Mon oncle Antoine (1971) – 3 stars out of 4
Calling Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971) merely a coming of age story of its protagonist is a choice of convenience, a way to avoid analyzing the deeper and highly complex forces within the film. Granted, Mon oncle Antoine is about the coming of age of protagonist 15 year-old Benoit as he lives with his uncle Antoine and helps him and his family run a local general store in a small Catholic town in rural Quebec in the late 1940s. Benoit’s experiences fit the coming of age mold: the loss of innocence and growing awareness of adult life.
The limitation of this interpretation is that it suggests Mon oncle Antoine is, and only is, a character study – a psychological story that taps only into Benoit’s sentiments and lived experiences. Author Janice Pallister adds that “on another level, [Mon oncle Antoine] may stand for the coming of age or the raising of consciousness of Québec and its sense of authority and of history” (241-242).
Therefore, Benoit’s adventure in Mon oncle Antoine is only a mere facet of the more all-encompassing one of rural Québec. This might explain Jutra’s use of omniscience in the film, through a documentary-like style (direct cinema) that serves as a way to objectively study the dynamic and little dramas of the characters, even when Benoit is absent. This method, as author Jim Leach argues, embodies “a more detached critical perspective” (30), giving us the opportunity to, like with Benoit, engage in the rural town’s growing awareness of another, if you will, “adult state” – the secular nationalism of the bourgeoisie found at the base of the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s (Bergeron 216). Benoit’s coming of age story thus moves in harmony with the town’s, since they are both enduring similar transformations.
Ultimately, the coming of age stories belong to who and what we identify with in Mon oncle Antoine. The film moves from studying Benoit to the town itself, in a state of critical observation. In so doing, Mon oncle Antoine becomes a subtle film, because the two forms of identification help eschew an explicit message. The film is never only a polemical political allegory nor a character study of a young French-Canadian boy, in whom we frequently get inside his head.
I will investigate the specific ways in which both coming of age stories function as modes of identification in Mon oncle Antoine. Also, I will demonstrate how this allows the film to critically examine the experiences both of Benoit and, simultaneously, the context he is situated in.
Firstly, the way Jutra opens Mon oncle Antoine instantly complicates the notion that we only identify with Benoit’s coming of age story. At first, we witness Jos Poulin at odds with his anglo boss at the asbestos mine. This scene is not simply a chunk of exposition to set up the arrival of Benoit, but it is its own issue unrelated to the plot at hand. While not introducing the film with Benoit does not obscure the fact he is the protagonist, it breaks the promise that he is the constant source of identification. Instead, we are introduced to an everyday issue in 1940s rural Quebec: the underpaid and overworked employees of the asbestos mines (one of the causes of the Asbestos Strike based in and around Asbestos, Quebec in 1949) (Bergeron 218). It is not until a few minutes later that we transition to Benoit, who is first seen in the company of others at a funeral as an altar boy.
Leach’s article submits this transfer of identification-figures abstracts the relationship between Jos and Benoit: “Jos represents what Benoit may become. This shift functions as a kind of flashback to an earlier stage of the process by which (male) identity is constructed in this culture” (34). While true, this statement only comments on a parallel specific to Benoit’s character arc. I would further argue that the transfer of identification-figures demonstrates not simply a theoretical relationship between the two characters, but two sources of identification. In other words, it shows that identification in Mon oncle Antoine is given equal emphasis on the two coming of age stories.
The film is equally concerned with conflict related to Benoit and, on the other hand, the town itself. This imbues us with a unique form of spectatorship: we are to critically observe a coming of age that is both personal (Benoit) and political (the town), without ever explicitly following just one. This, as Leach notes, “allows an ongoing awareness that the spectator is also looking at Benoit” (35).
It is this idea of looking that brings clarity when studying the relationship between the two coming of age tales in Mon oncle Antoine. If we were “in Benoit’s head”, the option of looking would be only possible through his eyes. Therefore, we would evaluate all the events in the film according to what he sees and feels. Instead, Jutra uses direct cinema to show Benoit as another member of the town and part of a whole community. This compels us to examine the town’s collective experience separately; it isolates us from Antoine’s point-of-view and turns us into flies on the wall, making us observers more than participators in the action – like an ethnographic documentary typically would. This is not to suggest Jutra wishes to get inside the town’s “head”, but rather to capture and represent it truthfully – as direct cinema aims to do (Pallister 235).
A good example of Jutra’s use of direct cinema is during the scene when a pregnancy is accidentally revealed to all the customers in the general store. Even though Benoit is there, the scene is not interpreted through his eyes. Alternatively, Jutra uses direct cinema to present the scene by cutting from multiple angles with the sound often jumpy. The camera remains in medium shot, as an observer, never moving from long shot to closeup in the vein of classical style, or also never embodying the gaze of Benoit. The point of the scene is still conveyed: everything in the town is public, people are always around each other, and secrets are rarely kept.
