While Claude Jutra himself may have fallen into posthumous obloquy,* his most famous work is still acclaimed as one of the high points of Canadian cinema. One element of its success is its complex evocation of the recent past, suffused both with a warm nostalgia and a bitter anti-nostalgia, but whereas a lesser film might have hedged its bets in complacent, calculated ambiguity designed to secure the widest possible appeal, Jutra and his co-writer Clément Perron opt finally for an unambiguous rejection of the tradition and patriarchy that nostalgia fetishizes. This rejection has political implications; Mon oncle Antoine may be a historical film, but in examining the past, it remains attuned both to the present and to the interval between. Readers should be aware that key incidents in the story-line are discussed freely below, so don’t read on if spoilers bother you.
The action takes place in a Québec mining town at some point between the end of World War II and the Asbestos Strike of 1949, which challenged the authority of reactionary premier Maurice Duplessis (who gets a nod with some obscene graffiti on a toilet wall) and the English-speaking mine owners. Jutra was born in 1930, which would make him roughly contemporaneous with the young protagonist, Benoît, but although there may be some element of autobiographical identification here, the director was a native of Montreal unfamiliar with the film’s milieu. The material for the story came from the reminiscences of Perron, who was a year older than Jutra, and who grew up in one of the asbestos towns. It is tempting to see the screenplay’s dual authorship, by an insider and an outsider, as an influence on the film’s alternately warm and biting portrayal of the community, but nostalgia and its opposite are not to be assigned neatly to either writer: the insider who has left their place of upbringing can cast on it an eye both sentimental and scornful, while the outsider can find the unfamiliar scene both charming and repulsive. Here we have the jolly spirit of Christmas celebrations, the joy of engagements being announced, the fun of snow fights, but also the disapproving gossip, the retreat into alcoholism, the sense of hopelessness and frustration. The salient features of this way of life are incisively presented in the film’s ten minutes. During the opening credits sequence, we see smoky, misty, grimy images of the town and the asbestos mine that dominates it; a stream of black waste shoots down from an enormous black mound, and as the background comes into focus, we see that the landscape has other such huge waste mounds. After a scene in which we are introduced to the character of Jos Poulin, an embittered miner, we watch his truck drive furiously along the road; as it passes, the camera zooms in on a waste mound looming in the background, the connection made between industrial waste and the lives of those whose work produces it. With the next scene cutting to an open cask funeral, the connection takes in death as well, and we can see that the deceased, though not young, did not reach a great age: a premature demise, it is implied, being the likely end of those who work at the asbestos mine. From the town’s major employer, we move to its other great governing institution, the church, and there is no indication of it being a particularly positive force in the community, for the greatest comfort the priest can offer the widow is a comment about the plentiful offerings for a mass guaranteeing repose for dead man’s soul. Money is what matters here, and appearance (as expressed by the undertaker’s admonition to his assistant to straighten his hat). The widow’s face is expressionless, exhausted; the chatter of the other mourners hushed and polite; the whole thing is an empty ritual. The next scene presses the point further: as he packs away, the undertaker pries a rosary from the dead man’s hands and removes a fake suit from the corpse, while his assistant sings and hums disrespectfully. The scene ends with a briefly lingering shot of the coffin through a doorway, before cutting to a little pan of a cluster of beer bottles at a bar; the chain of associations takes in work, waste, death, religion and now alcohol. At the end of the bar scene, during which Jos Poulain tells his colleagues of his intention to quit the mine, the camera zooms through the window to focus on the church below, recalling the earlier zoom on the waste mound and bringing the associative chain full circle.
Not everything in this town is as bleak as these opening scenes imply. A much warmer atmosphere is present in the general store owned by the undertaker, who is the Uncle Antoine of the title. On Christmas Eve, the townspeople gather at the front of the building to witness the unveiling of the festive window display, and then go inside to drink and talk. A young couple announce their engagement, Antoine’s wife Cécile sings a traditional song with accompaniment from the guests, the alcohol flows convivially: here the film allows a certain a degree of nostalgia as it looks back and admits that, yes, the old sense of community is something to look back on fondly and its fading is to be regretted. Even here, however, there are darker elements: a callous father who has abandoned his daughter Carmen with Antoine and Cécile turns up to claim his share of her wages, while the entry of Alexandrine, a local ‘scandalous’ wife, occasions the censorious looks and whispers of petty parochial bigotry. The reaction of Antoine and Cécile to these incidents, though, shows them in a positive light, as they display sympathy to Carmen, contempt to her father, and not a hint of narrow-mindedness to Alexandrine. Conservative, religious societies such as Duplessis-era Québec, tend to idealize the family, but the family unit formed by Antoine, Cécile, Benoît and Carmen does not fit the conventional model. Antoine and Cécile are ageing and childless, Carmen lives with them without having been formally adopted, while Benoît’s backstory is not discussed (is Antoine really his uncle, as per the title, or is this merely a term of address?). Existing in an indeterminate space on the margins of this quartet is the likeable but shiftless helping hand Fernand (played by Jutra himself), who lusts after Cécile. The Poulins are the story’s other family, the couple’s five children forming a contrast with Antoine and Cécile’s lack of children. The Poulins are unhappy―the wife seems worn down by her struggles, the husband recklessly abandons his job to work on a far-off logging site (which perhaps marks him as potentially capable of the kind of abandonment performed by Carmen’s father)―but not unloving: Elise can’t bear to part in anger, so calls Jos back for sex in the hay. The exemplary Catholic family is represented by the nativity models in the store’s window display, and if neither of the film’s flesh-and-blood families live up to Biblical example (although Jos Poulin’s first name echoes that of St. Joseph), the evident love that the two couples have for one another, precarious and strained though it may be in both instances, serves as a rejection of a rigidly conformist ideal of the family.
