My American Uncle
Mon oncle d'Amérique (English: My American Uncle or My Uncle from America) is a 1980 French film directed by Alain Resnais with a screenplay by Jean Gruault. The film juxtaposes a comedy-drama narrative with the ideas of Henri Laborit, the French surgeon, neurobiologist, philosopher and author. Its principal actors are Gérard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia, and Roger Pierre.
|My American Uncle|
Theatrical release poster (artwork: Enki Bilal)
|Directed by||Alain Resnais|
|Produced by||Philippe Dussart|
|Written by||Jean Gruault|
|Based on||writings by Henri Laborit|
|Music by||Arié Dzierlatka|
|Edited by||Albert Jurgenson|
Henri Laborit gives an introduction to the physiology of the brain, and also briefly describes his own background. Summary biographies of three fictional characters are given in parallel to his own: Jean Le Gall is born into a comfortable middle-class family on an island in the gulf of Morbihan in Brittany and pursues a career in radio and politics; Janine Garnier, daughter of left-wing working-class parents in Paris, runs away from home to become an actress, but later switches career to be a fashion adviser; René Ragueneau rebels against the old-fashioned outlook of his farming family in Torfou, in Maine-et-Loire, and studies accountancy before becoming an executive in a textile factory in Lille; a company merger forces him to take a new job in Cholet, away from his wife and children.
Laborit expounds his ideas on four main types of animal behaviour, grounded respectively in consumption, escape, struggle, and inhibition. The lives of the three fictional characters intersect at various points (Jean in an affair with Janine, René negotiating with Janine about the future of his job) and each of them faces moments of critical life-changing decision. At these moments they are seen as self-identifying with the image of a popular star in French cinema (Jean with Danielle Darrieux, Janine with Jean Marais, and René with Jean Gabin).
Laborit comments on the conflicts arising from pursuit of dominance among individuals and defensive reactions to it, and reflects on the need for better understanding of the human brain.
Resnais first met Laborit when the latter, an admirer of L'Année dernière à Marienbad, asked to work with him on a short documentary film for a pharmaceutical laboratory about a product to enhance the capacity of memory. That film was not financed, but the two men decided to explore the possibility of a feature film in which documentary would be mingled with fiction. Resnais began an extensive programme of immersing himself in Laborit's published works, to understand how the presentation of scientific reasoning might interact with fictional narrative in a dramatically interesting way while treating each type of material independently. Resnais commented on his plan in an interview: "Films or plays usually arise from a desire to develop an idea or theory through characters or through a story. I said to myself, 'Wouldn't it be fun to do just the opposite? To allow theory and fiction to coexist on the screen.'"
The screenwriter Jean Gruault developed the fictional strands, after reading all of Laborit's works himself, and in continual discussions with Resnais. This led to a screenplay in which three fictional characters would take Laborit's theories as their starting point but their interwoven stories would then develop in their own way. The process of writing the screenplay took one year.
Resnais also added the idea of using black-and-white extracts from old films to explore the way in which the characters might be influenced by models of behaviour embodied in certain well-known film actors, just as people sometimes admit to being influenced by books they have read or people they have met. Gruault made the choice of Danielle Darrieux, Jean Marais and Jean Gabin as the most likely ones to fit his three characters.
Filming took place in Paris and on location at Cholet and the Îles Logoden in Morbihan, Brittany. The budget was not sufficient to allow extensive studio filming and so existing locations were used but often completely transformed (e.g. a bank became the broadcasting offices).
The fictional stories were filmed in advance and independently of Laborit's contributions. At this stage Resnais did not know exactly what Laborit was going to say, although he had discussed with him the general themes which he would cover. Some very long shots were filmed in the stories to allow flexibility for Laborit's words to be added later. The editor Albert Jurgenson commented that the role of the editing process in the film was more important than usual, and the various elements were so complex that everything could not be foreseen in the planning; the film was thoroughly rebuilt at the editing stage.
