Mon oncle Antoine:Of Asbestos Mines and Christmas Candy

mon oncle antoine

Every decade since 1984 the Toronto International Film Festival has conducted a poll of film scholars, critics, and directors to determine the ten best movies in the history of Canadian cinema. This top-ten list has changed somewhat over the years, as the tastes and preoccupations of respondents have shifted and a few new masterpieces have displaced old classics. But one thing has remained constant: in all of these polls, one title has invariably topped the list, unmoved by passing trends. It is Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971), which for the last twenty-five years has held the official title of “best Canadian film ever made.” While some might claim that other films are equally deserving of this distinction, no one would deny that Jutra’s bittersweet tale of a boy’s coming-of-age in 1940s rural Quebec is one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever to come out of Canada.

By the time he directed Mon oncle Antoine, Claude Jutra (1930–86) was already a well-known filmmaker in Quebec. The son of a renowned Montreal radiologist, Jutra was a gifted student who had completed medical school by the tender age of twenty-one. He never practiced medicine, though, for his passion had always been cinema, and he devoted all of his spare time and energy to the seventh art. Encouraged by his family to pursue his artistic vision, he started making shorts when he was still a teenager, and before turning twenty had already won a Canadian Film Award for best amateur film. This first award-winning film, Mouvement perpétuel (1949), a playful experiment in avant-gardist cinema, made a strong impression on celebrated animator Norman McLaren, who invited Jutra to work with him at the National Film Board of Canada. Jutra directed a number of films for the government-funded NFB, which, from its foundation in 1939 until well into the 1970s, was the main production studio in Canada. It was at the NFB that Jutra would realize his masterpiece, Mon oncle Antoine.

Jutra also worked outside the NFB, producing a handful of important independent films. The most significant of these is À tout prendre (1964), which he financed himself. Best described as an experimental narrative that oscillates between satire and melodrama, À tout prendre was clearly an attempt on Jutra’s part to trigger a Quebec-made nouvelle vague. In true New Wave fashion, the film is utterly modernist in form and content but never takes itself too seriously. Always with an ironic twinkle in his eye, Jutra plays the main character, Claude, an angst-ridden man dominated by a condescending and manipulative mother who disapproves of the fact that his girlfriend is Haitian. Claude is also haunted by an obsolete religious conscience and struggles with his repressed homosexuality. The modernist themes of existential torment, interracial relationships, and closeted homosexuality are paralleled by such equally modernist stylistic strategies as self-referential devices (a film within a film), distancing effects like captions and cacophonous voice-over, jump cuts, superimpositions, direct address, Hollywood clichés à la Godard, and even a cameo appearance by François Truffaut, whom Jutra had befriended during visits to Paris. Many critics applauded Jutra’s effort. American reviewer Colin Young praised À tout prendre as the first truly contemporary film in North America. French cineaste Jean Rouch saw it as a major work of new world cinema, and even the venerable Jean Renoir had great admiration for this cinematic essay.

À tout prendre is the best example of Jutra’s inclination for modernist abstraction and sardonic humor, but the filmmaker rarely enjoyed such a degree of freedom. His penchant for whimsical experimentation was generally mitigated by the instrumentalist demands of the industry. Throughout the 1960s, he worked on a handful of documentaries for the NFB that were stylistically less innovative and narratively more conservative than À tout prendre, such as Comment savoir (1966), a feature-length educational film on new pedagogical technologies. What did emerge vividly from these documentaries, however, was his fascination with youth culture, which would remain one of his central thematic concerns up until his very last film, La dame en couleurs (1985).

The very first film he directed at the NFB, Jeunesses musicales (1956), already focused on young people, specifically those who find a means of self-expression through music. Ten years later, kids used skateboards rather than musical instruments to express their exuberance in Rouli-roulant (1966). And four years after that, the kids on skateboards had now become teenagers on the verge of adulthood in Wow (1970). A mixture of documentary and fiction, Wow intersperses comments by young people on love, drugs, and other topical issues with scenes illustrating their dreams and aspirations. Too confusing for a mainstream audience, the film also failed to impress those who were advocating a more politically engaged cinema. While Jutra was, like virtually every French Canadian artist of his generation, a Quebec nationalist, he never adopted the radical blend of separatist and Marxist politics embraced by some of his contemporaries, such as Jean Pierre Lefebvre, Gilles Groulx, and Denys Arcand (resulting in the latter two’s films being censored by the NFB). Playful abstraction, ironic humanism, and mischievous sentimentalism were more Jutra’s bag.

