Director: Claude Jutra
Starring: Jacques Gagnon, Jean Duceppe, Helene Loiselle, Lionel Villeneuve
Mon Oncle Antoine is a Canadian classic, revered in many circles as the best Canadian film ever made. I’d heard about it for years but hadn’t seen it until recently and I must say that the praise which has been heaped on it over the years is very much deserved. This is one of those quiet little movies that weaves a spell on you without your even realizing it; a film that seems simple but has hidden depths. I couldn’t recommend it more.
The film follows 15-year-old Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), who lives in a rural Quebec town circa the mid-1940s. He lives with his uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) an aunt Cecile (Oliviette Thibault), as well as Carmen (Lyne Champagne), a boarder about Benoit’s age who works at Antoine and Cecile’s general store. Benoit’s life is relatively simple, seeming to consist solely of work, church, and thinking about women and ways to see them in various forms of undress. His life seems happy enough, though there’s an underlying restlessness. Benoit is on the threshold of becoming an adult, still a child in many ways but, as the film approaches its conclusion, events will transpire which will hasten his maturity. The turning point is when he accompanies Antoine, who is the town’s undertaker in addition to being the proprietor of the general store, to retrieve the body of a boy about his own age who has died of pneumonia.
The dead boy is part of the Poulin family, who figure prominently in the film. Jos Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve) is the head of the family, a proud man who resents the monopoly that English-Canadians and Americans have on the local industry. When we first meet him he’s working in the asbestos mine (which looms ominously over the town), engaged in what we assume to be a not uncommon quarrel with his boss, an Anglo who won’t speak french and wants his employees to speak english. Despite having a large family to support, Poulin walks away from the mine and accepts a position at a logging camp, insisting that things will be different now. His wife (Helene Loiselle) is doubtful and worried because it means that he’ll be away from home for months at a time, but she accepts his decision and carries on as best she can and tries to hold the family together.
Though ostensibly about Benoit’s coming-of-age, the film is also tracing the coming-of-age of the Quebecois through the Quiet Revolution and the subsequent increase in Quebecois autonomy within the province. While the film takes place prior to this period of massive social change, the attitudes which precipitated it can be read loud and clear in the story. Aside from Poulin’s troubles with Anglo authority, there are also hints of the coming change in Benoit’s relationship with Antoine. During their journey to retrieve the Poulin boy, Antoine breaks down, confessing to his nephew about the unhappiness in his life, revealing a passivity that seems to disturb Benoit. This increasingly fraught relationship between uncle and nephew is representative of a generational divide within Quebec society, when the coming generation would become active and bring about major changes at every level of society. The tragic figure in all this though is Poulin, caught between the outgoing and incoming generations and seemingly doomed to a lifetime of restlessness and discontent, waiting for the rest of society to catch up to him.
The film is written and directed by Claude Jutra (who also appears in a supporting role as a clerk at the general store) and unfolds at an easy pace. The picture he paints of this small town ruled by the mine and its owner, who in one scene rides through town magnanimously tossing Christmas gifts to the towns people until Benoit and a friend pelt him with snowballs, is finely etched, giving a firm sense of the community surrounding these characters. Gagnon is solid in the lead role, rendering a more nuanced performance than you would expect for someone so young, though the soul of the film is Loiselle. She infuses Madame Poulin with a quiet dignity and a sorrow that is haunting. For all the troubles expressed by the men in this film, it’s Madame Poulin’s mournful face that stays with you.