By employing direct cinema, Jutra emphasizes that Mon oncle Antoine is just as much about the town’s reality as it is Benoit’s, and that this type of documentary realism is how we identify with the experiences and growing awareness of the people in the town.
What also must be examined is Benoit’s voyeurism. This is important because it shows there are moments in Mon oncle Antoine when we directly observe an event through Benoit’s eyes. In another scene, Benoit spies on Alexandrine as she tries on a corset. Aunt Cecile then closes the curtain and ironically states: “We’ll make it a bit more private.” Similarly with direct cinema, this act of voyeurism makes us observers of a situation we do not directly participate in.
The focus here, like in the pregnancy scene, could be on the lack of privacy in the town and how people, one way or another, are in the company of each other. But instead, the voyeurism identifies with Benoit and shows his discovery of sex, another event contributing to his rite of passage. I use the word “show” because Jutra does not use voyeurism to penetrate Benoit’s mind, but to study his external reality – i.e. what he sees in the town and how it influences him. In a way, the voyeurism acts as an observation of an observation.
Therefore, Jutra’s use of both direct cinema and voyeurism supports my statement of the two identification-figures in Mon oncle Antoine. As Leach writes: “Mon Oncle Antoine invites the spectator to adopt both perspectives and be prepared to move between them” (45). The question, however, is this: why the two perspectives? Wouldn’t Benoit’s story on its own support the narrative? It would, but I think if Mon oncle Antoine was only about Benoit’s coming of age, the film would undercut its own political message. This is because Benoit has no grasp of his town’s cultural context (Leach 45); his naivete cannot fulfill the knowledge of a political statement. The town, unlike Benoit, is built on concrete ideals (Catholicism, family) but its coming of age story demonstrates it is nearing its own state of disillusionment and about to become part of a new age of cultural and political ideals that will occupy Benoit’s future.
However, there is a moment in Mon oncle Antoine when Jutra fails to honor the two modes of identification. Benoit’s dream near the end breaks this pattern because Jutra forces us to plunge ourselves into Benoit’s psyche and watch a dream sequence that is an explicit rendition of Benoit’s thoughts. It can be argued that Jutra may use this jarring scene to punctuate this moment as Benoit’s revelation: “he has come to the awareness that sex is lethal and that death is no longer a laughing matter [...] he knows now that his drunken uncle is a coward, afraid of death, and that his aunt, a lonely frustrated woman, has perhaps been pushed to her act of adultery” (Pallister 244).
Possibly, but I would argue this scene is a superfluous device because the dream offers no room for observation and only serves to present Benoit’s state of mind. The result is a departure into the expository, which negates critical thinking because it fails to forward any implications of Benoit’s character that were not mentioned before. The sequence is incapable of exploring the physical space of Benoit’s external reality, thus substituted by his internal one. While Mon oncle Antoine is about internal experiences, this scene merely describes rather than portrays them for us to observe critically.
Furthermore, one could make a similar argument of the last shot of Mon oncle Antoine. It is a freeze-frame of Benoit apprehensively staring through the Poulin’s home window observing the family as they gather around an open coffin. The freeze-frame, a striking allusion to Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), could be argued as another device that comments only on Benoit’s mindset and offers no room to examine the relationship between Benoit and the town.
However, I would argue this scene not only honors the two modes of identification, but it kind of unites them. The freeze-frame of Benoit’s face is not a way to emphasize his conflicted state of mind, but to invite the viewer into considering the implications of what we see (i.e. Benoit) and, finally, what he sees. The shot functions “largely as a projection of the spectator’s response to the entire film” (Leach 39). Jutra, without explicitly, asks us what mode of identification we are to place this shot in Mon oncle Antoine: Is this the face of a young Jutra? The face of Québec itself?
This contributes to the underlying ambiguity of Mon oncle Antoine. Jutra alternates between two modes of identification to offer a critical perspective on its protagonist and its own cultural context. I have examined the ways in which Jutra effectively performs this task, and even an instant when he does not. These two modes of identification are important to understand because they demonstrate Mon oncle Antoine is not explicitly about one person or thing.
Instead the film, often through direct cinema and voyeurism, encourages us to observe scenes from different perspectives to grasp that Benoit’s rite of passage occurred within the larger one of his hometown in rural Québec, a setting that would eventually foster the socio-political upheaval of the Quiet Revolution. Benoit had not seen nothing yet.
Bergeron, Léandre. “Recent Events.” The History of Quebec: A Patriote’s Handbook. Ed. Baila Markus. Toronto, ON: NC Press, 1971. 216-235. Print.
Leach , Jim. “Double Vision: Mon oncle Antoine and the Cinema of Fable.” Canada’s Best Features. (2002): 27-45. Print.
Pallister, Janis L. The Cinema of Quebec: Masters in Their Own House. 1. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 1995. 236-245. Print.