyone who has gathered to gossip and chew the fat can get an eyeful when the town's wealthiest woman, Alexandrine (Monique Mercure), comes to pick up her new corset. Spying on her in the changing room inspires sexual feelings in Benoit, just as Antoine and Cécile's other charge, the girl Carmen (Lyne Champagne), inspires love.
Story-wise, Mon Oncle Antoine reminds me of the classic image of small-town America as seen in Frank Capra films, or even more odd big-fish-in-a-small-pond international pictures like Local Hero (though Antoine is far more reserved in tone). Beyond the constant good-natured humor and the breadth of individual characters, the movies share a sense of community, where the working-class huddles together in good times and in bad, persevering as one as the times demand. Thus, a certain level of scorn is reserved for Carmen's father, who has abandoned the girl to working in the general store, only visiting to collect her wages for himself. The store being a nexus of the community means Benoit is going to observe all aspects of life, from its minor joys to its minor cruelties. Carmen and Alexandrine aren't just love and sex, they are lower class and upper class, economic polar opposites. His attraction to them both also has the greater gravity of arising within a mortuary. In his playful dalliance with Carmen, they run around the empty coffins while the girl wears a wedding veil. In one stroke, Jutra expresses both the infinite and the finite. Love is forever, but the individual is mortal.
There is a grim determination to a working town such as this one, where the unfairness of the system is accepted because no alternative is within sight. The boss at the mine can refuse raises to his workers, choosing instead to toss store-bought Christmas stockings from a moving sleigh, and no one will say a word, no one will stop their children from grabbing the goodies. The kids need some joy, and so the parents just silently watch the hollow spectacle. It's a wonderful scene, where Jurta and director of photography Michel Brault's documentary style is put to good use capturing the expressions of the young and the old, many of them real people living in the shooting location, Black Lake. Joining another boy in pelting the old man's horses with snowballs gives Benoit his first taste of pride, as the silent disdain for the boss turns to silent affirmation for Benoit's rebellion. (There is an added political element that the boss is English, and the rest of the town is French Canadian, a point only made subtly and likely to be missed if you don't know the history.)
It's not all happiness this Christmas, however; Benoit has harsher lessons to learn. From the start of Mon Oncle Antoine, we have also been watching the Poulin family. The head of the household, Jos (Lionel Villeneuve), is a wandering spirit, regularly quitting his job at the asbestos mine to go into the woods and be a lumberjack, leaving his wife and six children to fend for themselves. In any other movie, Jos would be a kind of rugged hero, the one who is not afraid to lash out against a life of inequality, but in Mon Oncle Antoine, he is more of a pitiful figure, a guy who can't commit to any one thing and likely moves on out of cowardice rather than true strength. His grim-faced wife (Hélène Loiselle) is clearly more noble, as she sticks it out and stays behind to take care of the family. Likewise, Antoine and his wife are shown as charitable parental substitutes for the abandoned Benoit and Carmen.
Jos' current walkabout, which ends almost as soon as it begins, seems to bring about a kind of karmic reaction. His oldest son gets sick and dies unexpectedly almost immediately after the old man heads for the hills. When Benoit asks to go along with Antoine to retrieve the body, it completes the cycle of life that we have been witnessing in the movie. In another case of extremes, when we first are introduced to Benoit, Antoine, and the assistant Fernand, they are officiating a funeral for an older gentleman who has just passed. On the other end, we have the death of someone far too young. In this event, Benoit will get his biggest lessons, learning that the adult world is not perfect or free. Death is arbitrary, and the people we think we can believe in will let us down. There are several wonderful literary metaphors employed by Jutra here, most of which I don't want to discuss for fear I'll give away too much. In some ways, the act of Antoine and Benoit going to retrieve the Poulin boy on Christmas Eve reminded me of John Huston's The Dead (a movie in dire need of a DVD release). Huston, adapting James Joyce for his final film, is completely on the other side of life from Benoit, however, and in the death of this young man, our hero is going to discover that youth is not a promise, that it is actually the end of a particular idealism. Benoit recoils when he sees the face of the dead boy, not just because he is seeing a corpse, which we assume he has seen before, but because for a second, the two adolescents look the same. Benoit recognizes himself in those lifeless eyes.
There is a fitting poignancy in realizing that Claude Jurta has cast himself as the conniving, libidinous Fernand. While the humanization of Antoine is one thing, Fernand's betrayal drives everything home for Benoit. In a way, this man is the in-between step, the connection between the idealism of Benoit and the disappointment of Antoine, who reveals his many failings in one drunken rant. Fernand is the rejection of consequence. He is belief in action, trying to get away with immorality, trying to live while rejecting honor. It's how you get from innocent youth to disenchanted old man. It's the director standing in the center of his own picture and serving as an agent of change.
Though my reference to The Dead is largely one to Huston, there is actually a greater comparison to be drawn between Mon Oncle Antoine and the short stories of James Joyce. As I said, Jurta uses a variety of literary metaphors, the kinds of images that would result in some wonderful prose. Benoit on the frozen ground after picking up the Poulin boy, or in the final scenes peering through the Poulin window, or even the understated dream sequence that brings all of his conflicted feelings together in a way that soothes his bruised soul, these are the epitome of cinema: expressing the interior through image alone. While prose would open a window into what is happening inside the boy, a filmmaker like Jurta must find a way to hammer home the same emotional resonance without explaining himself. Mon Oncle Antoine is full of many such images, but the director and Perron also achieve the desired nostalgia through the overall tone of the movie. The quiet of the piece, the unspoken, is heartbreaking. At the same time, by not being overly cloying with the period details, Jurta actually creates a sense of timelessness. The movie could take place in the 1940s, or it could take place now. It's not important. Mon Oncle Antoine is both contemporary and yearning for a time long past, demanding a change in the economic system even while celebrating a noble history.
This French Canadian film is like a time capsule of small-town conditions in working-class Quebec of 1940, filtered through the wide-eyed curiosity of one boy. Helmed by pioneering Canadian director Claude Jutra, Mon Oncle Antoine - Criterion Collection is as universal as it is specific, a drama about life that is enlivened by genuine human comedy that anyone can relate to. Following the arc of events of one Christmas, we see the transition of time and the lessons learned. A two-disc release, the second disc features many informative extras to shed more light on how the film came about and who was behind it. Sure to be a special treat for those who have never experienced the film before, and one that will be just as satisfying over repeat viewings.
For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.