MY UNCLE ANTOINE is a standout made in Quebec, an area that has not produced great films in the past, yet it is far more than a pleasant surprise. Director Claude Jutra and scenarist Clement Perron treat the central subject of a boy's early adolescence with greater exuberance and insight than most film-makers who have dealt with youth. Going far beyond the story of the boy, the film-makers have enriched their film with the energy that exists alongside poverty in backwoods Quebec. Within the loose structure of the film, vivid images which delight the eye become reference points of characterization. Characters reveal themselves gradually but with force, while the relationships between characters--deliberately, almost obnoxiously unclear at the very beginning -- only gradually appear in their full intensity. The film is 110 minutes of life unfolding in an ever-so-smooth progression from the distancing narrative of the opening scenes (in many of which the main characters do not even appear) to the intensified, more-than-immediate state at the end. By then we feel not only the emotional stresses and joys of young Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) but also the depth of emotion and the lives of all these people, even in the implied emotions from off-screen scenes we never see -- and these are strong impressions for any film to leave.
French-Canadian director Claude Jutra has been making films for some time, but My Uncle Antoine is his first film to receive major notice in the United States. Despite its force, however, and despite its importance as a film, this Janus Films release has not been much shown outside New York City, where it first played about a year ago. There isn't much of a market for Canadian films here, certainly not for subtitled films from Quebec. The regular audience for foreign language films from Europe is not greatly attracted, since Canada has no deep-seated film tradition, no world-famous directors.
MOST French-Canadian films are never exported, just shown in Quebec, where they appeal to Quebec nationalists presumably because they are made in Quebec, not because they capture a distinct national experience. My Uncle Antoine takes an anti-English stance, founded in economics not in race, when it depicts an asbestos mine near Black Lake, Quebec, where the managers are English and deliver their rebukes to the French-speaking workers in a language the workers cannot understand. At Christmas time, Jutra shows the villagers' holiday frivolity instantly transformed by the mine owner's two-faced distribution of little bags of candy, which he throws from his horse-drawn sleigh to the children of the same Black Lake workers he holds impoverished.
The economic condition of the town's residents is the backdrop for the film. Jutra makes his sympathies clear in a few scattered scenes, but he is mainly interested in the personal relations which the economics lie behind. The film's secondary plot takes up the life of Joe Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve), worker at the asbestos mine, who can take the tension and degradation of his job no longer. He quits, and soon sets out for his old job at a lumber camp. Facing nature alone, unfettered by machinery, he will lead, a romantic spirit would suggest, the rustic existence he is suited for. As he prepares to leave, close-ups of this burly man in a tartan flannel workshirt, his axe once again on his shoulder, alternate with shots of his sturdy wife, Helene Loiselle, ready to run the household by herself for as long as he is away. But Jutra's conception is not romantic -- no more than Walker Evan's photographs of the depression. The two come together with passion. The depth of this passion appears only much later. At this point, the emotional attachment of the viewer is still vague. We watch as if through a documentarist's camera.
Jutra is creating a mythic figure here, and he gives his mythology the distance it needs to appear large. He makes this backwoodsman a regional folk hero, but at the same time he shows, from a distance, the conditions that forced the man to leave a large family in need of a father. Underneath the surface dignity of a Paul Bunyan figure we see the desperate position of an impoverished man. The irony of this situation depends on the objective and unemotional tone the film has maintained up to this point. If we approached too close to Poulin, his mythical aspects would soon dissolve.
HAVING once established the conflicts that make up Poulin, Jutra is free to set the character aside. When the film was first released, many critics complained about this unusual procedure, saying Poulin should not figure so prominently near the beginning of the film since he is not a "major" character in any conventional sense. His presence is somewhat confusing, to be sure, because most of the film centers around Benoit's experiences as a stock boy in his uncle's general store. But Poulin returns at the very end of the film, mourning over his dead son, and his presence seems intensely powerful at that point. His presence is felt so strongly because he has been out of the picture so long. The other characters have become so human by the end of the film that they cannot have the impact of this distant, ambivalent figure. Both sides of his character have been successfully carried through the film.
Poulin's presence, though confusing at times, helps create the structure of gradual progression from distant to intensified identification with the film. It is this structure which makes My Uncle Antoine more expressive of its characters' lives and feelings than most other films about adolescence.
THE BULK of the film is both lively and straightforward. Scenes of Benoit's often playful, often serious life at the general store (where Jutra himself plays another worker), the warm portraits of Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and Aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault) drinking together--these could be excised and shown separately and would still be sensitive scenes. But a film made of these scenes would be one-sided, and this film is not. The gentleness of the store contrasts with Benoit's harsh winter ride with Antoine on an undertaking job far from the town. Antoine's jovial drinking in his store contrasts with his reprehensible neglect of his duties at the end. My Uncle Antoine is one of the most accessible of complex works, full of captivating imagery, often most expressive when the dialogue is most scarce, maintaining a slight air of frivolity at all but the blackest moments--and containing a depth and energy as welcome as it may be unexpected.
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