In the film's epilogue a montage of travelling shots shows a landscape of abandoned and half-demolished buildings in the Bronx, New York, culminating on a starkly contrasted mural of a green tree painted on the side of one of the buildings, providing a moment of relief and pleasure. The camera then moves progressively closer to the mural in a series of shots, causing the whole image to disintegrate into its constituent parts until we can see only fragments of paint on the side of a single brick. Resnais explained that he wanted to show an image of the impossibility for the brain to understand things completely; the effort to create something and then an effort to destroy it were tendencies which seemed to fit the atmosphere of the film. The mural was "The American Forest" by the American artist and environmentalist Alan Sonfist.
When released in France the film achieved 1,378,207 admissions, and Resnais judged it to be one of the most popular films he had made. It was also one of his more successful films in the United States and it had a run of several months in New York.
The reception among press reviewers was mixed. In France critical observations included a view that the disparate elements of the film did not blend together satisfactorily or throw sufficient light upon each other, while there was also some concern expressed that the scientific arguments about the biological determinism of human actions and social phenomena were reactionary ideas which would give support to the politics of the 'new right'.
In English-language reviews there was a similar range of reaction, from warm appreciation of a humorous and witty entertainment to sceptical dissatisfaction with its apparent didacticism and the lack of integration between science and fiction
One issue which has been repeatedly discussed in assessments of the film is the extent to which the fictional stories are intended to illustrate the scientific account outlined by Laborit and whether Resnais is sharing and endorsing his theories, as some reviews have readily assumed. Some accounts have gone further by representing Laborit's remarks as comments on the behaviour of the three fictional characters in the stories. Elsewhere the view that Resnais and Laborit are expressing the same point of view has been challenged, and the case made that the structure of the film is a more complex arrangement of several component parts, of which Laborit's commentary is one, which need to be examined in relation to each other.
Resnais discussed this question in several interviews after the film's release and consistently made the point that while the film was deeply influenced by Laborit's ideas, it was not a presentation of them, nor a critique. For example: "... I didn't want the characters simply to illustrate [Laborit's ideas]. Nor did I conceive his role was to comment on the characters." "It is a film which is permeated by Laborit, for sure, but it is certainly not a systematic illustration of Laborit..." "I am not a biologist nor a philosopher nor a sociologist ... it would be stupid to say that these theories are mine. All the same, I very much like the definition which Henri Laborit gives of the unconscious ... for him it is all of our habits of thought, all our automatic responses". "We did not at any point seek to make his theories appear ridiculous. We have deep sympathy with Laborit. We did not want to offer a 'digest' of his work, nor to popularise it. He acts on our film as a catalyst."
Resnais further explained that his intention was to open up an enquiry and a dialogue with the spectator: "We produced the film upon a contradiction. We wanted it to be impregnated with the theses but to be independent of them as well. I think of it as a collage, with the fiction and the theses alongside each other; sometimes joining, sometimes diverging, sometimes even contradicting. The spectator is free to say that the characters are doing what Professor Laborit says, or that they are not doing what he says."
"Each spectator should experience the film in their own way, bringing into play their own memories and their own associations. What I want to offer them with Mon oncle d'Amérique are the elements - made as clear as possible - to allow them the freedom to construct the film as they prefer it, and to reconstruct themselves in the light of it. While being entertaining if possible."
Henri Laborit also spoke about the film in similar terms: "In Mon oncle d'Amérique my ideas are not there to explain the behaviour of characters to which they don't directly apply, but they help to decode them." He also commented on his own reaction to the film's presentation of his ideas: "Perhaps it covers in a slightly simplistic way the problems of general pathology - the manner in which inhibitions and anguish lead to distress and illnesses - but I quite understand that it's not dealing with a course of lectures! What I really like is the playful side of the film. At every moment you come up against something comic. And also cosmic."
- An abbreviated transcription of Henri Laborit's remarks in the film is given in a note at the end of the following article: Edward Kunz, "Henri Laborit and the inhibition of action", in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, March 2014, vol. 16(1), pp. 113–117. The full screenplay was published in L'Avant-scène cinéma, no. 263, 1 mars 1981.
