Saturday, December 24, 2016

Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

Apparently, Mon oncle Antoine is considered one of the best Canadian films ever produced. Honestly, I lack anywhere near enough cultural background to offer an informed opinion on that claim. For what it's worth, I found the movie interesting enough, despite an intentionally slow pace and meandering point-of-view.

For all intents and purposes, the plot doesn't even kick in until about halfway through. Prior to that, it feels like you're watching a series of vignettes about a few different groups of people living in rural Quebec in the 1940's. An asbestos mining operation serves as the backdrop and is pretty clearly significant to the movie's point, but you really need some knowledge of Canadian history to understand the connection. I skimmed a few Wikipedia articles after watching the movie, but I suspect the film would have had more impact if I had a more personal connection.

The short explanation is that there was a major asbestos strike in 1949 that effectively kicked off a cultural revolution. The movie doesn't deal with this at all: it's trying to paint a picture of the state of the area just before all that went down and - assuming I'm interpreting the movie correctly - provide a sense of the burgeoning generational divide that would fuel the oncoming revolution.

Functionally, this means you spend the first twenty minutes with a bunch of incidents that are relatively tangential to the story. There's a man who quits his job with the asbestos company to go work as a lumberjack, a funeral for one of the workers, and some time spent with the clergy. This feels mostly tonal, though - to be fair - it's a well constructed tone.

Around this point, we jump ahead to December 23rd and get acquainted with the main characters. They work at a general store whose owner (Antoine, from the movie's title) doubles as the local undertaker. His nephew, a boy named Benoit, gradually becomes our POV character, but it takes quite a while before that's clear. Two other employees seem like they're going to be significant at first. Fernand, the grown-up (and more than a little creepy) helper, plays a major role for a while, as does Benoit's love interest, Carmen, a girl about his age whose father is implied to be abusive.

While the aforementioned lumberjack is away, his son becomes ill and dies on Christmas Eve. The mother calls for Antoine, who reluctantly brings Benoit. They collect the body and start back in their horse-drawn sleigh, but Antoine, who's been drinking more or less the whole movie, falls unconscious, leaving Benoit to drive. The boy isn't careful enough, and the box holding the body falls off. He tries to recover it, but he's unable to get it on the sleigh alone. His uncle, meanwhile, is too drunk and confused to be much help - he offers some unwelcome insight into his dissatisfaction with his life. It takes all of Benoit's focus just to get his uncle home.

When he finally gets there, he finds his aunt embracing Fernand and realizes they slept together. Traumatized by everything he's seen and exhausted by the day, Benoit falls asleep and dreams of a woman he saw topless earlier. He's woken by Fernand, who realizes the business could be in jeopardy if they fail to locate the lost body before someone else comes across it. He takes Benoit, who's too tired and shocked to even remember which road they took.

They wind up arriving back at the farmhouse where the body had come from. By this time, it's Christmas morning, and Benoit looks through the window. He sees the entire family, including the father, who'd returned, standing around the box and morning their son. The movie ends on a frozen image of Benoit looking in at them, focusing on his eyes.

The ending has a very dreamlike quality, to the point I wondered if it was supposed to be a hallucination. But I think it's more likely they were trying to demonstrate Benoit's disillusionment with his family and community as he realizes the adult world is one of disappointment, lies, and death. But the character doesn't offer much in terms of a reaction, so I could easily be misreading that. It's not hard to imagine how that might tie in with the upcoming cultural revolution, though, when a generation decided they wanted more than the world their parents offered them.

At any rate, the vast majority of the movie occurs between the twenty-third and twenty-fifth, and holiday decorations and preparations play a big role throughout, even if these ultimately feel hollow. Plus the death of a child right before Christmas serves as a disturbing counterpoint to the birth of Christ, which is likely the reason it played out when it did.

I enjoyed this overall and found it interesting, despite the fact very little actually occurred. This is one of those movies that feels like it intentionally leaves you watching very little in order to force you to try and interpret the details. It's a style of film making that's mostly gone out of fashion these days now that studios want to make money.

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