“What am I doing here, Benoit? I'm not happy. I'm not made for the country. I hate it here. I wanted to buy a hotel in the States. Your aunt wouldn't let me. She says no to everything. I'm afraid of corpses. I've been afraid of corpses for 30 years! I work for everybody. Your aunt never gave me a child. I have to take care of other peoples' children. I raise Carmen and you. Haven't I done all I could for you?”
On a 1940s Christmas Eve in wintry Quebec, young Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) unexpectedly begins an odyssey of self-discovery at his uncle Antoine’s (Jean Duceppe) general store. Little does he know that he’ll end up in the remote house of the Poulin clan, whose patriarch has just set off on his own journey. Both paths inadvertently intersect when tragedy befalls the home, leading to Benoit’s epiphany about the nature of both life and death.
Mon oncle Antoine is rightfully hailed as one of the great coming-of-age films, and with good reason: ostensibly, it is about one boy’s journey into adulthood with the assistance of both alcohol and death, two of life’s great constants in the world Claude Jutra presents. However, even this is reductive, as it’s more slyly concerned with arrested development, about how we sometimes grow old but never really grow up. It’s an all-encompassing small town odyssey that reveals how we from point A (childhood naivety) to point B (adult regret and resentment). In this case, we actually begin with point B in the form of Jos Poulin, the discontented miner who’s going down the road in search of a better life, one that’s unburdened by the soullessness of the mining fields. He leaves behind a family in an act that seems somewhat petulant, but we soon discover that this is life in the Asbestos region: stunted and malnourished in vitality and spirit.
This is the world Benoit is growing into; he begins as a wide-eyed youngster who has seen funeral processions casually taken down before his eyes, though he’s yet to grasp the gravity of death and faith. When he sees someone drinking after a funeral, he somewhat jokingly makes a sign of the cross; one can hardly think this is a rare sight for him, considering that he’s grown up under the wing of his uncle Antoine, a man who probably washes his mouth out with booze each morning. The milieu of everyday life at the general store is remarkably presented by Jutra without any sense of urgency; instead, it’s delivered with the mournful hush of a funeral, perhaps as an ominous sign of things to come. We see Benoit interact with his aunt, uncle, a seedy store clerk, and an adolescent girl, Carmen, as they prepare the for the annual unveiling of the store’s nativity scene.
The town’s big event, this unveiling serves as the film’s lone, joyous moment. However, even it is tinged by somberness, despite the announcement of weddings, pregnancies, and other general merriment. There’s an eerie moment where everyone sings a folk tune about an impending wedding night--even the young girls join in, vacantly reciting the words that probably foreshadow their fate. They’ll never make it out of this town. This scene immediately shifts to Carmen playfully trying on a wedding veil herself; she’s soon interrupted by Benoit, who somewhat forcefully attempts to have his way with her. Malice isn’t his intent here, though; one gathers that he’s merely imitating what he’s seen; women are objects of desire, intended to be conquered by men and marriage. His attempt is met with a stark realization that this is wrong; it’s a brush with embarrassment and shame that’s presented wordlessly.
Mon oncle Antoine is full of moments like that; essentially, it is a movie of moments, with that middle section at the general store feeling like a series of vignettes that deftly present a complete tableau of this small town. We see them in awe of the exotic French woman who wanders into the store to try out a garment; Benoit even peeps in on her changing in a scene that feels light but ends up being rather heavy. Sexuality is a sort of rite of passage; he’s still on the outside looking in here, having been thwarted and shamed by his encounter with Carmen. In many ways, this innocent peeping keeps him as a distant observer; there is certainly something childlike about this scene, and when he later has a fever dream about the French woman, it feels like a desperate, subconscious clinging to the innocence he’s lost by the end of the film.
For most boys, seeing a naked woman would be a highlight of a day; however, on this day, Benoit’s experiences rightfully place that frivolous spying in perspective. Eventually, the dots of the tale connect, as one of the children that Poulin left behind earlier in the film falls ill and dies; since Antoine is the town’s jack of all trades, he also serves as the undertaker. He saddles up, carrying Benoit along with him for this fateful trip that allows the boy to actually confront death; not just the physical nature of it--the moving of a corpse into a casket, etc., but also the impact it has on those surrounding it. The boy’s mother is obviously distraught, while some of his younger siblings don’t even grasp the nature of what’s happening, reminding us of where Benoit was only minutes earlier.
This sequence is unbelievably haunting; for me, the film’s enduring image will always be Benoit and Antoine approaching the Poulin house with the casket; only an hour earlier, we left this same location with the patriarch striking off with the hopes of returning with a better life. Even after his departure, the family ironically cuts down an evergreen for their holiday celebrations, though there’s a clever shot that frames this house with a fore-grounded cross. This feels like an eerie foreshadowing of the boy’s fate, as he is a martyr in some sense; after all, he must die for Benoit to truly step into adulthood. Some might argue that his death is a release from the grim life he no doubt would have endured anyway. Of course, this is really a reverse salvation, as Benoit is cast out of the garden of youth and thrust into the misery of adulthood.
It doesn’t initially feel like this, though; as he and Antoine depart from the remote homestead to return to town. Along the way, Antoine even lets him take the reigns and a swig from his bottle; this feels like a moment of triumph, a symbol of his coming-of-age. However, this is soon deflated as Antoine drunkenly reveals his frustrations and regrets of a life that’s been wasted; here he is, perhaps the most beloved man of a small village, reduced to tears. In a movie that’s featured the literal death of youth, this moment feels like the most resonant and impacting, as Benoit feels his own youth being symbolically slaughtered. Suddenly, he realizes that all that drinking he’s witnessed his entire life is hardly harmless; instead, he’s been watching those around him systematically drown themselves in alcohol because there’s no other escape. Suddenly, that seemingly innocuous swig feels like a bite into the serpent’s apple.
