Mon oncle Antoine

Director: Claude Jutra
Screenplay: Claude Jutra & Clément Perron (story by Clément Perron)
Stars:Jacques Gagnon (Benoit), Lyne Champagne (Carmen), Jean Duceppe (Uncle Antoine), OlivetteThibault (Aunt Cecile), Claude Jutra (Fernand), Lionel Villeneuve (JosPoulin), Hélène Loiselle (Madame Poulin), Mario Dubuc (Poulin’s son), Lise Brunelle (Poulin’s daughter), Alain Legendre (Poulin’s son), Robin Marcoux (Poulin’s son), Serge Evers (Poulin’s son), Monique Mercure (Alexandrine), Georges Alexander (The Big Boss)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1971
Country: Canada
Mon oncle Antoine
Mon oncle AntoineSet in the blustery, frozen winter landscape of northern Quebec in the 1940s, Mon oncle Antoine is a coming-of-age tale that is as much about life in a small rural mining town as it is about the travails of its teenage protagonist, which is a good thing since, even by the early 1970s, audiences had already grown accustomed to such adolescent nostalgia. Yet, even if Mon oncle Antoine leans heavily on some well-worn clichés, Claude Jutra directs the film with a grace and sensitivity that emphasizes both the specificities of the time and place and the well-recognized markers of adolescence: the awkward fumblings of early sexual desire, the dawning recognition of adult foibles, the childish energy slowly metamorphosing into a more mature self-consciousness. Like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), a film that Jutra is clearly emulating (he was friends with Truffaut, who had even briefly appeared in one of his films), Mon oncle Antoine ends on an ambiguous freeze-frame that suggests the film’s youthful protagonist has stepped into a new phase of life, one from which he can never return.

The protagonist is Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), a 15-year-old orphan who has been taken in by his Uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and Aunt Cecile (OlivetteThibault). Antoine owns the general store in a small asbestos mining town in northern Quebec, and he also works as the community’s undertaker. Benoit is fascinated by Carmen (Lyne Champagne), a teenage girl who works in the general store, although he isn’t quite sure whether to treat her as a buddy, a romantic fixation, or an antagonist (one of the film’s most emotionally brutal scenes involves Benoit cruelly criticizing her attempt to wear make-up). Other characters include Fernand (Claude Jutra), who works as a clerk at the general store, and Jos Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve), a local mine worker who quits after getting fed up with the English mine owner and moves on to a logging camp, which leaves his family alone for lengthy periods of time.

To fully understand and appreciate Mon oncle Antoine, it helps to have some knowledge of the history of Quebec and the various political and cultural struggles between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians. The film takes place before the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, in which a separatist movement lobbied for secularism and Quebec’s independence from the rest of Canada. The fact that Quebec was under the thumb of a conservative government that favored English culture and the Roman Catholic Church is threaded throughout the film, from Benoit worked as an altar boy in the local church (where he witnesses death firsthand and also the priest sneaking communion wine), to the English-speaking mine owner who refuses to give the workers raises but rides through town on his sleigh pompously and humorlessly throwing candy to the children for Christmas, a self-inflated attempt to curry favor that only further alienates the townspeople. Jutra uses the asbestos mine, which sits atop a bluff overlooking the town and is constantly spitting clouds of black crystals into the air, as an all-encompassing symbol of corruption, with the air literally choking on it.

While parts of the film are certainly dour, there are also moments of clever comedy, and it works because of Jutra’s playful, yet thoughtful balancing of tones. The film shifts easily from comedy to drama, from pathos to joy, from somber to goofy. It was shot much like a documentary, which emphasizes the lived-in nature of the stories and the people enacting them (it was shot on location in Black Lake City and used the locals as extras and in several major roles). While Jutra’s over-use of the zoom lens quickly becomes tiresome as a visual device, the film finds a delicate mixture between the rough and the beautiful. Even though it is shot like an off-the-cuff documentary, many of the shots are elegantly composed and visually striking (the cinematographer, Michel Brault, had worked with Jutra since his first amateur efforts in the 1940s).

