Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)

Filmspotting has a Movie Dictator Club. My Canadian friend Matt the Movie Watcher assigned me Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) a while back . The Criterion version that I watched is immaculate. Set in the 1940s, this naturalistic (till the director starts riffing) film of country life in Quebec is fresh enough to have been made yesterday. The Canadian National Film Board helped with its production; correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that this might have been the first major example of Quebecois film. The NFB has funded quite a few works that feature drama in lesser-known areas of Canada and without it, film in Quebec might never have got off the ground. I grew up in a small rural town in the late 40s and early 50s and instantly related to the setting and characters in this movie. It was filmed in Black Lake City and at the Thetford asbestos mines in Québec.

I can recommend the movie without reservation to anyone interested in a quiet, closely-observed visit to a small town in the country in the 40s, featuring a variety of interesting characters making a hard life seem a little easier that it probably is – especially since the town is dominated by an open-pit asbestos mine that coats everything, including the lungs of the residents, with carcinogenic dust.

Having said that, it strikes me that the director, Claude Jutra, who here adapted a short story for the screen and directed the movie, turned his back on the possibility of making a classic film, ending up with a very good movie instead. I’ve just posted a review elsewhere of “Mother of Mine,” and I had the same thought about the director of that film, Klaus Härö. In both cases, the director seems not to trust the tremendous power of the basic story that he is dealing with and instead tacks on an unnecessary melodramatic narrative that entertains us in the moment but can’t stand up to scrutiny later, relegating both films to the category of rural picaresque. Jutra might well have worked from a checklist here that includes a teenager breathing his last, a journey over unpaved roads with a hard-to-manage coffin (when “As I Lay Dying” was published, this trope should have been moved to the Pantheon and left alone there), a teen’s first look at the adult female rack and I’m not talking about Bambi’s mother here, so forth. A documentary about Jutra is included and it’s as interesting as the film itself. A life of struggle to make movies by a gifted man with money woes. Puts me in mind of Orson Welles.

I also seem to be developing an aversion to characters who stare straight ahead without speaking, leaving us to divine their thoughts and relieving the author of the responsibility of writing intelligent and original dialog for them. Jacques Gagnon, who plays a young man whose final sudden coming of age is compressed into the confines of a day or so, underacts in a way that perhaps mimics the frozen silent wastes of those great northern forests up there, which will probably be filling up with refugee polar bears any day now.

And Bravo! to Olivette Thibault, who gets her ashes hauled here at the age of 57 by a youngish Jutra himself.

Mon Oncle Antoine is filled with interesting characters and interesting moments, entertains in its every frame, and is a gem indeed. Thanks to Matt for choosing it!

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