Title: Mon oncle Antione
Language: French, English
Director: Claude Jutra
Music: Jean Cousineau
Cinematography: Michel Brault
Near Quebec, a rural mine town, the establishing shots in the opening of Claude Jutra’s much vaunted work, MON ONCLE ANTOINE cast its magic spell on us with its expansively mountainous locale, and the time-frame of the film’s diegesis is clocked in 1949, right before Christmas.
Looking through the eyes of a teenage boy Benoit (Gagnon), Jutra’s ethnographic artwork assiduously records what he sees and experiences in a few days’ span, Benoit’s uncle Antoine (Duceppe) and auntie Cécile (Thibault) run a general shop but also manage the town’s undertaker business, a funeral ceremony near the beginning presided by Antoine and his shop clerk Fernand (Jutra himself, oozing with assured apathy) subtly conveys a ghost of friction between them, soon an overtly uncomfortable shot of Fernand and Cécile’s encroaching closeness hints something smack of a tacitly connived adultery is on the sly, maybe that’s why. On the Christmas Eve, townsfolk gather in the shop to see the Christmas display and purchase gifts, a young couple announce their engagement, a voluptuous wife comes to try on her ordered corset, by default becomes the cynosure, on the same floor, intrigued by his awakening curiosity of the other sex, Benoit fumbles around Carmen (Champagne), a comely girl of his age who also works in the shop, a budding puppy love is always adorable.
Still, even at Christmas, people die, Madame Poulin’s (Loiselle) eldest son dies that day (the cross overhangs is jarringly prominent in that frame of pathos), and Benoit is permitted, for the very first time, to go with Antoine to pick up the body, to-and-fro, it is a sortie saddled with abundant snow, piercing coldness, influence of liquor, and an ingenuous teen’s rite-of-passage to face death at point-blank range and saver his first taste of misery, deception and dissatisfaction from the adult world. From excited to dismayed, then exasperated, the non-professional Jacques Gagnon exerts devoted commitment during the key sequences where a crepuscular snowscape unremittingly precipitates viewers’ body temperate to slump with the characters on the screen when riding through the rigours of a wintry night, during which, a snowfield face-off between Benoit and the old soak Antoine lets the emotional punch kick in, a lifetime of disappointment is encapsulated by Duceppe’s drunkard hurling, especially when it is closely followed by what is happening inside Cécile’s cozy boudoir, life is never fair and it is a miracle how can we not all succumb to be cynical and misanthropic after being buffeted by the bread-and-butter blues.
That is the damning feeling encircles Jutra’s unflinching realism-inflected enterprise, it is boldly unsentimental, but also alarmingly despondent, that’s how it reaches the finish-line, whatever Benoit sees through the windowpane, real or fanciful, this Bildungsroman of an impressionable boy can only descend further into uninviting harshness, much as the film’s natural backdrop, MON ONCLE ANTOINE is more congenitally formidable than heartfelt compelling, but that’s also where lies its enduring strength!