1971, Asbestos Strike, Canadian film, Claude Jutra, Clement Perron, drama, Francois Truffaut, french, Jacques Gagnon, Jean Duceppe, Lyne Champagne, Mon Oncle Antoine, National Film Board of Canada, Norman McLaren, Olivia Thibault, Quebec, Quiet Revolution, separatism, The Bicycle Thieves
Written by: Clement Perron and Claude Jutra
Directed by: Claude Jutra
Starring: Jacques Gagnon, Jean Duceppe, Olivia Thibault, Claude Jutra, Lyne Champagne
It’s likely that you haven’t heard of Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine. It would probably surprise you, then, to know that it is frequently cited as one of the best Canadian films of all time. It might also surprise you to know that director Claude Jutra, who was deeply involved with the National Film Board of Canada and who worked with such greats as Francois Truffaut and Norman McLaren, is considered one of Canada’s greatest and most tragic cinematic figures. Then again, it’s likely that you couldn’t name but a couple Canadian films and filmmakers off the top of your head. One of the great mistakes in this country is to ignore the great work that is being produced around us, and by us. How many of us would include a Canadian film among our top ten? Our top 100? I suspect many of us would list our favorite films forever and never think to mention a Canadian title. The films are there but we rarely look. Mon Oncle Antoine really is one of the greatest Canadian films I have seen, it’s beautiful and perceptive and lurking behind its surface is powerful commentary on Quebec separatism. Thanks to the NFB you can watch it here.
Mon Oncle Antoine is set in a small, rural Quebec asbestos mining town. The film follows 15-year-old Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) on what must be the most formative 24 hours of his life. He is cared for by his uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and aunt Cecile (Olivia Thibault) who also care for the pretty Carmen (Lyne Champagne). Benoit is an altar boy and an assistant to his uncle who is the local undertaker and proprietor of the town’s General Store. He’s a good kid, one who silently observes those around him and who gets up to a little badness when the adults aren’t around. Benoit learns most of life’s lessons during the one particular day in Mon Oncle Antoine. The day starts as Benoit watches his uncle and the shop’s manager Ferdinand (director Claude Jutra) prepare a body for burial after a funeral. They take his false suit and pry the prayer beads from his hands before they nail the coffin shut; these things are useless to them in the ground. Benoit steals a few communion wafers and some wine before he runs along the tops of the pews and out of the church. He heads to work at the shop where, oblivious to Carmen’s flirty advances, he helps decorate for Christmas. Later, when he clues in, he awkwardly tests the waters with Carmen by grabbing her breast, and later he and another shop assistant peek through a crack in the door to watch the local bombshell try on her brand new corset. That night, when a young boy dies in a nearby town, Benoit rides with Antoine to collect the body and the sleigh ride is the most altering moment yet. Benoit observes as a far-too-drunk Antoine indelicately deals with the mother of the dead boy, and passes out cold on the ride home. Mon Oncle Antoine is concerned primarily with that moment when childhood vanishes and adulthood sets in. By day’s end, Benoit sees everyone in his life through new eyes; the adults become irresponsible and faulted, while the girl he knew as a child he now sees as a woman.
Jutra’s film is plump with social commentary, but it is the sort that is suggested through setting and atmosphere more than directly spoken of. The asbestos mine sprays dust continuously and oppressively into the air, and a mine owner rides through town tossing cheap Christmas ornaments out to each household in lieu of Christmas bonuses. He doesn’t even hand them out with care, but tosses them into the mud. When the rich accountant’s beautiful wife walks into the General Store, the busy shop grinds to a halt to watch her. It is obvious that she is rarely scene by the townsfolk and her sort of beauty and luxury is unknown to them. Jutra makes a point of focusing his camera on the tired and weathered faces of the gawking men and women when she is in the shop. Generally life is hard for these rural Quebecois and they have to take what pleasure they can from minuscule luxuries. Jutra makes clear the social issues in Quebec, the problems between the rich and the poor, between the English and the French. There is no question that the selfish, absent and/or irresponsible parents and authority figures in Mon Oncle Antoine are analogous of problems in contemporary government.
Mon Oncle Antoine is smart and tender, and it is at its best when it focuses on the power of tiny moments and tiny gestures. There is great sadness and a certain amount of anger at play in the film but it has moments, too, of pronounced joy. As Benoit, Jacques Gangnon is perceptive, and he plays the character as innocent but not naive. The sleigh ride Benoit takes with Antoine stands, for some reason, as the quintessential moment of Canadian cinema in my mind, though I’m not sure I can explain why. Their interaction reminds me more of a lunch shared by father and son in The Bicycle Thieves (1948) than it does of my own Canadian experience, yet it always springs to my mind in a discussion of Canadian film.