An absolutely masterful dissection of the human condition, an accomplishment in editing, and a piece of cinema that should be used to showcase the possibilities strong film form
A highly ambitious film without one single impressive camera movement or singularly beautiful or painterly frame
Starts with the collage of frames on the wall and a bit of a declaration of the attempt here to explain the nature of being
The multiple narrators is a bit tough to pick up at first, dense voice-over, many voices thrown at you as we go into a montage of plants and the thesis is laid out about evolution, where plants are from, analyzing them and then we’re on to animals and how they’re different
The omniscient narrator (I think there’s two actually, one man and one woman) lay out the differences in animals and then the three lead characters (also in voice-over) are introduced.
This is auteur work of the highest order—this is the Rensais who weaved the documentary opening of Hiroshima Mon Amour into the narrative film of two lovers as representations of their cities. There are clearly two films here in Mon oncle d’Amérique —a drama about the three somewhat interconnected lives (Gerard Depardieu’s Rene, Roger Pierre’s Jean, and Nicole Garcia’s Janine)— and the documentary study of work by Henri Laborit. There’s more to it but these are the two major strands.
It’s Resnais so it is just going to contain things you’ve never seen before- unconventional to the point of looking like he’s self-taught at times… I do think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul in that regards (though their style is drastically different)—as an example here we have the superimposed iris of the three characters adult body talking about their birth
Then we’re back to the documentary (mainly through the vehicle of evolutionary philosopher Henri Laborit playing himself) talking about what separates our brain from a crab and how that changes our behavior. We do get the story of his birth as well though for good measure.
Resnais’ great triumph here is how he weaves it all together (and it is an immediate call-back to Hiroshima Mon Amour as it instantly enriches that film) through editing. The Catholic farmer, the politician, the communist radical actress
Always with Resnais it is about memory—“I spoke about memory”- here Henri Laborit is explaining how it effects behavior. It’s also a sly meditation on fate if our behavior is largely dictated to us. Freudian, evolutionary, unconscious mechanisms, learned and survival behavior, effects on the nervous system, scientific—and with every cut Resnais is making a statement. It’s not just the documentary within the film and the drama of the three but there are cutaways to the influence of cinema as well. French actors from the black and white era: Danielle Darrieux, Jean Gabin, and Jean Marais each are woven into the fabric of our three characters in the form of cutaways to their films, their expressions.
A truly brilliant composition—the structure isn’t unlike Intolerance in some ways—I’d love to see a Dr. Bordwell formal analysis of the narrative strands
Again we cut to scenes from a movie – she likes cloak and dagger movies, Gabon is the spirit animal for Depardieu – fitting, masculine, big features
The title is another brilliant stroke from Resnais—it is like his 1963 film Muriel in that the titular character isn’t a big part of the film (here not even seen, and I’m not sure really exists). It is part of the tribal knowledge sort of story that each character has an American Uncle, one died a bum, one went adventurously looking for treasure—and it has different ways of effecting each character. Sort of a blueprint. A perfect line – “like most people happiness is something I thought I had coming to me like an inheritance” when talking about her Uncle. It has been suggested by a few critics that the Uncle is a metaphor or symbol for God— and he may not exist—fascinating—I’m not sure.
Just an absolutely brilliant screenplay—it is based on the writings of Henri Laborit—but it is written by Jean Gruault who often worked with Truffaut (Jules and Jim, The Wild Child are among the impressive works on the resume)
So if one layer is the three character drama, another the documentary with Laborit, yet another layer is the b/w movie actor cutaways, well the rat section is yet another layer—a stroke of genius. The rat is compared to the three characters, action/reaction, the white rat head on the actual characters—wild—certainly had an effect on Lynch’s 2006 film Inland Empire (Lynch uses rabbits)
Formally audacious, a procedural deconstruction- not only of a genre, narrative, and film, but of behavior,
The characters’ lives are woven together within the drama, her interjection, care, saves Depardieu’s life.
Brazenly intellectual, every cutaway a statement—this isn’t a symphonic editing jig though like Intolerance, Potemkin, or Dunkirk though. It wouldn’t be appropriate for the score to carries from cut to cut—this is an academic examination almost.
Ends on a strong montage of objects in their life, the Laborit summarizes and a master shot again (like the beginning) of the collage—a nice bookend.
Then we get a shot of a tree on a brick building in an ugly torn down city. A series of cuts jumps the camera close and closer to the tree to expose the pain underneath. The uglier it is the closer you get—a metaphor for our examination of the characters with the tree serving as a metaphor for the characters and the ruinous city a metaphor for the world?
Marienbad, still Resnais best work, is a poem, a labyrinth that is unexplainable but visually stunning. This work from Resnais has a lot of common—but it is a closer cousin to Hiroshima Mon Amour for sure. All three masterworks are about memory, editing, film form at its finest, deconstruction and behavior. But Mon Oncle d’Amérique is incredibly narratively coherent (dense, too), unbeautiful to look at, and clinical. These are traits very unlike Marienbad which is mystical, poetic (I would never describe Mon Oncle d’Amérique as poetic) and straight gorgeous (again not a trait here in Resnais’ 1980 film).
Must-See/Masterpiece border. So much to unpack. A third and fourth viewing is required.
Did you see a french movie in OV ?
In english with subtitles ?
@KidCharlemagne— sorry- not sure what OV is. I saw this on the criterion streaming platform. in french with english subtitles
It’s Orignal Version. In France, when we see a english movie in english, we said « VO » (Version originale in french).
Thanks for the reply 🙂
@KidCharlemagne— Thanks. Good to know- I didn’t know that.
How similar is this to late period Godard? I mean everything I hear about Godard’s later work, including a lot from yourself, says it’s pretty much a weird but incredibly distinctive collage of barely comprehensibly-edited together material that sounds honestly not unlike Resnais’s film here, but unlike late period Godard which is often critically panned, this film…
…This film. I mean what an incredible piece of work Resnais has put together here. I had to watch this twice in the span of a week back in July and while I was dumbfounded by also very intrigued by the first viewing, the second one left me without any socks cause they were blown clean off by the utter magnificence of this great achievement. And you’re entirely right to say that despite the very few impressive shots, average work in mise-en-scene at best and the same for the movement of the camera… this film is a Masterpiece (I know you’re just at MS/MP right now but I think that will change when you make those 3rd and 4th viewings you mentioned).
It’s just that so much about it sounds – even if it may not at all actually be – similar to Godard’s later films. Do they share much at all? And if they do, what makes the difference? Is it the gobsmacking genius in the conclusions about life that Resnais makes here as opposed to the much poorer ideas present with Godard, echoing back to Welles’ quote “I can’t take him [Godard] seriously as a thinker… and he does,”? Because that would make sense as I remember in the review of Detective you brought up another critic talking about how he occasionally noticed a fleeting theme but then it disappeared on him/wasn’t even there in the first place, whereas with Resnais here the ideas he brings up ring true in the mind for every second of the film’s runtime and are never left to gestate whatsoever, but consistently developed with each passing moment of the characters’ lives or with Laborit’s narration.
@Zane- it feels like everything in Resnais work was carefully planned and executed
@Drake – Thank you, that’s about what I thought.