Somehow, the film manages more gut-punches from this point, as Jutra seems hell-bent on revealing to Benoit all of the possible evils awaiting him, from death to infidelity. It’s arguable that he most importantly realizes that nobody is perfect and will eventually disappoint you in some fashion. We saw all of this subtly play out earlier in the film when we witnessed the lecherous store clerk make advances on both Carmen and Benoit’s aunt. We watched in disgust as Carmen’s own father arrived to collect all of her wages, save for the five dollars Antoine refused to hand over, insisting that she receive it instead. Perhaps ironically, we did see him as an ideal; in fact, I think even we’re supposed to laugh at his constant drinking. When we learn otherwise, we share in Benoit’s epiphany of massive disappointment.
Epiphany is a key word here, as I believe this is the closest I've seen anyone come to capturing the essence James Joyce on film; the Irish author is famous for that term--“epiphany,” as his characters often find themselves enraptured by moments of luminous realization. Benoit obviously has a series of these throughout the course of Mon oncle Antoine, a film that specifically feels inspired by Joyce’s Dubliners. Ostensibly a collection of short stories that still feels like a novel of themes, it relates a series of vignettes of life in Dublin, mixing both public and private concerns to reveal a society paralyzed both emotionally, politically, and spiritually.
All of this is found in Mon oncle Antoine. Specifically, it resembles the opening and closing sections of Dubliners. The first story, “The Sisters,” is concerned with a young boy’s first encounter with death when a local priest (already paralyzed by a stroke) passes away; when you read this story, you feel the heavy, suffocating silence of a funeral procession, and you feel it in Jutra’s film, particularly in those early general store scenes and the sequence at the Poulin house. Meanwhile, the final story in Dubliners, “The Dead” (which was adapted into a film by John Huston), finds Gabriel Conroy, a frustrated newspaper writer, realizing that we’ll all someday pass away, and that he’ll likely leave no mark having lived a passionless, meaningless life. It too is also concerned with the death of an adolescent boy, an event which triggers this epiphany. You can see echoes of both of these stories in Mon oncle Antoine, particularly the funereal concerns with death; Benoit obviously resembles the young boy in “The Sisters,” while Poulin’s frustrations resemble Gabriel Conroy’s.
Jutra’s approach here is like an all-encompassing tapestry of youth and old age, of life and death; just as Dubliners takes multiple subjects to show how we’re set on a downward spiral of paralysis once we grow up, so too does Mon oncle Antoine show how a Benoit ends up like a Poulin or an Antoine: unfulfilled, bitter, and resentful towards life. When we meet him, Benoit lithely hops over church pews after attending a funeral; by the end of the film, it feels like he’s buried his own childhood. He’ll never be the same, and, having seen those he’s encountered, we know he’s in for a life devoid of spirituality and full of alcohol. Like in Joyce, these two are connected; there’s tons of drinking in Dubliners, all of it feeling like empty communion, having been cut off from the savoir. Jutra employs this similarly along with other ominous religious symbolism, such as the mention of the broken figure of baby Jesus for the nativity scene. Meanwhile, a huge barrel of nails rests in the middle of the general store, serving as a minor inconvenience and forcing everyone to maneuver around it; no one wants to actually take the time to move these nails, objects that should remind us of how Jesus was fixed to the cross. The symbols of his ultimate sacrifice have been reduced here to a mere annoyance for these characters (at Christmas, of all times).
There’s even a political and public dimension here like in Dubliners; Joyce’s proceedings were hovered upon by the specter of Irish martyr Charles Parnell, while Jurta’s are suffocated by premiere Maurice Duplessis, whose reign is now referred to as “The Great Darkness” in Quebec. We sense the civil unrest in the Poulin character, the obvious everyman whose feelings are shared by his fellow workers, one of whom is compelled to scrawl “Screw you, Duplessis” on a bathroom wall. Mon oncle Antoine specifically is concerned with the discordance of class structure during the era, which is perhaps best revealed when the affluent mine boss condescends to ride into town and emptily toss trinkets to the townspeople. A small but powerful moment that speaks volumes, it perfectly captures how this entire province has become arrested both economically and emotionally. They are a defeated people, and only the young are naïve enough to believe otherwise; even someone like Poulin is eventually thwarted by fate itself.
No one gets out alive--that’s a sentiment that transcends borders and historical context. Mon oncle Antoine is no doubt richer for that dimension, but it succeeds wholly on its universal themes. A beautifully somber dirge for innocence and youth, it’s one of the most affecting films I’ve ever witnessed. Jutra flawlessly helms it, his lens capturing one memorable image after another; again, this is a hushed film in more ways than one. Silence often hovers over it, but the film is hardly mute in its haunting imagery, from the frosty, domineering landscapes, to the despondent faces. Each frame is doused in somberness, even when we’re laughing (and the film is genuinely funny at times); after all, this is a melancholy farewell to childhood and innocence. Some characters (like Benoit) are facing this for the first time, while others (like Poulin) are still resisting the inevitable currents of old age. We sense that death is ultimately the only victor in life.
Tale of the Tape: