Mon Oncle Antoine: Criterion Collection

Mon oncle Antoine is highly regarded in Canada, its country of origin. As André Loiselle notes in the essay he wrote for the new Criterion DVD, the film routinely tops the Toronto International Film Festival poll of Canada’s best movies. However, it is not as well known, and therefore not as well regarded, outside of Canada.

While a Criterion DVD is unlikely to make the movie a staple at Blockbuster, it does raise the film’s profile for the better, opening it up to a wider audience. Equally dark and nostalgic, Antoine is an important work of late ’60s / early ’70s cinema. Like so many films from that era, particularly from its immediate points of reference in France and the US, it challenges and entertains without being pedantic or softening its harder edges.

Director, co-writer, and co-editor, Claude Jutra begins his film with wide angle shots of a bucolic rural town and the mist-covered valley in which it sits. A guitar gently plays in the background accompanied by a woman’s lilting voice, singing wordlessly. Initially, everything seems pleasant, but the pastoral feeling is quickly disrupted by signs of industrialism.

First, is a long shot of a treeless hillside with what looks like pipe running up the exposed side. This is followed by a moving shot that pans the valley floor before moving up an incline and ending with a quick view of a metal tower spewing forth some kind of particulate matter. The camera zooms past that point towards another denuded hill with another metal tower spewing dust. The image freezes and a title appears: “Asbestos-mining country in Quebec province not long ago …” From the outset, then, Antoine is marked by a tension between the glow of nostalgia, of images from a seemingly simpler, more innocent time, and the loss of that simplicity and innocence.

Following the opening montage, Jos Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve) is introduced, driving and then trying to fix an old red truck on top of the hill from the opening freeze frame. Tall, graying, and slightly beefy, Jos appears to be in his 40s or 50s. He gets heckled by a supervisor in English, a language Jos claims not to understand. The next scene introduces Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), a slight, dark-haired and olive-skinned altar boy at a funeral. He is shown quietly observing the adults, especially the two undertakers, who are revealed later to be his Uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and Fernand (Claude Jutra), Antoine’s assistant and clerk. The next scene is back to Jos, sharing beer in a tavern with other miners.

At this point Antoine appears to be unfolding as a dual narrative, one following the older man, and the other the younger boy. And so it is, except that, after about 15-minutes, Jos virtually disappears from the movie. He quits the mine, and heads off for a logging camp, leaving behind his wife (Hélène Loiselle) and five children. From there, he is only shown in brief shots, cutting timber, or riding the train. The film is turned over to Benoit.

Benoit lives in the care of his Uncle and Aunt, Cécile (Olivette Thibault). They reside up the stairs from the family’s general store with Carmen (Lyne Champagne), a young girl Antoine and Cécile are taking care of alongside Benoit. Neither children appear to have been formally adopted by the two adults.

A number of scholars and critics, including André Loiselle, point to this middle part of Antoine as holding the key to its popular success. The dominant narrative here is Benoit’s coming of age, which is shown to be halting and equally liberating and frustrating. Benoit encounters girls and sex, confronts death, and engages in small adolescent rebellions against authority (for example, throwing snowballs at the mine boss as he passes out Christmas baubles to the townsfolk, or carving into the altar railing at the church). Like Benoit himself, these passages are quiet and moderately pitched, giving them an appealing realism and meditative quality.

On the other hand, the coming of age story can also be seen as a device for re-examining Québec’s political history. While the film’s main events are explicitly shown to take place on Christmas Eve, the exact year is not clear. Cues like dress, automobile styles, the use of horse drawn sleighs, and so forth, suggest sometime in the late ’40s or ’50s, and, more generally, the years immediately preceding “The Quiet Revolution” of the ’60s. That later period is marked by widespread popular discontent with the leading institutions and ways of provincial life in Québec, including the Church, a culture of rurality, and the dominance of Anglophone capitalists.

When contextualized in this way, Benoit’s coming of age can also be seen as a coming of age for Québec. Benoit consistently witnesses failure and corruption on the part of his elders, the carriers of tradition. Furthermore, his acts of rebellion are directed at pillars of the community, namely the Church and the mine. Benoit’s loss of innocence parallels that of the Québécois. Jos’ setting out into the woods for work is also an act of rebellion, but unlike Benoit, his options for a better future seem more limited (for a more detailed political reading of the film see Christopher Gittings, Canadian National Cinema Routledge, 2001; Loiselle’s essay also provides additional historical perspective).