The film’s detailed depiction of its social milieu is part of its strategy of refusing to identify fully with its main character’s point of view. This may be a coming-of-age story, but it is not only through Benoît’s eyes that we see the town, for the film is very consciously looking back, both critically and nostalgically, from a vantage point that takes in the present (i.e. the beginning of the 1970s), and this backward look can’t be simplified as Benoît’s own memory because he is absent in several important scenes. For all the film’s cutaways of Benoît observing the action, they do not imply definitive identification with him; rather, a selective use of his perspective co-exists with a more distanced one, which takes in Benoît himself as an object of scrutiny, sometimes critically. Very early on, his role as wry observer is established as he leans by the door watching his uncle and Fernand pack away at the funeral, smiling slightly. As the sheet is drawn over the corpse, there is a cut to Benoît obscuring his face behind a black church book (representative item of religion and genteel public ritual), followed by a cut to the upper lid being screwed onto the coffin―three acts of covering (and covering of the eyes) in quick succession. Just before that cut to Benoît, as Antoine draws the sheet, Fernand looks in Benoît’s direction (a glance apparently returned in the next shot); the look seems significant, but of what? Is it a kind of warning? A demand that Benoît acknowledge that he is witnessing something important, secret, or forbidden? Is it in response to this look that Benoît covers his face? After the lid is screwed down, there’s a cut back to Benoît, who now looks up, determined to continue observing; later on, he eagerly volunteers to accompany Antoine in collecting another corpse, without showing any acknowledgement of the gravity of death and tragedy of a life cut short. Throughout the film, Benoît sees things he is not meant to see: the parish priest swigging from the communion wine,** his uncle drinking alone, his uncle and aunt flirting affectionately with each other, Carmen trying on a wedding veil, Alexandrine trying on a new corset, his uncle debasing himself in drunken self-pity, Fernand and Cécile in flagrante, the Poulin family grieving over the mistreated body of their eldest son Marcel. Through his observations, Benoît perhaps arrives at a deeper understanding of life’s disappointments and betrayals (it’s not really disillusionment as he’s not a character with many illusions), but there is a degree of perversity suggested by his voyeurism, combined with a streak of moralism and evasion of personal responsibility.
Jutra and Perron complicate their generally sympathetic portrayal of Benoît in several instances. Carmen condemns his spying on Alexandrine, and though Benoît and his fellow voyeur Maurice may think of it as no more than a harmless prank, the fact that the object of their prurience is also the object of the town’s prudery undercuts the surface comedy, suggesting that the attitudes are two sides of the same coin.*** Later, when Antoine and Benoît are at the Poulin house, having gone there to fetch the dead boy’s body, Benoît is disgusted by his uncle’s noisy, immoderate consumption of food and alcohol. An extreme wide-angle lens is used to film from Benoît point of view, but although we are seeing Antoine through Benoît’s eyes (the camera also tilts and pans to suggest the movement of his head, while heightened sound makes us hear with his ears), the exaggeration ought to caution us against complete acceptance of his judgement. There is no doubt that Antoine’s behaviour is insensitive (a shared glance with Elise implies she too is unimpressed), but might not Benoît’s silent condemnation be a little excessive? After all, Antoine has travelled far in freezing weather, and at short notice on Christmas Eve, with the return journey still ahead; it is not unreasonable that he should expect a bite to eat, while Benoît’s refusal to touch the food that Elise has prepared isn’t necessarily more commendable. On the way home, with his uncle asleep, Benoît gets carried away while driving the horse, causing the box containing the dead Marcel to fall off the back of the sleigh (an event foreshadowed earlier in the film when a case of beans falls off a cart, to be scavenged by the Poulins). Unable to drag the box back to the sleigh, a plastered, pathetic Antoine breaks down and bares his soul, confessing to having feared the dead throughout all his years as an undertaker. Not only does Benoît react with a total lack of compassion, he also keeps quiet about his own role in the mishap, for it was he who asked to tag along when he wasn’t needed, and now, having ignored Antoine’s earlier warning about pushing the horse too far, he cannot admit responsibility for his reckless actions. Even when he arrives at the store, with Antoine dead drunk on the sleigh and the box left behind in the snow, Benoît hides the truth; all his condemnation is directed at the adults, without any examination of his own conduct. His contempt for Cécile and Fernand when he discovers them in a compromising position is not endorsed by the film, which shows the pair genuinely happy after having slept together (neither of them mistakes their fling for a grand passion). Benoît may have learned something about the failings of the adults he has been taught to respect and obey, but there is more for him to learn yet: the severity of his judgement of individuals is accompanied by only the beginnings of a critical stance towards social and political structures (a revision of that severity may even be necessary to the development of a wider critique). Jutra and Perron, by not sentimentalising or identifying too closely with their protagonist, are able to adopt a more forgiving attitude to adult shortcomings, without excusing or overlooking them―a retrospective softening that does not entail any loss of political force.
