Mon Oncle D’Amerique (1980)

“The hierarchy of dominance has been established.”

The film Mon Oncle D’Amerique (My American Uncle) explores events in the lives of three diverse characters against the backdrop of a psychological explanation for their actions. The film’s premise is that our behaviour–which may often seem inexplicable and irrational–is deeply rooted in childhood and also affected by the basic, predictable rules of conditioning.

The first half hour of the film introduces its three main characters–Jean (Roger Pierre) Rene (Gerard Depardieu) and Janine (Nicole Garcia). They have wildly different upbringings and values, and are immeasurably influenced by film stars they watched as children. All three characters have the shadowy figure of a legendary American uncle in their past, whose long-forgotten adventures are shrouded in rumours of disaster and success. Jean is one of the privileged upper classes and brought up with a respect for education and property. He is also a consummate politician who loathes to disturb the status quo. Rene is the son of a peasant farmer, and he’s raised in a catholic household, taught to obey, and his father abhors education. Rene’s peasant childhood never leaves him. Firmly ensconced in the hierarchy of factory life, he is all too well aware that he is fully expendable. Janine, on the other hand, is raised as a militant communist, attending rallies, and questioning authority figures, and because she’s much more used to conflict, she successfully reinvents herself twice throughout the course of the film.

Flashes of the personal histories of these three characters are woven into explanations of behaviorist theory from Professor Henri Laborit. Laborit proffers experiments involving rats (and warning here–they are electrocuted in order for Laborit to make his point), and then he extrapolates his results to humans. He argues that humans are “no less complicated than laboratory rats. What is easy for a rat in a cage is more difficult for man in society.” He conducts experiments to show inhibition behaviour, aggression, and defensive violence, and then scenes from the film underscore Laborit’s arguments.

The film’s first half hour provides the necessary background for the rest of the film, and it may bore some viewers to tears. Simply put, the film explains fundamental elements of human behaviour, and this is achieved so visually, that once watched and absorbed, it will never be forgotten. Mon Oncle D’Amerique directed by Alain Resnais is not a particularly easy–or traditional–film, but on the other hand, if you enjoy French film with a strong philosophical or psychological foundation, then there’s an excellent chance you’ll enjoy Mon Oncle D’Amerique. It’s one of my great favourites. In French with English subtitles.

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Filed under Alain Resnais, France, Gerard Depardieu

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