Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980)


(director: Alain Resnais; screenwriters: Jean Gruault/based on the works of Henri Laborit; cinematographer: Sacha Vierny; editor: Albert Jurgenson; music: Arié Dzierlatka; cast: Gérard Depardieu (Rene Ragueneau), Nicole Garcia (Janine Garnier), Roger Pierre (Jean Le Gall), Marie Dubois (Thérèse Ragueneau), Nelly Borgeaud (Arlette Le Gall), Pierre Arditi (Zambeaux), Philippe Laudenbach (Michel Aubert), Henri Laborit (Himself, Research scientist); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Philippe Dussart; New Yorker Films; 1980-France-in French with English subtitles)

“Thinking man’s film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A provocative food for thought puzzler by Alain Resnais (“Muriel”/Stavisky”/”Providence”). It follows through its fictional tale with the actual behavioral theories of Dr. Henri Laborit (medical doctor and behavioral scientist, whose work is in the study of how the brain functions and he helped develop drugs to control the emotions). The film’s ambition is to study what it means to be a person. It shapes up as a case history study that veers between soap opera and docudrama (originally meant to be a documentary), and never excites as much as it slightly tickles one’s fancy side. The innovative film leaves things as a riddle that one can try and solve through one’s own experiences, reflections and dreams. Jean Gruault (screenwriter for Jules and Jim) hands in a masterful script for this thinking man’s film.

Three middle class characters are introduced and their life is traced from childhood to stressful situations as adults: The one upper middle-class figure is Jean Le Gall (Roger-Pierre), the politically ambitious power hungry mover and shaker of a government minister, who exercises a ruthless control over so many lives; Rene Ragueneu (Gerard Depardieu) is a devout Catholic farmboy who rises to become a textile plant manager but after twenty years the family man is faced with the loss of his career; and Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia) who is a once rebellious theater actress, from a working-class city family, who has an affair with the married Jean and then goes on to work for the same conglomerate as Rene, but after making noble sacrifices in her personal life becomes disillusioned with her choices and finds she botched up her once promising life for a man who is not nice. In the last reel, the three main characters appear together.

Throughout the film Resnais inserts snippets of movies from renown French movie idols – Jean Marais for Janine, Jean Gabin for René and Danielle Darrieux for Jean. Also, the real-life behavioral scientist Dr. Henri Laborit acts as himself and is the lecturer narrator. Many might compare the lab mice behavior to the “human mice” as to questions about free will, others might just chalk this one up to a surrealism experience. In any case, whatever is gained from this cleverly layed out ambiguous work, must be dug out on one’s own. The lingering thought provoking aftereffects thrilled me more than did the dull, surprisingly conventionally shot and somewhat downbeat movie.

The film was popular with the French public and critics alike, and collected six French Cesar Awards.