The film’s visual beauty is never so evident as in the sequence near the end of the film when Benoit accompanies Antoine into the country on Christmas Eve to retrieve the body of a teenage boy who has died. This journey becomes an important symbolic motif, as Benoit travels outside his comfort zone to literally face death and ends up doing so alone because Antoine gets so drunk on the way back that he is unable to help Benoit when the coffin slides off the back of the sleigh. All of this is set against a harsh winter storm that makes the journey seem that much more trying, with the whiteness around them painting a portrait of true isolation, physical and emotional. When Benoit returns to the general store, he is faced with an important revelation that, coupled with Antoine’s drunkenness, finally reveals to him just how complicated and flawed adult life is. It is rare that you can sense a character “growing up” in a moment, but watch Benoit’s face when he looks at his aunt and in it you can literally see his childhood breaking apart and fading away.

Sadly, instead of being the start of an upward climb for Claude Jutra, who had been making films since he was 18, Mon oncle Antoine turned out to be the pinnacle of his career. His next two films, Kamouraska (1973) and Pour le meilleur et pour le pire (1975), were expensive commercial failures, and although he continued to work steadily for the next decade and was largely regarded as one of Canada’s greatest filmmakers, he would never again reach the critical heights of Mon oncle Antonine, which in 1984 was declared the greatest Canadian film ever made by an international panel at the Toronto Film Festival. Jutra’s life ended on tragic note when, after developing Alzheimer’s Disease in his early 50s, he disappeared from his Montreal home in November of 1986 and was found six months later drowned by his own hand in the St. Lawrence River. While some might argue that Mon oncle Antoine has been overvalued (it has maintained its distinction as the greatest Canadian film for the past 25 years), there is no denying Jutra’s innate talent and the tragedy of his too-short life.

Mon oncle Antoine Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • “On-Screen: Mon oncle Antoine,” 2007 documentary
  • Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story, 2002 documentary by Paule Baillargeon
  • A Chairy Tale, 1957 experimental short codirected by Jutra and Norman McLaren
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet with a new essay by film scholar André Loiselle
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 8, 2008

    Criterion’s new high-definition anamorphic transfer of Mon oncle Antoine, which was taken from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored, was supervised by cinematographer Michel Brault. While the IMDb lists the aspect ratio as 1.33:1, Brault’s preferred framing is 1.66:1, which is how it appears here. The image is clean and very filmlike, with no signs of age or damage. It has a fairly muted color palette (lots of gray snow and grayer skies), and the image is slightly soft, which is surely the intended look given its age, budget, and the fact that it was shot to look like a documentary.Film grain is quite apparent in a number of shots, especially in the low-light scenes that feature a lot of snow. The disc offers both the original French language track, transferred at 24-bit from a mono magnetic soundtrack, and an optional English-dubbed track. I tried watching the English dub, and while it sounds fine technically, the actors are generally terrible and their flat accents take away from the otherwise immersive French-Canadian atmosphere.
    >The second disc in this two-disc set contains a pair of excellent documentaries. The first, “On-Screen: Mon oncle Antoine,” a 50-minute retrospective documentary made in 2007 for Canadian television, traces the history of both Juntra’s life and the production and reception of his most cherished film. It includes interviews with actress Monique Mercure, composer Jean Cousineau, cinematographer Michel Brault, and critics Martin Knelman, Piers Handling, and Andre Loiselle, as well as a pair of Black Lake residents who appeared in the film. Even more fascinating is filmmaker Paule Baillargeon’s 2002 documentary Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story, a deeply personal look at Juntra’s life and death (Baillargeon was a friend and neighbor who was worked with Juntra on several films). In attempting to answer her question “Who is this man born in the spotlight but full of shadows?,” Baillargeon interviews many of Juntra’s friends and collaborators, including Brault, director Bernardo Bertolucci, and actors Geneviève Bujold and Saul Rubinek. The doc also includes clips from virtually all of his films, which is particularly nice for those of us who haven’t seen much of his work. Finally, this disc also includes A Chairy Tale, a 1957 experimental short codirected by Jutra and Norman McLaren.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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