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Mon Oncle D'Amerique

Mon Oncle D'Amerique(1980)

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teaser Mon Oncle D'Amerique (1980)

Despite the title (literally, "my uncle in America"), none of Mon oncle d'Amerique (1980) takes place in the U.S., and except for one fleeting character, no one's uncle plays an important role in the story. The phrase refers instead to a common French joke that everyone claims to have a relative who emigrated to America and became rich and would one day return home to solve all their problems.

The problems are many financial, emotional, medical, marital in this study from director Alain Resnais of the lives of three different people (a business executive, an ambitious politician, and his mistress, an aspiring actress), but the tone of Mon oncle d'Amerique is lightened by wry humor and irony. In addition, the daily challenges and difficult choices the characters experience are offset by frequent "lectures" by real-life behavioral scientist and physician Dr. Henri Laborit and illustrated by footage of animals (including lab rats) engaged in their most basic modes of survival, as if to draw parallels between his theories and the human events unfolding on the screen. These parallels are not always clear or directly connected from scene to scene, but that's not necessarily the point of director Alain Resnais's film, which was scripted with much wit by Jean Gruault, a frequent collaborator with other French New Wave filmmakers such as Truffaut and Godard.

At the time of the film's inception, Dr. Laborit had been studying the brain for decades (a body of work Resnais initially planned to examine in a short documentary about the scientist), and it is his theory that we are ruled by primal functions in our brain and can only begin to understand our own behavior and motivations when we understand the basic chemistry and physiology we share with even the lowliest life forms. These interruptions of science make for a fractured but never muddled narrative that deftly juggles documentary and fiction, comedy and drama, while calling into question just how much free will each of us has as an organism who, in Laborit's words, "is a memory that acts."

Mon oncle d'Amerique was not Resnais's first experiment with the codes and language of cinema. With Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), he introduced a distinctive nonlinear approach to narrative that amplified his examinations of memory, perception, consciousness, and reality. Those two movies signaled a landmark in world cinema, but Resnais's subsequent releases had less impact over the next couple of decades. After the disappointing critical and commercial reception of Stavisky (1974) and Providence (1977), Mon oncle d'Amerique was a brilliant return to form, his most successful film in years and winner of numerous awards including the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Foreign Language Film from the New York Film Critics Circle. Gruault's screenplay also received an Academy Award nomination. Time magazine's Richard Corliss called it "by far the best film of the year," and Andrew Sarris, in the Village Voice said it was "the funniest movie about the horrors of working since Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times [1936]."

Cinematographer Sacha Vierny shot Mon oncle d'Amerique and eight other films for Resnais between 1955 and 1984. He also directed the photography for Luis Bunuel's Belle de jour (1967) and later for several of Peter Greenaway's pictures (A Zed and Two Noughts [1985], Drowning by Numbers [1988]).

In the cast, viewers will likely be most familiar with arguably France's most internationally famous male movie star, Grard Depardieu, a 15-time nominee (and twice winner) for the Csar Award (his country's equivalent of the Oscar®) and an Academy Award nominee for Cyrano de Bergerac (1990). Nicole Garcia, who plays aspiring actress Janine, still appears frequently in films but has also become a screenwriter and director. She's made six films so far, including Place Vendome (1998) starring Catherine Deneuve.

Director: Alain Resnais
Producer: Philippe Dussart
Screenplay: Jean Gruault, featuring the writings of Henri Laborit
Cinematography: Sacha Vierny
Editing: Albert Jurgenson
Production Design: Jacques Saulnier
Original Music: Ari Dzierlatka
Cast: Grard Depardieu (Ren Ragueneau), Nicole Garcia (Janine Garnier), Roger Pierre (Jean Le Gall), Nelly Borgeaud (Arlette Le Gall), Henri Laborit (Himself).
BW-126m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon

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