This week, with festivities in the air, Adam Batty takes a look at Claude Jutra’s 1971 French Canadian classic, Mon Oncle Antoine.
Jutra’s Christmas-set tale of life in rural Quebec provides a wonderful and unique spin on the festive movie. The story of Benoit, a 15-year old boy who works in his uncle’s general store, Mon Oncle Antoine follows him one Christmas Eve, in which Benoit accompanies the titular character to pick up the dead body of a local teenage boy. Somehow, in spite of this rather gloomy sounding set of events, Mon Oncle Antoine manages to capture the heart and soul of the festive period in a timeless and wholly convincing manner.
Granted, Jutra’s film is a tad macabre; the tale of a young boy confronting death and mortality for the first time would struggle not to be, but the atmosphere of the Canadian asbestos mining town and the folk surrounding it create a Christmas feeling like no other. One such moment comes in the scene in which the owner of the mine, and self-declared Santa Claus, makes his way through the village of his workers, handing out token gifts on sleigh back. The character, pre-empting the spirit of Montgomery Burns almost 20 years before The Simpsons, cuts a sinister figure as he makes his way through the centre of town, with the townsfolk react accordingly, bombarding him with snowballs and the like. It is this wit and playfulness that draws the overwhelming sense of heart through the picture. It gives the theoretically depressing subject matter the positive spin required to craft the affirmative tale at hand.
Claude Jutra, who not only writes and directs, also appears on-screen as Benoit’s nemesis, fellow store clerk Fernand, the key source of narrative friction within Mon Oncle Antoine. Fernand’s relationship with a member of Benoit’s family sees the relative contextual harmony of the scenario unravel, with all manner of issues coming to a head late one Christmas Eve.
In spite of the relative discontent at hand, the beauty of the frozen landscapes of rural Quebec form the over-riding point of note. Mon Oncle Antoine is set in the period prior to the asbestos strike of the late 1940’s, politically a moment of great displacement within Canada. Obviously, being that the film was made with the benefit of hindsight almost 40 years on from the events of the films setting, Jutra weaves in an arresting commentary on life within the confines of Duplessis-era Quebec. Tradition forms the backbone of the social order of town life, which is in turn thematically shattered by the third act revelations involving Fernand. Jutra himself is actively stepping in to the picture and throwing the order of the town into chaos, in turn echoing the sentiments of the opening scenes of the film, again charting the plight between employer and employee.
The unusual setting of an asbestos mining town, its white particles providing a festive sheen to the locale for the whole of the calendar provides this slightly unusual tale with the perfect locale. There is one particular scene in the film which is forever embedded in my mind, and wholly sums up the appeal of Mon Oncle Antoine. Benoit, Antoine, and the rest of the store’s staff hectically prepare the store in the run up to the unveiling of the store window display on Christmas Eve, a town tradition. The sight of school children and miners making their way to the general store, filled with the expectation, hope and excitement that this time of year brings with it is captured in this largely dialogue free sequence.
My first screening of Mon Oncle Antoine took place in the middle of a scorching hot summer some years ago, having heard the film labeled as a part of the juvenile delinquent sub-genre of which the likes of The 400 Blows and Maurice Pialat’s L’enfance-Nue are part of, and while mid-August wasn’t necessarily the ideal setting for such a film (beside a log fire on Christmas Eve would be that), that the film holds up outside of December is a huge compliment. Alongside Die Hard, Blast Of Silence and perhaps It’s A Wonderful Life (of which there is a case for viewing as film noir) Mon Oncle Antoine is a part of the ranks of Christmas films whose appeal extends beyond the festive period.
Twice named as the greatest Canadian film of all time by Sight & Sound magazine, Mon Oncle Antoine has also topped the TIFF poll on consecutive decades since release, and while I may not agree with the overwhelming praise entirely (Guy Maddin occupies too big a space in my heart for such bold claims to ring true) Mon Oncle Antoine is a wonderfully crafted tale bound to appeal to even the most discerning of viewers at this time of year.
Adam Batty is the Editor of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, and can be found on Twitter.