Mon Oncle d’Amérique [subtitled]

Mon Oncle d'Amerique

This 1980 French film from Alain Resnais is an interesting experiment, but for me it’s closer to a failure than a success. I suppose I admire the willingness to step outside the box and try a very different approach than you’ll see for most movies, but for the most part this just doesn’t come together. (For me anyway. But critics feel otherwise. The film got a score of 100% on the Rotten Tomatoes site.)

Mon Oncle d’Amérique is the story of three middle-aged French people. One is a reasonably high government official. One (Gérard Depardieu) had a rural boyhood but ends up having a certain amount of success in a corporate career. One was a leftist in her youth and an aspiring actress, but later chooses much less idealistic pursuits (being someone’s mistress and working for a corporation).

The film provides biographical background on each of them, and eventually their stories intersect to some extent.

From the start, the film is of a peculiar style with voiceovers telling these people’s stories, while on screen are still photos or the characters acting out what’s being narrated. Each of their lives is a separate narration told in very brief snippets, with the film frequently switching from person to person. Much of the narration is in first person as they talk about their own lives.

Meanwhile there is a fourth element, a psychiatrist or scientist of some kind giving a lecture on human behavior. He makes various determinist and behaviorist points about human nature—how people respond to rewards and punishments, how and why they try to dominate others, etc.

So it’s maybe twenty seconds of the scientist making some point about the brain, then thirty seconds of some biographical point about person number one’s childhood, then twenty seconds of an explanation of why person number two left home, then forty seconds of telling about person number three’s conflicts with her parents, then back to a minute of the scientist talking about what humans have in common with all animals, then something about the first person, and on and on.

The way it keeps jumping so rapidly from one thread to another keeps it superficial and unsatisfying, like you can’t really settle in and get to know any one of the characters.

As far as the scientist’s stuff, maybe if I went back over it I’d see a closer connection between that and the other material, but that’s mostly not the case now. Maybe 10%-20% of his lines clearly connect up in some clever way to what we are being told about one or more of the three main characters. But the bulk of it, for me, is just oversimplified behaviorism and random overconfident pontificating about human nature.

But this style feels like a (not very entertaining nor informative) introduction, and the longer it went on the more I realized that this entire movie might be in this tedious style, with all this telling and no showing.

Luckily that’s not the case. This setting up of the story seems to go on forever, but thankfully it doesn’t in fact constitute the whole movie. Starting between 30 and 40 minutes into the film, the scenes become decidedly more conventional, where there’s actual dialogue among the characters rather than a voiceover. Plus the scenes are longer; the film ceases jumping from one thread to another every few seconds.

That other stuff with the scientist and such is not completely gone, but it’s relegated to occasional interludes the rest of the way.

There are also very brief clips from old movies interspersed with the more conventional elements, meant to correspond to what’s happening in the stories, which I think is intended more for laughs.

Certainly once it gets away from that interminable introduction it becomes more watchable, but I still didn’t get into it more than a little even then. I found the introductory stuff sufficiently unsatisfying that I had trouble later working up much interest in these three characters.

It’s too much like they’re caricatures, just convenient vehicles for these psychological points—how seriously intended or tongue-in-cheek I’m not sure—about how people are governed by nonrational subconscious drives and such.

Toward the end, when the film gets a little less cutesy, and it doesn’t feel as much like some kind of sex comedy or farce, is when it’s at its best. I especially was drawn in by the Depardieu thread at that point. It carries a little more of an emotional punch to see him realizing he’s in a fight he can’t win against impersonal social and economic forces that ensure that the success or happiness people seek will always be just out of reach.

As I say, the psychological points of commentary mostly didn’t connect with me. But there were occasional exceptions I could appreciate, such as the point about how if rats are given electric shocks they can’t avoid, they will attack each other. Like they have to lash out at something, and they certainly have no grasp of the true explanation of who’s shocking them, so they just turn aggressive toward whomever is in range, as a substitute.

I wonder how much of my not being more on board with this film is a matter of something being lost in translation. Perhaps if it were in English, and I didn’t have the frustration of two hours of subtitles and interpreting cultural differences and such, I would have better appreciated the relevance of the psychology material, and I would have had a better grasp of the filmmaker’s intention and would have enjoyed and appreciated the movie more.

I believe the only other Resnais film I’ve seen is the more recent Private Fears in Public Places. That’s a much more conventional style movie, though still with some structural cleverness. I didn’t love that movie, but it connected with me significantly better than this one did.

The quirky narrative structure of Mon Oncle d’Amérique and the attempt to walk along the edge between witty and profound is creative and admirable in its way, but mostly a failure.


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