Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

Alain Resnais | 2hr 5min

There is a single mosaic that appears at both the start and end of Mon Oncle d’Amerique, complex and bewildering in its composition, though not without precise intent. The first time we see it, a spotlight moves across the grid of still photos depicting people, rocks, bicycles, animals, art – a whole assortment of random pieces of humanity with no apparent common thread. Several voices are layered over the top from which we can only pick out isolated grabs, keeping us at a distance from any specific interpretation of Alain Resnais’ maximalist expression. The second time, we recognise these images as belonging to the film we just watched, taxonomically arranged and dissected into fragments. Wedged between these twin bookends is the rest of Resnais’ monumental anthropological study of human nature, taking the form of several narrative strands and motifs laced through the methodical musings of real-life neurobiologist and philosopher, Henri Laborit.

A mosaic of shots from the film, capturing the breadth of human experience. Much like the film itself, it is also an overwhelming piece of art that reveals more details the longer you sit with it and inspect it.

When measuring Mon Oncle d’Amerique up against so many other films of its calibre, it is apparent that there is not much in the way of visual style that might have offered it an extra edge of cerebral wit and playfulness. Equally clear though is just how ambitious it is in virtually every other aspect, not just in its broad themes, but quite essentially in its formal structure as well, far exceeding so many other masterpieces it sits alongside. There is no easy way to break it down into something comprehensible. Even within the context of the film, it takes its entire run time for it all to congeal into something artistically profound, with each disparate plotline and idea being weaved together like threads in Resnais’ magnificent tapestry.

Once the cacophony of voices starts to peel apart, it is a little easier to grasp the unravelling character introductions of Jean, Janine, and René. Each one is delivered like abridged biographies that not only cover their origins, but their entire stories as well, which will soon play out in greater detail. Resnais flicks through slides and footage covering their upbringings at a hasty pace, drawing parallels between each despite their strikingly different backgrounds. The births of Jean to a bourgeoisie family, Janine to politically active proletariats, and René to old-fashioned farmers are set behind oval frames of the characters themselves narrating their own lives, breaking the fourth wall like participants in Laborit’s sociological study.

These fourth wall breaks through oval frames of the characters feel like a remnant of the French New Wave – but it is entirely unique to Resnais.

Though we regularly return to the scientist himself presenting lectures to the camera that complement the behaviours of our three protagonists, he never refers to them directly. It is rather through Resnais’ editing that we begin to draw these connections. As we learn of their childhoods, so too do we learn about the triune brain theory, which argues that humans possess a unique set of neurological factors allowing us to create imaginative constructs from past experiences. “A living creature is a memory which acts,” he poetically reasons, right before we see Jean, Janine, and René each rebel from their respective families and decisively set themselves on their own independent paths.

Further binding them together is a common fascination and identification with three different classical French actors – Jean Gabin, Jean Marais, and Danielle Darrieux. The frequent cutaways to them in their black-and-white movies serve as punctuation marks on dramatic beats, like a comma in one scene that sees someone call out for René, followed by a shot of Gabin turning around, and then René performing the exact same motion. Elsewhere, Jean’s poignant departure from his wife and children is felt even more piercingly when the scene ends with his idol, Darrieux, embracing a loved one. Much like Laborit’s documentary-style presentations, these fleeting breaks from the narrative offer another angle through which we can understand Resnais’ characters as part of something larger than themselves, whether that be evolutionary science or French film history.

Formal cutaways to classical French actors in match cuts, underscoring Resnais’ characters with comparisons to cinema history.

And then there is the subject of the film’s title, the mysterious American uncle who never makes an appearance. Jean, Janine, and René all speak of that familial figure as some legend who has left an imprint on their lives before disappearing, whether spiralling into homelessness or going off on an adventure to find treasure. For Janine, he is merely a hypothetical beacon of happiness that never existed, and yet which she believed she was entitled to from a young age. That these niche references sit alongside other broader cultural motifs might clue us into something about their significance as cultural tales, informing our values and beliefs which in turn shape the way we interpret the world.

Because when we are presented with something as complex as the human experience, represented by Resnais’ bookended mosaics, narrowed perspectives and ordered systems are essential in informing our ability to understand it. It is through those structures that we see how each piece of Mon Oncle d’Amerique comes together, most significantly in the affair between Jean and Janine, and the disastrous business meeting between Janine and René.

Jean’s island is one of the few attractive set pieces in the film, shrouded in a light mist and reflected in the surrounding water. It is telling that Resnais returns here several times – he knows it strengthens his film stylistically.

At this point, Laborit’s lessons take a fascinating, surreal turn, using lab rat experiments to describe these characters’ behaviours, predominantly through the procedure of classical conditioning in which creatures learn to pair warnings with pain. Still, even he often acknowledges the greater complexity of human psychology and sociology, and we are reminded of that in Resnais’ revisiting of previous scenes in cutaways that now comically substitute people for human-sized rats. Where an animal of lower intelligence might instinctively learn to avoid pain, we watch humans make the same mistakes by returning to ex-lovers, and conversely where we once watched two people hide their unhappiness, we now see two rats in business suits fight it out on top of an office desk.

Absurdity in these cutaways, reimagining humans as rats to study the behaviours of both.

Flashback montages such as these are cleverly inserted all through Mon Oncle d’Amerique, each one sketching out these characters’ common, predictable behaviours. When Laborit speaks of conformity as being a necessity to function in society, we flick through short scenes from their childhoods where they imitate adults as a means of learning. Similarly, when he expounds upon our primal desire for violence, we cut back to scenes we have already witnessed within the film where slaps, punches, and kicks have disrupted social civility.

By the time Mon Oncle d’Amerique approaches its end, we too might feel as trapped as those rats in their cage, or these people in civilisation. The advanced consciousness of humanity does not free his characters from instinct, but merely obscures and complicates its expression in the real world. Like rats trying to escape the electrified floor from one side of a cage to the other side, their attempts to break free of their families’ constraints simply sends them to another part of the same enclosure. Should any of these living creatures escape from their physical or sociological restraints, there is still an even greater, entirely inescapable force enslaving them – their own biology, quietly exerting control through their subconscious.

It is this painful truth which doesn’t simply underlie Resnais’ core thesis, but which makes up its very fabric, and that can only be exposed from as close an examination of the human mind and society as that which he applies here. The intricate tree mural painted on the side of a brick building in the final shot is the perfect conclusion to this, with each sequential jump cut bringing us closer to the painted bricks where its ugly details come into view. There is certainly some awe-inspiring beauty lost in a study of humanity as intensive as Mon Oncle d’Amerique, and yet in the formal cohesion of such unconventional motifs, collaged narrative threads, and punctuative editing, Resnais devises a truly compelling piece of dense, intellectual poetry, dedicated to our most unifying quirks and habits.

The idea of something taking on a completely different appearance and impression from when you look at it from a distance versus when you study it closely – this applies to the bookended mosaic, this mural, Resnais’ characters, and the film as a whole. A fitting coda.

Mon Oncle d’Amerique is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.


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