When I hear a film described as a "coming of age" tale, I usually find a way to get out of reviewing it. Like virtually every film set in high school (Hollywood or independent), I find nothing in the film that even feels remotely familiar.
"Mon oncle Antoine" (1971) is no exception on this front. Benoit (Jacques Cagnon) is a teenager growing up in a rural Quebec town in the 1940s. He works in the general store owned by his uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) which explains the title. As in most "coming of age" tales, Benoit finds love, confronts death and is generally horrified at his first peak into the world of fallible, corruptible adults. His reaction to all of this is quite alien to me: a stoicism that borders on catatonia occasionally punctuated by moments of childlike joy over odd things like a trip to retrieve a dead body.
Fortunately, "Mon oncle Antoine" is much more than a coming of age story. It's also a portrait of quotidian life in small town Quebec with an attention to detail and a sensitivity that is a reflection of the compassion brought to the subject by director Claude Jutra and writer Clément Perron. Most of the men in town have two equally unappealing choices of vocation: lumberjacking, or working in the asbestos mine that dominates the town's economic and social life. Every day sirens go off to warn citizens that it is time to take cover from an impending dynamite charge.
The film is set in the days running up to Christmas. In one of the pivotal and liveliest scenes, the mine's English-speaking boss, in lieu of actually providing his workers with a raise, rides through down tossing scraps of meat as gifts to the local children, making him the worst excuse for Santa Claus since Mr. Burns showered toxic waste on the citizens of Springfield at the Christmas parade. Benoit and his friend take advantage of the freedom afforded them by their pre-work age, and throw snowballs at the boss' horse, sending him scrambling for cover. As the two boys walk through the street, they are greeted by the silent admiration of the adults who can't risk showing open rebellion to their de facto slave master.
It's moments like this that make "Mon oncle Antoine" sparkle. Also, though Benoit is the protagonist, many characters come to life vividly in the film: Benoit's itinerant father, his aunt, and especially Fernand. Played by Claude Jutra himself, Fernand is an employee at the general store who isn't shy about flirting with Benoit's much older aunt who is both devoted to her husband and turned on by the attentions of a handsome younger man.
Quebecois cinema is a substantial but insular world. These films often thrive in Quebec but receive little play in any other country, and frequently fail to reach even the rest of Canada. There is quite a bit of bitterness produced by the National Film Board's perceived failure to provide adequate funding to Quebecois cinema relative to other Canadian films, and even the Quebec filmmakers who do get funded are pressured to make their films more commercial, i.e. less Quebecois. A recent breakthrough provided an exception when the bilingual Quebec crime flick "Bon Cop, Bad Cop" became the highest-grossing Canadian produced film ever. Can you guess what the previous record holder was? I guarantee you've heard of it (it was not a Quebecois film). Answer below.
According to André Loiselle, "Mon oncle Antoine" has long been voted as the best Canadian film ever made by Canadian critics. I expect this is because the film evokes such a specific sense of time and place, capturing the essence of a sleepy but thriving town filled with believable and well-fleshed out characters. To my taste, Benoit's adolescent angst is the least interesting aspect of the film. There are as many potential films here as there are characters and it's easy to imagine Jutra revisiting the same material over and over with different characters serving as the protagonist.
Jutra's career peaked with "Antoine" and his tale is ultimately a tragic one which I will discuss more in the Extras section below. For his fans, that only makes this film that much more precious.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The progressive transfer is clean and sharp, though not quite Criterion perfect. The transfer looks ever-so slightly washed out in a few scenes which is probably due to the source print. It's still an excellent product.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. An English dubbed track is available in addition to the French audio. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
Disc One offers the option of listening to the film in an English-dubbed version that is so phenomenally bad I recommend you listen to at least a few minutes before forgetting it even exists.
Disc Two has three very strong features.
"A Chairy Tale" is a short film (1957, 10 min) that Jutra co-directed with Norman McLaren. It's an experimental comedy in which a man (Jutra) tries to sit on a chair. The chair has other ideas. It's a cute bit which is made even better by the effective use of Ravi Shankar music, long before Shankar became the popular groovy guru of the 60s.
"On Screen! ‘Mon Oncle Antoine'" (2007, 47 min) is a television documentary directed and produced by Tristan Orchard. Cast and crew from the movie are interviewed along with locals from the town where it was filmed.
Both of these are very good extras, but the last one is the gem of the collection. "Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story" (2002, 82 min) is directed by Paule Baillargeon, a friend of Jutra's. Jutra, suffering from Alzheimer's and despondent over a lack of available projects, committed suicide on Nov 5, 1986 at the age of 56. Baillargeon's documentary traces the roots of his tragic end but, more importantly, celebrates his life and his legacy. Jutra had a difficult go after hitting it big with "Mon oncle Antoine." He was forced at one point to move to Toronto and start making English-language films, something he never felt comfortable doing. This is an informative and touching portrait of a director few people know much about. It's also one of the best features Criterion has offered this year, and would be worthy of its own separate release.
The insert booklet includes an essay by André Loiselle.
"Mon oncle Antoine's" depiction of small town life in Quebec is thoroughly compelling. The performances in this film are excellent across the board, especially director Claude Jutra's. This is not a plot-driven movie, but rather one in which the characters are free to be real people and their situations develop organically. Jutra was obviously a director who loved actors and gave them free reign to create their own roles. Jutra and writer Perron craft some unforgettable "small" moments that loom large in your memory after the film is over.
In answer to the trivia question above, the highest grossing Canadian-produced film of all time before "Bon Cop, Bad Cop" was… Porky's (1982.)