Sunday, March 25, 2012

Film # 77: Mon oncle d'Amerique (1980)

Title for us English-speaking Types: My Uncle from America

Director: Alain Resnais

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers.)

In 1970s France, three people’s lives intertwine in ways that give each of them anger, joy, confusion, frustration, and depression. Not all in that order.

Extended Summary (Longer plot synopsis)

In 1977 France, Rene Ragueneau (Gerard Depardieu) is a manager of an agricultural company, which is a subsidiary of a larger corporation. He was raised on a farm, but studied hard and broke away from his conservative, close-minded family. He is married with two daughters. One day, his corporation informs him that he will be observed and assisted by someone from the corporate office. This new supervisor watches Rene like a hawk, criticizing the many outdated methods that his factory and warehouse use. The criticism leads to anxiety and ulcers for Rene. The main corporation decides to move Rene to a different branch of the company, one that will create ready-to-wear fashions and be far away from his family. With little choice, he must move away from them and pursue this field in which he has no experience.

Rene, frustrated by his family's conservative, narrow-mindedness, vents his frustration before he leaves them for good.

In Paris, Jean Le Gall (Roger Pierre) leads his life as the head of the news branch of the government. Raised by stern, educated and driven parents, Jean is quite successful and has plans to climb further up the political ladder and run for office. He is married to a passionate and devoted wife, though his own passion for her has waned. He coldly leaves his wife one day to begin an affair with Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia).

Janine is somewhat younger than Jean, and she is from a very different background. Raised by parents with strong communist leanings, she eventually had yearnings for the stage. She got a break and performed the lead role in a hit play, which is how she met Jean. She and Jean continue their affair for a short time, though Jean has bouts of crippling kidney stones. Eventually, Jean’s wife shows up at Janine’s apartment and demands that she allow Jean to return home to his family. Janine relents and has Jean leave, though her complete reasons are not totally clear.

Two years pass. Jean takes a brief trip to a small island that his family owns, just off the French coast. He runs into none other than Janine. In catching up, we learn that Jean’s wife had told Janine that she was deathly ill, in order to get Janine to let Jean go. Janine embraces Jean, at first hoping to renew their passion, but leaves frustrated when Jean does not return the sentiment.

Jean and Janine, two years after their initial tryst. Janine attempts to rekindle the flame, but is snubbed.

Not far away, two years into his “new” position, Rene is once again in a bit of a bind. While he has had some success in the fashion branch of his corporation, he is flagging a bit. Two corporate executives come to see him, one of them being none other than Janine, who has found a steady job in fashion after leaving the stage. Rene is informed that his management has been lacking and that his responsibilities will be lessened. Taking this as a great insult, Rene storms off into his room and attempts suicide.

Just after Rene’s suicide attempt, Janine races off to confront Jean’s wife about her lie. In finding her, it doesn’t take long for Janine to realize that she has no great argument, as Jean’s wife did what was necessary to keep her family together. Still frustrated, she runs off and finds Jean. He, too, agrees that his wife did the right thing, which leads to more helpless agitation from Janine. Jean and Janine begin to grapple in a wrestling match of frustration.

Back in a hospital room, Rene recovers to find his wife and children there. His wife embraces him, merely glad that he is alive.

Spanning the entire course of the stories of Rene, Jean, and Janine, is the running commentary of real-life behavioral psychologist Professor Henri Laborit. Through exposition and interspersed visual experiments, he describes evolutionary psychology in ways that are exhibited by the three main characters’ stories.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done before any further research on the movie)

I had to sleep on this one a bit.

After watching Mon oncle d’Amerique and then sleeping through the night, allowing the film and its many facets to sink in, I realize that I think it to be excellent. If you were to simply read the plot summary, it would probably seem rather boring. One could see the three interweaving stories of Rene, Janine, and Jean as such, but it is the telling of the tale through the cinematic medium that is the wonder of the film.

Firstly, the three stories of the main characters are actually plenty engaging. Rene’s struggles to maintain his family and self worth, Janine’s attempts at following her youthful passion and attempts at rebellion, and Jean’s quest for social renown and sexual satisfaction are all very real and human dramas. These dramas are portrayed brilliantly by the actors, so that every bit of their pain, happiness, and confusion comes through.

The dutiful and loving Rene, suffering from ulcers. His physical and emotional pains, along with those of the other two main characters, are cast into a scientific light within the context of the film.

