Mon oncle Antoine
August 20, 2008
For the last 25 years, Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971) has been regarded as the “best Canadian film ever made” by film scholars, critics and directors. His film is a classic coming-of-age story set in rural Quebec during the 1940s. Jutra got his start making short films when he was a teenager and worked with famous animator Norman McLaren at the National Film Board of Canada. Jutra went on to make several independent films before making Mon oncle for the NFB to great acclaim.
Set in an asbestos-mining town in Quebec during Christmas, Mon oncle is a slice of French Canadian life. Two things dominate this town: the mine and the church with the former providing the primary source of income and the latter giving everyone something to believe in during tough times. Right from the get-go, the young boy Benoit (Gagnon) sees the morticians recycling clothes from a recently deceased relative and also spots the priest of his family’s church drinking hard liquor from a bottle – two glaring hypocrisies that begin to erode his innocence.
Benoit’s family runs the local general store where he helps out, stocking the shelves. Carmen, the cute girl who works in the store has a crush on Benoit and represents his sexual awakening. Mon oncle is largely plotless with an emphasis on characters. Jutra really conveys a sense of community in this town where everybody knows each other. He shows how the death of one of Benoit’s friends not only affects him but others in the town.
While Mon oncle is certainly a well-shot film, it is a little baffling as to why it is regarded as the “best Canadian film ever made.” It is a little on the dull side with glacial pacing and very little character development except for Benoit. The main problem I have with this film is that the characters aren’t very interesting. Jutra doesn’t give us any reason to care about what happens to them and this is Mon oncle’s fatal flaw. I’ve lived in Canada for most of my life and I don’t think that this film is the best that Canada has to offer. If you really want to see something that has that Canadian flavor, I recommend films by Bruce McDonald, most notably Roadkill (1989), Highway 61 (1991) and Hard Core Logo (1996), or Gary Burns’ Waydowntown (2000). However, Mon oncle’s legacy speaks for itself. It went on to influence other Canadian coming-of-age film like Who Has Seen the Wind (1977), Leolo (1992), and New Waterford Girl (1999).
The first disc features a theatrical trailer.
Disc two starts off with “On Screen: Mon oncle Antoine,” a 2007 documentary that examines the making of the film. It provides biographical details on Jutra from scholars. It also briefly examines his early films and how they paved the way for Mon oncle. The doc traces the film’s origins and the challenges Jutra faced while making it.
“Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story” is a 2002 documentary about the director featuring the likes of filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci and actors Saul Rubinek and Genevieve Bujold talking about him. The doc examines Jutra’s mysterious disappearance in 1986. This is a fine, in-depth portrait of the man’s life and career.
Finally, there is “A Chairy Tale,” an experimental short film directed by Jutra and Norman McLaren. It offers a glimpse of the director early in his career and also features music by Ravi Shankar.