Eventually, Benoit’s story and Jos’ come back together around the death of Jos’ eldest son. As the local undertaker, Antoine is contacted by Madame Poulin to retrieve her son’s body. Benoit tags along and the trip begins jovially enough, with the two sharing laughs and exchanging naps and turns at the reigns of the horse drawn sled. However, there are signs of trouble even before the two set out on the road to the Poulin home.

Antoine, who had already been drinking for the better part of the day, is provisioned with two bottles of liquor, one from Fernand and one from Cécile. Further, Fernand is charged by Antoine to load the sled with the “small” pine box for the Poulin’s dead teenager. As Antoine and Benoit approach the Poulin homestead, the boy is clearly apprehensive about their purpose. He also becomes quickly disgusted with his Uncle’s drunkenness and sense of entitlement. Benoit refuses to partake in the dinner prepared by Madame Poulin, while Antoine digs in hungrily, supplemented by glasses of his own liquor. In one of the film’s many point-of-view shots, we see, and hear, the older man as Benoit sees him, that is, as a greedy pig, stuffing his face and smacking his lips. This is accentuated by showing Antoine in a wide angle close up that stretches out his face, and by heightening the volume on the sounds of his eating.

When they finally load the body into the too small box and head back for town, Antoine falls sleep. As Benoit attempts to speed the journey, the coffin falls off of the sled. He angrily hits Antoine, who startles awake and smacks back at the boy. They are unable to load the box back onto the sled and Antoine insists that they simply return to the store. This experience with Antoine, and their failure to deliver the minimum service to the Poulin family, concentrates Benoit’s loss of faith in those supposedly charged with caring for him and ensuring his future, a loss compounded by one final, disillusioning revelation about his Aunt and Uncle.

The glue that holds together Mon oncle Antoine is its long takes of the landscape and observational shots of daily activities. The film is paced at the measured speed of rural life, and the use of long takes further underscores Benoit’s posture of watchfulness. Michel Brault’s photography also encourages an observational stance on the part of viewers. A number of shots are framed in a voyeuristic manner, looking in through windows and doorways. The camera not only frequently moves, but zooms within shots. This awareness of the camera holds the audience at a distance from the action. Because they require distinct set ups, even the shots constructed from Benoit’s point-of-view have a distancing effect. The self-conscious use of the camera is another point of creative tension in the film as it seems intended to keep viewers from becoming totally immersed in Jos’ and Benoit’s worlds.

The two-disc Criterion DVD set features a new transfer of the film that is a vast improvement over the prior version from Image Entertainment. Indeed, this is the first time I’ve noticed how colorful the movie is. The sound quality is also improved, and the English subtitles have been reworked. The first disc includes the film and the original English-language trailer.

Disc two contains the set’s primary supplements, including two substantial documentaries. The first is a 2007 On Screen! feature on the film that provides an in-depth look at Antoine‘s production, reception, and significance. The second is a biography of Claude Jutra from 2002, Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story. Directed by Paule Baillargeon, a former neighbor and colleague of Jutra’s who also narrates the film, Unfinished Story is a poetic and highly personal look at the auteur behind Mon oncle Antoine. At almost ninety minutes, this feature could merit its own review. The final supplement is a 1957 short film, “A Chairy Tale”, that Jutra made with famed Canadian animator Norman McLaren. It shows Jutra as an actor and adventurous filmmaker. André Loiselle’s essay rounds out the additional material, and is written as a critical biography of Jutra.

The lack of a commentary track seems like a curious omission, especially as there appears to be no shortage of potential contributors, from people who worked on the movie to appreciative critics. On the other hand, the documentaries arguably offer enough depth and perspective to make a running commentary unnecessary. Ultimately, without an actual track to compare to the other features, it is difficult to say how significant this lack is, except to note that a commentary is generally expected in a set of this caliber.

Shortly after returning to the store, Benoit and Fernand head out to retrieve the body of the Poulin boy. They are beaten to it by Jos, who has since returned from working the logging camps. The final image of Antoine is a close-up freeze frame of Benoit looking through a window on the grieving family, a Mona Lisa-like expression on his face. As Canadian film scholar Jim Leach notes in his essay on the film for Canada’s Best Features (Rodopi, 2002), the meaning of this closing image is up for grabs. Is it optimistic or pessimistic? Does it tie Benoit/Québec’s past to the present or signify a break between the two? However such questions are answered, it is the artful ambiguity of the shot that makes it such a well-considered ending for the film, a work that can now be seen in more of its full beauty thanks to its inclusion in The Criterion Collection.

RATING 9 / 10