6 March 2021

Claude Jutra's Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

 Claude Jutra's Mon oncle Antoine is set in the 1940s in Black Lake, Québec, near Thetford Mines, one of the main places in which the asbestos strikes began in 1949, which were later (when the film was in fact made) due to change the course of the history of the province in the 'Révolution tranquille'.

The bland title 'Mon oncle Antoine' is a little cutesy, but it's hiding behind the real nature of this important film in the history the cinema of Québec. Antoine (Jean Duceppe) is in his sixties and runs the magasin général in the village with his slightly younger wife Cécile (Olivette Thibault), and this shop is the focal meeting point of the village, of much more interest than the almost deserted church.

But virtually the whole film is seen from the eyes of the adolescent Benoît (Jacques Gagnon), who grows in intellectual and moral maturity within a very short space of time. He's an orphan taken in by his aunt Cécile (Olivette Thibault) and uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) who don't have any children of their own but also have another teenager living with them: Carmen (Lyne Champagne), whose money-grabbing absent father just returns to take her earnings from the shop and promptly goes away.

There are two funerals which sandwich the events: one of an old man when Benoît is in effect a child, and another a very short time after of a child Benoît's age, but by which time Benoît has rapidly aged. The second death is in an isolated area where the husband Jos Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve) represents the only element of true rebellion: he refuses to work in the asbestos mine with the exploitative English-speaking boss and sometimes chooses freedom by going off to be a logger.

The film, in two scenes (one towards the beginning and another at the end), shows two very different worlds in a similar perspective: the general store at Christmas reveals (through the shop window) figures clustered around the crib for the nativity scene at the birth of Christ, and then the finish shows Benoît looking into the poor home of the Poulin family, all looking at the dead son in the box coffin 'lost' by the drunken Antoine.

This is a very powerful film representing an important part of Québec's history, although Jutra's reputation since 2016 has been seriously tainted by the revelation in Yves Lever's book of Jutra's paedophilia, which shook many people and inevitably resulted in a re-evaluation of Québec's attitude towards him.

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