Mon Oncle Antoine
There was a period when, to Americans, a foreign film was a gentle Canadian coming-of-age tale and not a kiss-kiss bang-bang chronicle of blood, loyalty, and martial arts. Mon Oncle Antoine (My Uncle Antoine) harks back to those days when a fairly minor film could seize the imagination of the movie going élites and have a rather long theatrical life, simply because everything else around it was so artificial and dumb. The film is also a tribute to the long-lost vitality of the National Film Board of Canada, which produced this French-Canadian film in 1971. It's based on a screenplay by Clement Perron, who applies his own childhood memories to the tale of Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), an orphaned 14-year-old living with his aunt and uncle in a mining town in the 1940s. His uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) runs the general store but is also the town undertaker. The thrust of the story concerns the events of Christmas Eve, when Antoine is summoned to the home of Mme Poulin (Helene Loiselle). Her son has just died, and she needs somebody to haul the body to the morgue, as her husband Joe (Lionel Villeneauve) has quit his mining job in a huff and gone off to work on a logging camp. On the way back with the body, Antoine reminiscing but also drinking heavily falls asleep, and Benoit loses the coffin in the snow. Young Benoit hurries to the store to get help, only to find his aunt intimate with the store clerk. The clerk (played by the film's director, Claude Jutra) goes back with him, but in the interim, Joe has returned and discovered the situation, returning his son's body to his home. Jutra doesn't show this moment; he leaves it to the viewer's imagination, thus maintaining his stance of respectful distance from the people of this village, along with the unpredictability of the script's narrative scheme. Mon Oncle Antoine is a movie of gritty details and daily practicalities Antoine is shown after a funeral service removing the rosary from the frozen fingers of a corpse as well as the shirt it has on, both to be recycled for another service later. And Benoit is shown making a snack of a communion wafer, washed down with a swig of communion wine (in which the priest also secretly indulges later). At the time, Jutra was criticized for his overuse of the zoom lens, but his zooms serve to contrast his cast of small agents on the surface of the earth with the mighty, indifferent majesty of the terrain they inhabit. This is not a sentimental winter wonderland; here, the snow is hazardous, a substance that suffocates its citizens. Image Entertainment has done a valuable service in making this quiet, dignified film available for the first time on disc (Mon Oncle Antoine, being a Janus Film release, would otherwise most likely have been released by Criterion). The full-frame transfer shows some wear and tear and scratch lines from the source print; otherwise it captures the lulling menace of the snowy world very well. The Dolby Digital monaural audio is adequate to the film's needs. Snap-case.