Alain Resnais – Mon oncle d’Amérique (1980)


One rarely associates the austere films of Alain Resnais with comedy, but in his first real hit, the director’s exploration of the theories of behavioral scientist Henri Laborit is surprisingly amusing. Resnais has often dwelt on the influence of the past upon the present, and the determinism that renders freedom chimerical. Here, he returns to the theme, in following the lives of three French professionals whose lives never intersect until the latter part of the film. The doctor appears onscreen in a white lab coat explaining the vagaries of their behavior, which is illustrated by human-sized mice responding to carrot-and-stick incentives. Like Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes, it emphasizes the way in which the character’s intention or plans rarely come pass in the way they imagine, and is especially funny and discerning on the fate of ’60s self-proclaimed revolutionaries turned ’80s yuppies. If the film is finally as sobering as his more overtly serious about the way social phenomena mold behavior, the journey is much more fun than usual. Gerard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia, and Roger-Pierre all are excellent as the trio in search of an elusive happiness. — Michael Costello

René (Gérard Depardieu) has managed to successfully leave behind his poor background to become a successful manager in a textile fabric in the north of France. With the merging of various parts of the group and the economic downturn, he’s finding his position to be under constant threat. Pierre (Roger-Pierre) is a politician who star is on the rise – he’s now the head of the French state radio but his marital life is in tatters – he’s started having an affair with Janine (Nicole Garcia), a struggling actress with a fixation on Jean Marais. Despite having been critically acclaimed for her performances in Julie, the play’s director has abandoned the project in search of greener pastures.

(I think I’m in love with Nicole Garcia)

Bizarrely Mon Oncle D’Amérique was intended to be a documentary about the works of the late Prof. Laborit, a French biologist who had published a series of books examining human behaviour and the nervous system. Deeply sceptical about the entire project, he had gone so far as to claim that the sole person who could make a short film about it was Alain Resnais as only he could represent human emotions accurately on screen… Resnais himself was no stranger to documentaries given that his first triumph, Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) was a documentary on the extermination of Jews during World War II. Since then he’d managed to infuriate/dazzle the arthouse crowd with Last Year In Marienbad – regarded by many as a modern masterpiece. To Laborit’s amazement, Alain Resnais agreed to do the film but felt a full-length film would be required. Employing Jean Gruault, the respected screenwriter for Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and L’Enfant Sauvage, was retrospectively a stroke of genius as he managed to weave a believable story around the highly theoretical aspects of Laborit’s work.

Granted, given it’s highly original source material, the film is a sincerely unusual effort but Resnais’ stylistic control manages to prevent it from veering into the ditch occupied by most “slacker” movies (Before Sunrise and co.). His use of Laborit as a Greek chorus, explaining the character’s actions and intentions, works incredibly well, as does the juxtaposition of styles flitting between documentary and surreal flights of fancy. These surreal touches, such as transforming the cast into giant rats or using clips from each character’s favourite actor to reflect their mood, blend effortlessly into the film without trying the audience’s patience though one can’t help but realise how Resnais’ outlandish techniques have gradually become more mainstream; Jeunet and the writers of Dream On are obviously heavily indebted to this film.On the other hand, thanks to Resnais’ delicate direction, the cast do their share at propping up the film’s cohesion, with a young Depardieu unsurprisingly stealing the show making you wish he’d return to more challenging acting than Obélix…

The film ended up being a worldwide success with Gruault getting nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay (which he knew he’d never win due to “America’s chauvinism”). Living up to his versatile and unpredictable nature, Resnais’ delivers here one of his finest. Despite its imperfections, Mon Oncle d’Amérique remains a daring demonstration of how limitless cinema can be when left in the right hands.

Subtitles:English (Vob & .srt), French (Vob)

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