Friday, February 9, 2018

Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

 (This blog post is part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy)

Among Canadian films Mon oncle Antoine (1971) is legendary. Not only has it often been counted among the greatest Canadian films ever made, but among the greatest films made by any nation. Although it is still not particularly well known outside of Canada, Mon oncle Antoine is still highly respected internationally to this day.

For those unfamiliar with Mon oncle Antoine, it is set in rural Quebec at Christmastime in the late Forties. It centres around Benoit (played by Jacques Gagnon), a young orphan in his early teens. He lives with his Uncle Antoine (played by Jean Duceppe) and his Aunt Cécile (played by Olivette Thibault) and works in their general store. Benoit's Uncle Antoine is also the village's undertaker. Mon oncle Antoine unfolds over a 24 hour period, during which young Benoit grows up considerably.

For those unfamiliar with Canadian history, Mon oncle Antoine is set in a region of Quebec that was the centre of asbestos mining there. The film takes place during the period known as "La Grande Noirceur" (literally in English "the Great Darkness").  La Grande Noirceur refers to the period when Maurice Duplessis was the premier of Quebec and the province's politics were dominated by the conservative party called the Union Nationale. The Union Nationale favoured rural areas over urban areas, were extremely anti-Communist, and were also very anti-labour union. In fact, Maurice Durplessis's time as premier was marked by several strikes. Mon oncle Antoine takes place not long before the Asbestos Strike of 1949, when asbestos miners went on strike. Today the miner's demands (which included a small increase in wages and the elimination of asbestos dust in and outside the mills) would not seem particularly remarkable, but in Quebec in the Forties they were positively revolutionary. The strike would prove pivotal in the career of Pierre Trudeau.

Because of the time and place in which it is set, there is a small undercurrent of social and political commentary in Mon oncle Antoine. We see the resentment of the local Quebecers towards the "English" (actually English speaking Canadians, not people from England). We see the poverty and we see how hard their lives are. At its heart, however, Mon oncle Antoine is a coming of age story. In the course of 24 hours Benoit witnesses the pettiness of the villagers, hears his Uncle Antoine confess the regrets of his life, witnesses a sexual transgression, has his first real experience in dealing with death, and his first real experience with regards to sex. Mon oncle Antoine has often been called nostalgic and even heart warming, but it is also a film in which some rather dark undercurrents run throughout. At the time of its release some critics in Quebec were critical of Mon oncle Antoine because it departed from the province's history of direct cinema ( a documentary genre prevalent from 1958 to 1962) and that it did not deal with those political issues facing Quebec in the late Sixties and early Seventies. As it was, these criticisms largely fell on deaf ears.

Quite simply, Mon oncle Antoine received widespread critical acclaim immediately upon its release. It won the award for Best Feature at the 1971 Chicago International Film Festival. It was nominated for the Golden Prize at the 1971 Moscow Film Festival. It swept the Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), where it won eight different awards. Since then it has often been counted among the greatest Canadian films of all time. Sight & Sound twice voted it the best Canadian film ever made. The Toronto International Film Festival named it the greatest Canadian film three different times. In 1980 it was named the best film made in Quebec by Séquences magazine.

While Mon oncle Antoine would achieve critical acclaim and modest success upon its initial release, it was perhaps television that cemented its place as a classic in Canada. When the film made its television debut on Radio-Canada Télé in Quebec in October 1973, it garnered half of the audience. Mon oncle Antoine see similar successes when aired on the CBC.

Mon oncle Antoine remains counted among the greatest Canadian films of all time, although its director, Claude Jutra, has since been disgraced. In 2016, nearly thirty years after his death, allegations that he was a paedophile were published in the book Claude Jutra, biographie. Author Yves Lever offered no real evidence for the allegations, but then an interview with one of Jutra's alleged victims was published in La Presse. Awards, places, and streets named in his honour were swiftly renamed. As to Claude Jutra himself, he had committed suicide in 1986, after having been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease earlier in the decade.

If the allegations regarding Claude Jutra are true, certainly his actions are indefensible, and the rush to remove his name from awards, places, and streets is perfectly understandable. That having been said, it does not change the fact that Mon oncle Antoine remains an important achievement in Canadian film history. Claude Jutra may have been a monster, but he created a masterpiece.


Silver Screenings said...

Well, I think I will have to turn in my Canadian citizenship: I have never seen this film, but after reading your excellent essay, I bookmarked it on YouTube (courtesy of the NFB).

Quebec cinema, from what I've seen, is special and has a unique style. Therefore I'm glad you chose to highlight this legendary film. Honestly, I think a person could write a blog dedicated solely to Quebec filmmaking.

Thank you for joining the blogathon, and for prompting me to at last watch this much-heralded film.

Caftan Woman said...

I was certain I'd left a comment. It must be the Canadian winter driving me mad.

I am impressed with your knowledge and your look at all aspects of Mon Oncle Antoine and its place in Canadian culture and film history.

Kristina said...

It's been ages since I saw this and want to give it another watch now. Your posts are always a pleasure to read and learn from, thanks so much for being part of the blogathon!