Judge Brendan Babish thinks there's nothing like living with a drunken uncle to speed up a young man's maturation process.
A holiday film unlike any other.
Mon Oncle Antoine may be a modest French Canadian film from the early 1970s, but for three decades in a row, critics at the Toronto International Film Festival have voted it best Canadian film of all time. Now, with a new Criterion release on DVD, film fans can discover for themselves whether it's true that another Canadian film could really top Strange Brew.
Facts of the Case
Set in a rural Quebec mining town in the 1940s during the Christmas holiday season, Mon Oncle Antoine is the coming-of-age story of an adolescent, Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), whose family runs a general store that doubles as a funeral parlor. The Christmas season is great for business, and as the town gathers at the store for shopping and revelry, Benoit acquires both carnal knowledge of the opposite sex and some painful information about his family and their sideline business that will change him forever.
To varying degrees, critical elements of foreign films are lost on us, as we are unfamiliar with the culture depicted. Despite Canada being a close neighbor with a more-or-less comparable culture to the United States, I can't help but think much of the resonance of this fine film will escape American audiences, including myself.
Mon Oncle Antoine, which was produced in 1971, depicts a time in rural Quebec before the Asbestos Strike in 1949, an event that demarcates a great change in Quebec's culture, politics, and government. Mon Oncle Antoine is praised by many Canadians for its examination of the social conditions that led to this sea change in the province. Unfortunately for myself, and most likely many American viewers, I am unfamiliar with life in Quebec, not only life in the 1940s, but throughout the entire century (however, I do remember the outpouring of grief when the Quebec Nordiques left town); as such, I am sure many, though not all, of the film's criticisms of that time period were lost on me. There were obvious depictions of people's uneasy relationship with the local power structure, in particular the church and plutocrats. In one memorable scene, the owner of the local mine rides his carriage through town and dismissively tosses Christmas stockings onto the street for local children to pick up.
That said, Mon Oncle Antoine still manages to be an effective and moving portrait of a young man and the universal ascension into maturity, which is nearly always accomplished through the knowledge of painful truths. In the beginning of the film, Benoit, with his wide expressive eyes and bulbous nose, seems to be nothing more than a typical troublemaker. However, his nontraditional family business and home life—featuring the titular drunken uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe), a jovial store assistant (played by Jutra), and a young, fetching clerk Benoit's own age—provide the temptation and drama that can quickly sap a boy's innocence.
The carnal escapades of young Benoit are appropriately awkward and cheeky—as one would expect from a mischievous 15-year-old. These passages from the film are amusing, but they also resonate, as Jutra shows that burgeoning sexually is often as scary as it is exciting. But the real drama unfolds in the relationship between Benoit and his uncle. Initially, Antoine seems like a fun-loving drunkard, and this is surely how Benoit understood his elder relative most of his young life. But as Benoit learns more about his uncle, he, and the audience, can be shocked into discovering how deceptive appearances can be.
Ultimately, as a character study, Mon Oncle Antoine is an effective and engaging film. The movie also provides a profound glimpse at a time period that is far removed from contemporary life. But as an exercise in filmmaking, Mon Oncle Antoine is a little uneven. Jutra manages to show off some of Quebec's most beautiful vistas, but a consistently shaky camera and several unsteady zooms occasionally distract from a powerful story.
Though Mon Oncle Antoine was previously released on DVD in 2001 in a now-out-of-print bare-bones edition, this Criterion version is a dramatic upgrade. This new version presents the film in its true widescreen format and provides a picture that is probably as clear as a low-budget film from the early 1970s can be. That said, some scenes are a little grainy. The audio is presented in a mono track, and an English dub is provided.
There aren't loads of extras on this two-disc collection, but all of the extras provided are substantial. "A Chairy Tale" is a charming 10-minute film co-directed by Jutra and Norman McLaren. In the 1957 film, Dutra attempts to sit on a chair, over an audio bed of early Ravi Shankar music. Clearly, the film is insubstantial, but it's good for a laugh.
"On Screen!: Mon Oncle Antoine" is a 2007 documentary on the making and history of the film. It is 47 minutes long and features interviews with cast and crew, as well as locals from the town where it was filmed.
The last extra proves to be the most substantial in the set. "Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story" is a feature-length documentary from 2002 on the life and work of Jutra, who not only adapted and directed Mon Oncle Antoine, but also probably delivered the film's strongest performance. In the documentary, director Paule Baillargeon (who was also a close friend of Jutra) traces the life of the Canadian director, from his breakout success with Mon Oncle Antoine, to his struggles to succeed as a prominent filmmaker in Toronto, to his suicide in 1986 at the age of 56. Tragically, Jutra was stricken with early onset of Alzheimer's disease, and chose to take his own life rather than suffer through dementia. But this film still manages to be an uplifting celebration of Jutra's spirit and career, rather than mourn his untimely death. For fans of his work, "Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story" will practically be worth the purchase price of this set alone.
Writer/director Claude Jutra's Mon Oncle Antoine is one of those subtle, realistic coming-of-age films reminiscent of two subsequently produced films: Lasse Hallström's My Life as a Dog and François Truffaut's Small Change. My Life as a Dog and Small Change have both long been favorites of mine, and in a way, Mon Oncle Antoine seemed like a retread of that same emotional landscape. But of course, Mon Oncle Antoine predates both these films, and should probably be credited with influencing those two great movies. Additionally, Mon Oncle Antoine manages to be profound in its study of youth, but also on the evolution of a culture. The film may be flawed, but it is moving and ambitious and certainly worth seeing.
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Scales of Justice
• "On Screen!: Mon Oncle Antoine"
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