My American Uncle Review
Alain Resnais’ 1980 film Mon Oncle d’Amérique (My American Uncle) rather ambitiously sets out to examine what it means to be human – not only to exist on a primitive level, but to think, have memories and be creative. Endowed with these higher-level brain functions that place humanity on a level above mere animals, human actions and behaviour are nonetheless influenced by many other inhibition factors such as upbringing, the promise of punishment or reward and by the influence or reaction to other people. Based on the non-fictional works of French biologist, Henri Laborit, the film was expected to be a documentary, but being Alain Resnais, the approach in My American Uncle is evidently less than conventional.
Outlining these academic theories through an opening narration, the film goes on to examine these behaviours through three fictional characters - René (Gérard Depardieu), the manager of a textile factory, Jeanine (Nicole Garcia) a theatre actress, and Jean (Roger Pierre), an up-and-coming government minister. Each of them has to overcome initial difficulties, setbacks and disadvantaged upbringings to achieve a certain measure of success – or perhaps it’s the struggle against those challenges that have made them what they are. René, putting himself secretly through a course of study, manages to escape the restrictive influence of his father and life on a farm to become the successful middle-manager of a textile firm. Escaping the influence of her parents through rebellion as a young Communist, Jeanine runs away to join a theatre company and achieves a certain measure of acclaim in a successful theatre production. Pierre, born into a privileged lifestyle, works his way up the political ladder to become an important and influential figure, directing a national radio station. Their small measure of success is however short-lived and they each have challenges to face.
So far, so normal, Mon Oncle d’Amérique coming across as a straightforward depiction of life as it is lived - following its characters through their early childhood upbringing, their ambitions, their loves, their careers and their setbacks in each of these areas – with a little bit of philosophical and anthropological observation thrown in. There would seem to be little out of the ordinary or characteristic of one of France’s most ambitious and experimental directors, but Alain Resnais has a few idiosyncratic touches by which he transforms the film into something else entirely. The film, scripted by Jean Gruault, is meticulously structured, opening with an academic thesis narrated in documentary fashion by Henri Laborit (who appears in the film as himself), following the narration through the introduction of the characters, allowing them to conduct their own lives briefly before symmetrically drawing them back to their roots and then examining, again through the narration, what brought them there. To illustrate the characters ambitions, self-image and influences, Resnais also inserts clips of classic French movie idols – Jean Marais for Janine, Jean Gabin for René and Danielle Darrieux for Jean.
Most unusual of all however is the appearance of the characters transformed in one scene into giant white rats, alerting the viewer to the fact that the film is an experiment and that the characters are indeed nothing more than rats in a lab running through a series of behavioural experiments. This is brought home in the second half of the film where, having reached a critical point in their lives, it’s their inhibition instincts – influenced by their upbringing and social conditioning – that will determine whether or not they will survive. If that sounds somewhat clinical, Resnais makes it anything but – presenting a situation that is not only of academic interest, but is meaningful in coming to an understanding of all human behaviour, and applicable therefore to your own life.
Mon Oncle d’Amérique represents a turning point in the career of Resnais. After this film, he would rely on his own small troupe of regular actors and the treatment of his work would appear to become less experimental, the stories – right up to his latest film Private Fears in Public Places - appearing to become ever more low-key, theatrical and even banal. All of them however are influenced by My American Uncle, demonstrating the same rigorousness in getting behind the motivations of human behaviour, and somewhere in there they each have that unique Resnais sense of the bizarre that lifts them far above their apparently simple surface subject matter.
My American Uncle is released in the UK by Arrow. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format, but is not region encoded.
The video quality is good for the main part, showing good tones and fine colour definition, with adequate levels of detail in the image. It is however slightly soft, shows a certain amount of grain which is prone to dot-crawl, and has a few minor marks and blemishes visible throughout. Cross colouration may also occasionally be an issue. Few of these issues cause any real problem with the viewing of the film. It would appear that the transfer here is identical to the French MK2 edition.
The original mono audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and it’s fairly good throughout without being exceptional, the dialogue being relatively clear with few underlying problems.
English subtitles are provided and are optional, translating the film quite well.
Although the transfer has been taken from the French MK2 DVD, none of the extensive (unsubtitled) interviews and extra features on that edition have been brought across to this UK release, except for the unsubtitled Trailer (2:58). This plays down the academic side of the film in favour of presenting it like a conventional drama.
There’s no doubting the brilliance of Alain Resnais’ technique in Mon Oncle d’Amérique, brilliantly fusing academic behavioural theory with a simple story that meaningfully and movingly illustrates its suppositions. At heart, the story is almost banal, but that is entirely the point and that is life, Resnais never resorting to dramatic contrivance, but showing the essential factors that determine the truth of human actions and reactions, making them meaningful and relevant to the viewer.