The mixture of youthful playfulness, jaded idealism, and tongue-in-cheek politics that failed to coalesce in Wow came together perfectly in Jutra’s next NFB project: Mon oncle Antoine. The success of Mon oncle Antoine resulted, in significant measure, from the collaborative nature of the production. First, Jutra enlisted the help of his longtime friend Michel Brault. A celebrated cinematographer who also directed some of the most important films in Quebec cinema, including Pour la suite du monde (1963, with Pierre Perrault) and Les ordres (1974), Brault first collaborated with Jutra in the late 1940s and worked with him on a number of projects in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies. Deeply influenced by documentary, Brault’s cinematographic style is characterized by a firm commitment to realism. Fascinated by the small details of everyday life and the impact of the environment on individuals, Brault always insists on grounding images in the real. And it is in great part the grounded images provided by Brault that allow Jutra to explore issues of adolescent identity, burgeoning sexuality, and nascent politicization in Mon oncle Antoine without ever overindulging in modernist abstraction, as he does in À tout prendre, or falling back on clichés of rebellious romanticism, as in Wow. With Brault behind the camera, Jutra’s boundless creative imagination could be anchored in the everyday context of the village general store, where a kid grows up learning about friendship, sex, work, corruption, and death.

Another crucial collaborator was Clément Perron, the coauthor of the screenplay. Perron had proposed another film project to Jutra but, as Martin Knelman recounts in his book This Is Where We Came In, the latter had unceremoniously rejected it. Frustrated by what he considered Jutra’s aloof, condescending, rich-kid attitude, Perron started arguing that he, at least, knew the real people of Quebec. He had grown up in a small town, working at his uncle’s general store, mingling with farmers and proletarians, unlike Jutra, who had lived the privileged life of a bourgeois in a posh Montreal neighborhood. Jutra was immediately taken with these personal anecdotes and offered to work with Perron on a script about his childhood. Like Brault’s images, Perron’s screenplay provided a true-to-life foundation upon which Jutra could build. The combination of Jutra’s mischievous artistic vision, Perron’s deeply felt childhood recollections, and Brault’s documentarylike cinematography gave the film its perfect balance of immediacy and nostalgia, kitchen-sink realism and wistful lyricism, ethnographic accuracy and lighthearted poetics, political commentary and dramatic irony.

The eponymous Uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) is the general-store owner and the town’s undertaker. Throughout the film, his nephew, Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), observes the world of adults around him. He catches a glimpse of the petty transgressions of the village priest, witnesses the cowardice of his uncle, experiences betrayal when he finds the clerk Fernand (played by Jutra himself) in bed with Antoine’s wife, Cécile (Olivette Thibault), encounters death while assisting the undertaker, and discovers sex with Antoine’s hired girl, Carmen (Lyne Champagne). Perron and Jutra’s genuine affection for their characters, however flawed they might be, the rich local colors captured by Brault’s camera, the remarkably realist performances of the leading actors, the earthy language of the villagers, and the sense of nostalgia that emerges from this picture of life in simpler times all coalesce to create the gently ironic tale of Benoit’s passage from adolescence to adulthood. Mon oncle Antoine earned praise from critics both at home and abroad, Pauline Kael even comparing Jutra’s presence on-screen to Renoir’s in The Rules of the Game (1939).

In and of itself, this compellingly understated chronicle of a boy’s loss of innocence on Christmas Eve can account for much of the film’s critical success. And the beautifully desolate wintry images of small, isolated houses dispersed in a preurban landscape doubtlessly helped the film to become an icon of Canadian culture (both francophone and anglophone). But beyond its surface style and narrative, Mon oncle Antoine also offers an engaging metaphor for Quebec’s transition from traditionalism to modernity. The film is set in an era generally referred to as the Grande noirceur (Great Darkness), which lasted from the end of World War II to 1960. Quebec’s ultraconservative National Union government of Premier Maurice Duplessis dominated this period. A formidable politician, Duplessis imposed respect for traditional, rural values and devotion to the Catholic church, and sold out the province’s natural wealth to American capitalists. Mon oncle Antoine perfectly reproduces the French Canadian culture of the Grande noirceur, a time when francophone Quebeckers, treated by their own government as second-class citizens, could only occupy menial jobs in the factories, mines, and logging camps owned by the English-speaking ruling class. The character of Jos Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve), who quits his job at the asbestos mine to go to the logging camp, only to leave that job, too, shortly after, incarnates the typical French Canadian of the Grande noirceur, who feels an uncontrollable urge to rebel against an oppressive system but lacks the means to act productively.

