Over on Letterboxd (have I plugged my letterboxd recently?) a group of users are taking on the task of watching 30 films from 30 different countries throughout the month of May. Which films specifically are up to the individual – the only caveat is that none of the movies can be re-watches. I’ve decided to throw my hat in the ring, despite May being a very busy month for me (aren’t they all, amiright?). Things aren’t off to a great start, as I only finished my first movie today. I’ll need to pick up the pace if I’m going to keep up. My plan of attack is to move from the westernmost point of the globe (based on our traditional map) to the easternmost point. The first country on my list is Canada, based on the Yukon-Alaska border.
My Canadian film is Mon oncle Antoine, a 1971 feature by Québécois director Claude Jutra. Like most of the films on my list it is available on Hulu via the Criterion Collection – so you automatically know that it allegedly lives up to a pretty high standard.
The movie follows a young boy named Benoît (Jacques Gagnon) as he matures in a Quebec mining town full of dissatisfied workers and a few oblivious members of the upper-class. Benoît works at Uncle (though it is not clear if there is any actual blood relation) Antoine’s general store with Antoine (Jean Duceppe), Antoine’s wife Cecile (Olivette Thibault), the clerk Fernand (Jutra), and a similarly young girl named Carmen (Lyne Champagne). Set in the late 30’s/early 40’s, the film does a good job of showing how disappointing life in the community can be. The movie depicts the conditions that led to a strike by the workers late in the 40’s, but those events do not actually occur on-screen. Instead, the film uses that context to show us a more personal story about Benoît’s transition from a boy to a young man.
The entire community rallies around Antoine’s general store. It is the only thing that they really have to celebrate, so – with the Christmas season in full swing – the small staff must prepare the shop for its usual status as the de facto salon (in the classical Italian sense, rather than the hair-cutteries to which that term is more commonly referred these days – though Cecile may cut hair, I don’t know). Everyone gathers to drink, gossip, lie – and Benoît’s sees it all, seemingly for the first time. He is beginning to enter that phase of life where the idea of the way things should be gives way to the reality of the way things are. Benoît is forced to accept a lot of hard truths: religion may not hold all the answers he expected, the rich have all of the power, the pretty girl won’t always reciprocate your advances, death is not discerning, and that lovable uncle you once thought could do no wrong is actually a helpless drunk.
In the 21st century these revelations are often reserved for college, where stoned teenagers can talk about how their parents are just regular people, man. For Benoît, these realizations are a necessity for survival. Life in the shadow of the asbestos mine is hard, and if you don’t wise up fast, then you may not make it very far. Benoît becomes more aware and self-sufficient as the film progresses, but there is a palpable sense of loss. As soon as it becomes clear that Benoît’s joy must now be reserved for his dreams, we mourn for the boy who now has no choice but to be a man, just as the families mourn for those whose deaths most likely have more than a little to do with their proximity to the mine.
The movie is an effective drama, but Jutra and writer Clément Perron also manage to throw in some moments of comedy, particularly an excellent sequence where Benoît and a friend pelt the mine owner’s horse with snowballs, causing it to carry the owner away, to the concealed delight of the townspeople. The scene is modeled after the type of showdown you might see in a Western, down to the music. But even these moments of triumph and excitement are tinged with encroaching reality – in one scene Benoît and Carmen chase each other around the story’s attic, but their joy is starkly contrasted by the numerous coffins lining the room.
Mon oncle Antoine is an engaging coming of age movie, that also gives tremendous insight into the social norms of the day. Even an (at times) overbearing score from Jean Cousineau and general sound issues are not enough to detract from the story Jutra presents here. Unfortunately I can tell that there is a good amount of rural Canadian subtext that I’m not picking up on due to a woeful (eh, I don’t really care) lack of Quebec context (Quebext. Nope, that doesn’t work). Maybe one day, when I’m rich and only work an hour a day I can finally catch up on the history of Canada’s mining industry. Then I can come back to Mon oncle Antoine and really experience the atmosphere. But for now, Benoît’s story is intriguing enough.