The film’s close is an intimation of the undermining of the old order. A returning Jos Poulin has found the body of his son discarded in the snow; his wife and surviving children join him around Marcel’s corpse in grief and anger, observed through the window by Benoît, who must know that the scandal will have serious consequences for Antoine’s business. The tableau is a parody of the nativity scene that Cécile and Carmen install in the window display, which itself ends in a minor humiliation as the curtain comes crashing down as soon as it opens. Cécile mentions that the model Jesus (which we don’t see) was dropped in an accident, explaining its unattractive appearance; the accident links it with both Marcel, stuffed awkwardly into a box that’s too small for him, and Benoît, who has his arm in a cast. Hovering over the model nativity is a grotesquely oversized Santa, and the film gives us two bad Santas in the form of the mine owner and Antoine: the first tosses cheap Christmas gifts to his employees without raising pay, the second arrives on a sleigh to take a package away instead of delivering it. The blasphemous image of the Poulins thumbs its nose at three institutions of the town: the church, the general store, and the mine (by the presence of Jos, who quits his job and rails against the English bosses). The institutions of the town are also those of the province: Catholicism, small businesses and plutocratic capitalism. The political significance isn’t what Benoît sees, however, for as his gaze passes from each member of the family, one by one, it lingers on the daughter with sexual interest; this horny teen’s political awakening must come later (another instance of the film distancing itself from the main character’s perspective even as it seems, on the surface, to share it). His most rebellious act is to join Maurice as the latter pelts the mine owner’s horse with snowballs; though he claims credit for the stunt to win Carmen’s approval, Benoît doesn’t actually throw any snowballs himself, protesting to Maurice that his injured arm renders him incapable (he ignores his friend’s exhortation to use his other arm). In Benoît we are shown just the first stirrings of the radicalism that, by 1971, had sufficiently shaken the forces of reaction to enable the release of a film such as Mon oncle Antoine, and if the film ends with that radical project in its adolescence or even infancy, there is no reason to suppose that the years since the Asbestos Strike have seen it completed; thus the film, far from being an escapist retreat into the past, is an intervention in the political ferment of Québec of the early 70s. For this reason I reject the idea, advanced by a few critics, that Jos Poulin represents a vision of Benoît’s future: broken, bitter and restless. Benoît might have turned into a version of Jos had the ideology of Duplessis maintained its dominance―but too much has changed for that. Mon oncle Antoine is anything but a defeatist film; for all its reflectiveness, it is also a call for continued action.
*Revelations in 2016 of child abuse were a major controversy in Canada, but I had quite forgotten about them when I watched Mon oncle Antoine for the first time. Is there something suspect about the way Jutra shoots his young lead actor? I couldn’t detect anything on a second viewing, so I see no reason why the film should be condemned on account of its director’s crimes. The removal of his name from streets, parks and the awards that were established in his honour is, of course, another matter, and entirely proper; the defences made by some of his friends and collaborators are wretched.
**Benoît watches the priest through a doorway and makes a mock sign of the cross, an insolent action typical of his attitude to the church. Earlier, Benoît himself drinks from the same bottle and eats a communion wafer. He serves as an altar boy, presumably at the insistence of Antoine and Cécile, but this respectable role in the religious life of the community doesn’t interest him, and he is plainly bored by having to assist the priest.
***It must be said, however, that the film doesn’t grant Alexandrine a personality of her own; her clichéd presentation is a flaw.