Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mon Oncle Antoine

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/20/09 w/ Additional Edits.

Directed by Claude Jutra with a script co-written with Clement Perron, Mon Oncle Antoine (My Uncle Antoine) tells the story of a young boy coming of age in 1940s Quebec during an asbestos strike at a mining town. Set during the Christmas holiday, the film follows the perspective of the boy dealing with changes in his world as well as the people in his family. Considered to be the greatest film to come from Canada, it's a film that examines changing times and social changes for the province of Quebec. Starring Jacques Gagnon, Jean Duceppe, Olivette Thibault, Lionel Villeneuve, and Claude Jutra. Mon Oncle Antoine is a mesmerizing yet enchanting film from Claude Jutra.

It's the 1940s during an asbestos strike in a small salt mining town when a man named Jos Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve) is fed up with dealing with English Canadians as he quits his job. Returning to his family in his isolated home, he decides to take a job cutting trees in the north only to return during the Christmas holidays. Meanwhile at a nearby small town, a young 14-year old boy named Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) is working as an altar boy holding a funeral for an old man (Roger Garand). Being the undertaker is his uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) who is helped by his assistant Fernand (Claude Jutra) as Antoine is revered by the town for his generosity and ability to help people. At the same time he raises Benoit with his wife Cecile (Olivette Thibault) along with a young girl named Carmen (Lyne Champagne) whom Benoit is starting to fall for as they all work at Antoine's general store.

It's now the Christmas holiday season as everyone is making decorations at the general store. With Fernand making advances towards Cecile, he tries to do it under Antoine's nose but Antoine keeps popping up while Benoit is noticing that Carmen is showing feelings towards him as well. With people showing up at the store, there's moments of celebration when a couple (Lise and Michel Talbot) are announced to be married. Also showing up in style is the beautiful, posh Alexandrine (Monique Mercure) whom Antoine and his friend Maurice (Dominique Joly) have a thing for where they peep in a private room to see her topless. Meanwhile, Poulin's eldest son Marcel (Mario Dubuc) has become ill with Mrs. Poulin (Helene Loiselle) is watching over him. Then comes a call from Mrs. Poulin where Fernand tells Antoine that something has gone wrong. With Benoit going to the Poulin with Antoine, he faces some life changing moments along with the true personality of his uncle and the family he's surrounded by.

The film is essentially a coming of age story from the mind of a young boy as he is edging into his teens, discovering about love, naked breasts, and all sorts of things. At the same time, he is starting to see things about his own family and the people around him that he didn't want to know about. The new realities he's facing as well as the troubles that concerns another family because a man has to find work without compromise to provide for his family really starts to shape the mind of a boy in the span of this small period of time. The film's writers in director Claude Jutra and co-screenwriter Clement Perron does create a tale that is universal though its approach to the storytelling is unconventional. There's scenes where there's no dialogue but action while at the same time, it's unconventional approach in terms of lack of dialogue does lag the pacing a bit in some respects. Still, its lack of conventions in the storytelling is what makes the story so compelling.

Jutra's direction is truly mesmerizing with the use of zoom close-ups, hand-held camera shots, and striking compositions as it's all shot on location in the small towns of Quebec. The way Jutra shoots the exterior scenes to the exuberance of the small town when they're in the general store, there's something quaint about what is happening as all of these people seem to know each other. At the same time, the compositions Jutra creates from the long exterior shots of the snowy small towns and the travel that Benoit and Antoine had to go through to the Poulins. Even the close-ups that zooms into people's faces are enchanting in what Jutra is presenting. Even as the beauty of the film is matched with the decaying feel of the mines that are nearby as Jutra creates a film that is truly evocative in its story and unconventional presentation.

Cinematographer Michel Brault does absolutely exquisite work with the film's cinematography from the earthy, low-color interiors of the general store and the Poulins' home/farm to the wonderful exterior of the daytime scenes in the snow. Even at night where it's a mixture of black and blue, there's something enchanting about Brault's cinematography where it's also a bit grainy to match the rough look of the Canadian mountains and mines. Brault's photography is really one of the film's highlights. Editing the film is Claude Jutra and Claire Boyer is excellent in its movement, transitions, and its stylish use of dissolves and fade-outs to structure the story despite its lack of conventional plot.

The film's art direction by set decorators Denis Boucher and Lawrence O'Brien do fantastic work in the look of 1940s small-town life with the decorating of the store with Christmas things as well as certain products to give it an old yet authentic feel. The sound work of Claude Hazanavicius and sound editors Arnold Gelbart and Jacques Jarry is great for the sound of the mines and the windy noises of the snow that is heard throughout for the film's third act. The music of Jean Cousineau is truly wonderful in its folky, plaintive feel to play up the film's light-hearted humor and drama as it's performed in such a subtle yet somber manner.

The cast is excellent with some small roles from Lise and Michel Talbot as the engaged couple, Rene Salvatore Catta as the vicar, Georges Alexander as the Big Boss who throw trinkets at the town instead of bonuses for is workers, Roger Garand as the deceased Euclid, and Jean Dubost as the English-speaking foreman whom all in the town despises. In the role of the Poulin children are Serge Evers, Robin Marcoux, and Alain Legendre as the son with Lise Brunelle as the daughter and Mario Dubuc as the ailing Marcel. In a small role as Carmen's father is Benoit Marcoux who is good as a man who only wants the money his daughter makes but doesn't get all of it because Antoine feels that Carmen deserves something for herself. Other memorable small roles include Dominique Joly as Benoit's friend Maurice and Monique Mercure as Alexandrine, the sexy woman who is the object of desire for all of them including the young Benoit.

In the role of Mrs. Poulin is Helene Loiselle who is very good as a woman dealing with her husband's crankiness while trying to seek help for her ailing son. Lionel Villeneuve is excellent as the cranky Jos Poulin, a man not wanting to deal with bosses while finding work on his own without compromise for his family. Lyne Champagne is really good as Carmen, the young girl who is starting to attain feelings for Benoit as she exudes a kind of innocence while finding a family in the likes of Antoine and Cecile. Claude Jutra is excellent as Fernand, a clerk who likes to flirt with Cecile while being helpful though his motives for Cecile would prove to be life-changing for Benoit. Olivette Thibault is great as Cecile, a vivacious woman who lives to make people happy but also proves to be a secretive person as well.

Jean Duceppe is superb as Antoine, the generous, helpful, and caring town figure who is both the town's undertaker and general store manager. Duceppe's loving, carefree personality shows a man filled with warmth as he is also fair to those who work for him and such. Yet, in the third act, we see someone who is also flawed with secrets of his own that would change his persona. Finally, there's Jacques Gagnon in a fantastic performance as Benoit, the young 14-year old kid who comes of age in one extraordinary day as he discovers the good and bad in life. Gagnon's lively yet observant performance shows the smile of a child but also the growing cynicism he would face as a man as it's done realistically and with such power from the young actor.

Mon Oncle Antoine is an exhilarating yet enchanting film from the late Claude Jutra. While it's not perfect due to a lack of conventional story and some pacing issues, it's definitely one of the most magical films to come out of Canada. While there have been better films from Canada from more revered auteurs like David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and Guy Maddin. This film does deserve its prestige as it has a story that is truly universal as it's one of the best coming of age films ever made. In the end, Mon Oncle Antoine is a powerful yet lively film from Claude Jutra.

(C) thevoid99 2011


Howard Schumann said...

I just finished watching this film for the first time and your review brilliantly captures its essence. Thank you for completing the experience for me in such a memorable way.

thevoid99 said...

You're welcome. It's truly a lovely film.