The Intelligent Rodent

Mon Oncle D'Amerique Directed by Alain Resnais at the Orson Wells

WOODY ALLEN--in his quirky wisdom--spoke for at least two generations of disillusioned and neurotic Western intellectuals when he said, "I do not believe that God is dead. The worst you can say about him is that he's an under-achiever." We poor, self-absorbed Victims of the Modern Age--raised on movies, TV, and existentialism--no longer turn to God for the answers to life's terrible questions (Why is there war? Why is there poverty? Why can't I get her/him into bed?) and in many cases, we have dispensed with that hopeless under-achiever altogether. So we look inward for the answers; personal mental-emotional-physical "health" is our supreme god and psychology, or sociophysiology, or physio-socio-psychology, or whatever they're calling the practice these days, is the new religion of millions. Director Alain Resnais has discovered a new high priest of the faith; his name is Dr. Henri Laborit and he's certain that he knows all of us better than we know ourselves.

Dr. Laborit is the real star of Resnais' controversial new film, Mon Oncle D'Amerique. The script, by the esteemed Jean Gruault, centers on the good doctor's theories on human nature and Laborit himself is on hand to comment on the story of three people whose inter-connected lives demonstrate just how accurate Laborit's conclusions are. If you still cling to the belief that man is a superior and complex creature whose existence can never be fathomed, Laborit will probably convince you that man is nothing more than an extremely intelligent rodent--with neuroses. Resnais and Gruault don't question Laborit's rectitude for a second; their film is not so much a work of art as it is a compilation and inter-mingling of case studies orchestrated to fit precisely into the doctor's insightful but rather rigid scheme of things. Mon Oncle exudes wit and originality and Laborit's analyses are fascinating, but the tone of the film--as dry and cool as a psychology text-book--makes it disappointing.

Mon Oncle opens with a close-up of a stoplight-red neon heart blinking ominously as Laborit's solemn, soothing voice intones "A being's only reason for being is being." The following sequence is more than a little dull and, at first, bewildering, as Resnais bombards us with shots of rocks, plants, frogs, and turtles while Laborit tells us that many living things do not need to move to live but that human beings do need to move to live. It seems that Laborit would prefer to have been born a daffodil, as he drones through a monologue that sounds like those educational films from ninth grade bio class.

But his rambling soon becomes coherent as he explains his theory of man's three brains: the "reptilian" brain which programs man for his needs for food, shelter, and copulation and the general survival instinct; the "affective" brain which contains the memory and responds appropriately to pleasure and pain, reward and punishment; and the "associative" brain which connects events from the past and enables us to use language. Laborit doesn't really like this third brain, also known as the cerebral cortex, because it allows humans to be programmed by society; it gives us the power to create "excuses, reasons, and alibis" to mask our pure animal instincts. Language and culture, then, deny us the fulfilment of our strong, unconscious drives.

Laborit goes on to declare that human beings feel the need to dominate all life's situations, particularly the tricky ones involving head-to-head competition. When put in one of these trying predicaments, we may choose to escape--which usually does nothing to solve the problem--or we may combat our antagonists. According to Laborit, combat is the healthiest option, but society forces us to repress those more aggressive instincts, thus inhibiting us. "When we can't take out our aggressions on others," Laborit says grimly, "we can still take them out on ourselves." Inhibition, then, results in high blood pressure, asthma, ulcers, kidney stones, heart disease, and suicide.

YES, MON ONCLE is academic in the extreme, but, miraculously, it's never boring once the action gets started. The film-makers' mixed blessing of cleverness saves the movie from the clutches of dullness and banality. Cleverness is Mon Oncle's dominant characteristic, but in cinema--as in any other art form--excessive cleverness can be deadly annoying. Resnais' and Gruault's three main characters serve as mere puppets of Laborit. Early in the film, we race through the childhoods and adolescences of Jean, Janine, and Rene, learning quickly and concisely all the important biographical details. Sure it's interesting that they all had long solitary periods in their childhoods, or that their parents didn't understand them, or that they like to imagine themselves as their favorite film actors, or that all three are ambitious over-achievers. But the contrived similarities are little more than interesting; at best, clever.

Mon Oncle combines art and science and art comes up short. When we're dealing with case studies instead of characters, we observe without compassion, we analyze without sympathy. Laborit tells us how these people will behave, so every decision they make becomes predictable. One of the male protagonists attempts suicide. Big deal. Laborit said he would, right? You can't argue with science.

In fact, if it weren't for Laborit's commentary, Mon Oncle would be a trifle of a film; a sweet, melodramatic little story. But, thanks to the good doctor, Resnais doesn't have to rely on a compelling plot or intriguing characters to hold our attention. We needn't strain ourselves looking for clues to motivations, we needn't ponder the out-come of events. Laborit knows all, tells all. Resnais displays his utter confidence in Laborit's theories when he has his actors don white rat heads to walk through some of their scenes. The director's joke couldn't be more clever--or more blatant in its message. Pass the cheese.

Given the peculiarity of portraying neurotic tools, the three lead actors deliver uniformly fine performances. As Jean, the social-climbing, "wandering intellectual", Roger-Pierre--a paunchy, fifty-ish Charlie Chaplin, sans mustache--is the perfect ambitious bureaucrat: a tyrant with his wife, children, and mistress but a wimpy, play-by-the-rules kiss-ass in the office. Nicole Garcia's Janine represents that curious person you know well but who is either brilliant and wily or a complete and utter moron--and you can't decide which it is. Gerard Depardieu, oddly enough, looks more like Cro-Magnon Man in a three-piece suit than he does in his usual dirty t-shirt. But his primitive good looks help in his appearing appropriately uncomfortable in his high-powered, corporate surroundings.

Yet, the performances aren't what one remembers best from Mon Oncle--it's the haggard face of Dr. Laborit that lingers in the mind. Toward the end of the film, he applies his theories more broadly, saying that large social groups--nations--only live to dominate and that they will stop at nothing, not murder, not genocide, not war. Resnais' camera then takes us for a sudden, completely unexpected, brutally chilling brief tour of the South Bronx. If Laborit's analyses seem a little too pat when concerned with the pointless, emotional cruelty we inflict on one another in our personal relationships, his dominance theory is terrifyingly precise when it deals with global kingdom-making. And Resnais' haunting last shot could convert many a cynic to Laborit's religion. Wrong or right, you've got to give him credit for trying to find an answer.