Yet there might be hope. Benoit and the other teenagers working at the general store show signs that they may be able to challenge the powers that be. This is most obvious in a central scene where the kids throw snowballs at the English-speaking boss of the asbestos mine, who rides his sleigh through the village tossing Christmas candy at children in a scornful gesture of contemptuous generosity. This moment stands as the film’s most obvious allegory of the burgeoning nationalism that marked the postwar era. In fact, the reference to asbestos mining evokes an actual event in Quebec history: the 1949 Asbestos Strike.

In February 1949, thousands of asbestos miners went on strike, quickly garnering the support of not only other unionized workers throughout the province but also intellectuals and even certain influential members of the clergy, who all marched against Duplessis and his ilk. This unprecedented show of resistance against the government, which lasted until June, marked the beginning of the end of the Grande noirceur. In 1960, Jean Lesage’s Liberal Party defeated the National Union and triggered the movement of modernization known as the Quiet Revolution.

By the time Jutra produced his reflection on recent Quebec history, the 1960s and the Quiet Revolution were already over. Dissatisfaction with Lesage’s policies, which were seen by some as being too closely connected to the federalist agenda of English Canada, led to the emergence of the separatist movement, which sought Quebec’s independence. Many artists like Jutra were in favor of some form of independence, but could certainly not be called “radicals.” The allegorical content of Mon oncle Antoine, indeed, bears witness to Jutra’s “soft nationalism.” While he manifestly criticizes English power and the institutions that hindered Quebec’s progress, such as the Catholic church, Jutra does not advocate revolutionary practices like Groulx does in his Marxist-inspired Où êtes-vous donc? (1970), Entre tu et vous (1970), and 24 heures ou plus . . . (produced in 1971, censored until 1976). For Jutra, rebellious gestures may be necessary for the adolescent, and the nation, yearning for freedom and independence, but such gestures should remain symbolic and never degenerate into life-threatening violence. This is why the threat of death also plays a central role in the narrative. In 1970, at the time when Jutra was filming Mon oncle Antoine, the more radical branch of the separatist movement, the Front de libération du Québec, kidnapped a British diplomat, James Cross, and the provincial minister of labor, Pierre Laporte. The FLQ’s eventual assassination of Laporte petrified soft nationalists like Jutra and left the whole province in a state of profound political ambivalence.

The final shot of Mon oncle Antoine attests to this ambivalence. After his own quiet rebellion against the English boss and Uncle Antoine himself, Benoit is faced with the dead body of a boy his age, whom Antoine was supposed, but failed, to take care of. The image of this dead teenager, whom Benoit seems to recognize as his double, leaves him paralyzed. He sees in this lifeless adolescent the dreadful alternative to his own need for freedom and independence. Once the playful rebellion is over, death might lurk right around the corner. The closing freeze frame on Benoit’s face is thus not merely a reference to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, as has been suggested by some. It also stands for Quebec’s own uncertainty about its future.

Jutra’s career suffered a disheartening decline after Mon oncle Antoine, especially following the critical and commercial failure of his expensive historical epic Kamouraska (1973). The late 1970s and early 1980s were a difficult period for the French Canadian film industry. Unable to find work in Quebec, Jutra even had to go into “exile” in English Canada to earn a living, directing a few made-for-TV movies. But the reputation and influence of Mon oncle Antoine never waned. In the wake of its success, the coming-of-age film became something of a prototypical Canadian genre, with such films as Lies My Father Told Me (1975, Ján Kadár), Who Has Seen the Wind (1977, Allan King), Les bons débarras (1980, Francis Mankiewicz), Léolo (1992, Jean-Claude Lauzon), and New Waterford Girl (1999, Allan Moyle) trying to recapture the magic of Jutra’s masterpiece. Its evocatively authentic poetic realism also became a trademark of Canadian films, ranging from Jacques et novembre (1984, Jean Beaudry and François Bouvier) to Away from Her (2007, Sarah Polley).

Ironically, at the time of Jutra’s death in 1986—suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he committed suicide—Quebec cinema experienced a tremendous renaissance. After a decade of stagnation, the French Canadian film industry was revitalized by Arcand’s 1986 landmark The Decline of the American Empire. Following The Decline, a string of works, from Lauzon’s Un zoo la nuit (1987) to Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), including Arcand’s own Jesus of Montreal (1989) and The Barbarian Invasions (2003), enjoyed steady critical and box office success. Yet none has managed to surpass the cultural status of Mon oncle Antoine.

Almost forty years after its release, Mon oncle Antoine remains an insightful commentary on Quebec’s persistent inability to choose between the dream of independence and the safety of Canadian federalism. But perhaps what is most extraordinary about Jutra’s masterpiece is that even for the spectator who knows nothing about Quebec history and is oblivious to the film’s allegorical meaning, it can still be appreciated as one of the most touching and endearing coming-of-age stories ever made, in Canada or elsewhere.

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