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Alain Resnais’s Unexpected (and Unjustly Neglected) Art-House Hit

Alain Resnais’s Unexpected (and Unjustly Neglected) Art-House Hit

Some twenty years into his feature-film career, Alain Resnais had his first bona fide French commercial success in 1980 with My American Uncle. Also a hit in the U.S., it even went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Jean Gruault’s screenplay (he lost to Bo Goldman for Melvin and Howard). And yet, unaccountably, like its almost-as-good English-language predecessor Providence (1977), My American Uncle has been largely forgotten—it’s long been out of print on DVD.

Why, in the U.S. at any rate, do Resnais’s landmark 1960s films and the six pleasing, easy-viewing romantic comedies that constitute the third phase of his career, from 1997 to 2014, continue to overshadow his underrated and adventurous (if at times baffling) eight films from 1974 to 1993? To be sure, Resnais’s output slowed during these years, and his kind of cinema was eclipsed in the U.S. by the emergence of a new generation of French filmmakers. The most notable film lost in the mix is Resnais’s little-seen diptych Smoking/No Smoking (1993), a transitional work that initiated the lightly playful, Anglophile direction he would subsequently take, and whose stateside release fell apart for reasons unclear. The film-historical importance of Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad casts a long shadow, and if the late works are charming and relatively frivolous, films like Providence and My American Uncle would appear to land on some uneasy middle ground. They are not as “heavy” or “difficult” as the films of the first phase of Resnais’s career and not as “light” as the films from his third phase. In particular, as an English-language art film with an all-star cast—Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Ellen Burstyn, David Warner—Providence to many doesn’t sound like the kind of film Resnais (or anyone else) would or should have any business making in those days.

But My American Uncle is a different kettle of fish. Both appealing and complex, situated squarely in the mainstream of French art cinema, and featuring freshly minted star Gérard Depardieu, it’s one of Resnais’s best films, representing at once a high-water mark and the most down-to-earth of his exhilarating engagements with modernist aesthetics. So it’s all the more puzzling that this of all his films has been left behind.

My American Uncle is, in the tradition of Resnais’s interrogatory cinema, sui generis. It follows the lives of three individuals from different classes and backgrounds in the late 1970s in a mosaiclike narrative—and regularly intersperses their stories with excerpts from Resnais’s interview with behavioral scientist and biologist Henri Laborit, who elaborates on his theory of . . . well, the human condition, basically.

The three protagonists are Jean (Roger Pierre), scion of an haute-bourgeois Breton dynasty; Janine (Nicole Garcia), daughter of a communist lower-middle-class Parisian family; and René (Depardieu), son of an old-fashioned peasant farmer. An aspiring novelist, Jean moves to Paris, passively marries his childhood sweetheart, Arlette (Nelly Borgeaud), and with little effort is appointed news director of French National Radio. Although raised to be a militant, Janine, a natural performer and an autodidact, embarks on an acting career. And René, who secretly took correspondence courses as a youth, breaks away from his hidebound father and the miserable future on the farm that beckons and becomes an accountant at a regional textile company. The trajectories of these three characters will intersect in time.

While on the surface these people and their stories seem unexceptional, Resnais imbues them with unexpected meaning. During the film’s first thirty minutes, he orchestrates a flurry of third- and first-person voice-overs, images, and vignettes that trace the protagonists’ biographies from birth up to the nominal present day (the film takes place between 1975 and 1979). In fact, Gruault became so obsessed with these backstories that he superfluously created one for every supporting character; they can be found in L’avant scène cinéma’s reproduction of the film’s screenplay!

Among the experiential baggage that each character carries through life is an internalized, idealized notion of personhood, embodied by a favorite movie star: for Jean, it’s Danielle Darrieux; for Janine, Jean Marais; and for René, Jean Gabin. Over the course of the film, from time to time Resnais cuts to black-and-white clips of these actors, caught in moments that in some way accord with each respective character’s immediate sense of self, particularly in moments of crisis or decision—as if summoned by their psyches.

Possibly these stars loom large in Resnais’s nostalgia for a now-distant era of French cinema—and after all, the push and pull of memory is a central aspect of his work, no less so than here. Resnais initially intended to incorporate a much more extensive selection of clips, which would have likely tilted the film in a more radical direction, but licensing rights proved prohibitively expensive. The role of stardom in Rensais’s filmmaking evolved in a curious manner. In the first two decades of his career he generally took care to cast major stars, from Delphine Seyrig to Yves Montand to Jean-Paul Belmondo. After My American Uncle, however, he withdrew to a stock company of mid-range stars, familiar in France but less so in the U.S., who invariably appeared in every film he made over the next thirty years. His life partner, Sabine Azéma, was the constant around which his last ten films would revolve.


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