However, this film’s revolutionary power comes from things far beyond the personal dramas and acting. The entire framework and telling of the tale gives this movie a highly intellectual quality that may turn off many viewers, but which others will find incredibly absorbing. The movie starts with short, still images of abstract shapes from nature, such as rocks, bricks, and water. A narrator introduces the three main characters, giving brief biographies of each of them, starting from the circumstances of their births while beginning to explain certain basic evolutionary principles of the natural world. These initial minutes seem like the absolute worst and most pretentious aspects of the type of snooty, pretentious European movie that many audiences love to ridicule and parody. But, if you hang in there, a brilliant structure beings to emerge.

Within about 20 minutes, we have a solid understanding of Rene’s, Jean’s, and Janine’s backgrounds and see some of the seminal moments in their lives. As this goes on, the narrator beings to add more general, modern discoveries about human psychology, citing experiments with lab mice and their reactions to pleasure and pain stimuli. When you start to pay close attention, the behaviors exhibited by the mice can be seen in the behaviors of Rene, Jean, and Janine during the two year period that consists of the bulk of the movie. And the similarities between the tiny rodents and the humans grow clearer.

Once the primary tale is in full swing, the psychologist/narrator steps back quite a bit, and we are allowed to immerse ourselves in the three protagonists’ lives. Their interactions further demonstrate that, as complex as the human mind is, there are still some very basic mechanisms at work. Now, some might write it all off as very reductionist, and this argument may have merit, but it doesn’t make the movie any less interesting to me.

Regularly throughout the movie, we see experiments with mice, looking upon how they react to pain stimuli. It's not hard to see the correlation with the reactions of Rene, Jean, and Janine.

In watching the movie, two films in particular came to mind. The first was a predecessor, the 1966 Ingmar Bergman film, Persona. In construction and themes, Mon oncle d’Amerique seems to borrow from Bergman’s very personal tale about people’s basic mental states feeding into and off of one another. Persona also opened and closed his movie with choppy, vague visuals that only make more sense once the entire film is viewed. The other film that came to mind is the much more modern Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufmann and directed by Spike Jonze. This is another film that creatively and artistically draws connections between the fundamental rules of natural order and the most basic human physical and psychological needs and desires.

Comparing and contrasting these three similar films is an interesting exercise. The earliest, Persona, is dead serious in its presentation. It was an exorcism of pain and frustration by Ingmar Bergman, and it comes across as such. Adaptation, on the other hand, is as much comedy as human drama. Its message is still deep and heartfelt, but there are plenty of great laughs along the way. Mon oncle d’Amerique splits the difference a bit, leaning much more towards the serious end. There are, however, several great humorous moments and visuals, including scenes in which human-sized mice re-enact some of the actions of Rene, Janine and Jean, even wearing their clothes at times. These little moments do take the edge off a bit, and prevent the movie from becoming too overbearing.

One of several surreal and blessedly funny depictions of the human characters as their rodent counterparts in the lab experiment. The only thing is, the lab is actually their lives. 

I would recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys thoughtful, somewhat challenging films that can hold your attention and make you think deeply. If you go in realizing that you will see something akin to a documentary, you will be well-served. Mon oncle d’Amerique is fiction, but it does something that really cannot be done in reality – an observational study of the most key moments in the lives of a few people.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research.)

Somewhat unsurprisingly, there’s not a ton of analysis to be found out there in the World Wide Web. Even though this film has been roundly praised by critics ever since its release (it won the Grand Prix at Cannes), we over here in U.S. tend not to embrace high-minded French movies that don’t follow standard film conventions. At least, most of us don’t. So, it’s not surprising to find that, not only is this movie not available on Netflix, but it is also out of DVD print and relatively difficult to get. For all of these reasons, very few people have even heard of it. It’s a shame, really.

Of course, we can rely on professional film critics to be up on any film of note. As I often do, I found a solid write-up done by Roger Ebert at his site here. He brings up some of the things that I noticed, and of course points out several things that I either missed or did not include in my review. The interesting thing is that, in the middle sections of his review, Ebert himself almost gets lost in the grander philosophies and ideas in the movie. This is a good thing. Ebert knows this is a good thing, and credits the film with inspiring such cogitations.

I have to say that, like very few movies in the world, Mon oncle d’Amerique is one whose merits are best observed and not merely read about. One can grasp the basic academic themes from reading reviews like this one, but until the movie is seen, it is all but impossible to see just how skillfully the different parts link together. Just heed this caveat: if you do not like high-minded films that force you to think far beyond the human drama tale that plays out on-screen, you probably won’t enjoy this one. If you’re into somewhat demanding films that will stay with you for days, months, and probably years afterwards, you will not be disappointed with this one.

That’s a wrap. 77 shows down. 28 to go.

Coming Soon: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
This one will take a while. It was a made-for-TV adaptation of a rather large novel. The thing is over FIFTEEN HOURS LONG!! By the time I actually post this review, I hope to be a good ways into it, so come on back in a week or so to see what I make of it.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.