- Robert Benayoun, Interview with Resnais in Alain Resnais, arpenteur de l'imaginaire. Paris: Éditions Ramsay, 2008. pp. 242-243.
- "How Resnais made a success with science", by Tom Buckley. In New York Times, 6 February 1981, section C, page 12. (Archived at the Wayback Machine 3 March 2020.)
- François Thomas, L'Atelier d'Alain Resnais. Paris: Flammarion, 1989. p. 48.
- "A filmmaker who seeks the unlikely", by Richard Eder. In New York Times, 26 April 1981, section 2, page 1. (Archived at the Wayback Machine 26 January 2018.)
- Robert Benayoun, Interview with Resnais in Alain Resnais, arpenteur de l'imaginaire. Paris: Éditions Ramsay, 2008. p. 245.
- Mon oncle d'Amérique: scénario de Jean Gruault pour Alain Resnais précédé d'entretiens avec Alain Resnais et Henri Laborit par Madeleine Chapsal. Paris: Éditions Albatros, 1980. p.18.
- The film extracts are taken from the following films. For Jean Marais: Les Chouans (1947); Pleins feux sur Stanislas (1965); L'Aigle à deux têtes (1948); Le Capitan (1960); Typhon sur Nagasaki (1957). For Jean Marais & Danielle Darrieux: Ruy Blas (1948). For Danielle Darrieux: L'Homme à femmes (1960); Mayerling (1936); Retour à l'aube (1938). For Jean Gabin: Gueule d'amour (1937); Les Grandes Familles (1958); La Belle Équipe (1936); Le Président (1961); Remorques (1941). (L'Avant-scène cinéma, no.263, 1 mars 1961: full screenplay.)
- Mon oncle d'Amérique at Ciné-Ressources (Tournage). Retrieved 3 June 2020.
- Jacques Saulnier (set designer) quoted in François Thomas, L'Atelier d'Alain Resnais. Paris: Flammarion, 1989. p. 112.
- Albert Jurgenson, quoted in François Thomas, L'Atelier d'Alain Resnais. Paris: Flammarion, 1989. pp. 205-206: "On ne peut pas dire que la construction de Mon oncle d'Amérique ait été établi au montage, mais elle a été profondément régénérée à ce moment-là".
- Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues & Jean-Louis Leutrat, Alain Resnais: liaisons secrètes, accords vagabonds. (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 2006). p. 234.
- Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues & Jean-Louis Leutrat, Alain Resnais: liaisons secrètes, accords vagabonds. (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 2006). p. 106.
- Alain Resnais films at Box Office Story (Retrieved 5 June 2020. Archived at the Wayback Machine 13 August 2019.)
- Interview with Nicholas Wapshott, "Resnais's continuing capacity to surprise", in The Times (London), 17 November 1980, p. 10.
- Michel Delain, in L'Express, 17-23 mai 1980: "...l'homme à la caméra et l'homme au microscope - l'un qui ne s'applique surtout pas à illustrer les thèses du biologiste et poursuit, imperturbable, son récit, et l'autre qui, de la même façon, laisse cheminer sa réflexion et ne se contente pas de commenter un film." ("... the man with the camera and the man with the microscope - the one who above all does not try to illustrate the arguments of the biologist and imperturbably pursues his narrative, and the other who, in the same way, lets his thoughts follow their path and does not content himself with commentating on a film.").
- Emmanuel Decaux, in Cinématographe, no. 58, 1980: "L'explication scientifique elle-même prise au piège devient un reflet supplémentaire, et non une réponse définitive." ("The scientific explanation, itself caught in a trap, becomes an additional reflection, and not a definitve reply.")
- Jean-Pierre Oudart, in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 314, juillet 1980: "Il y a dans ce film au moins deux films, mal mixés, une greffe qui ne prend pas, mais qui tient tout de même à une nécessité". ("There are in this film at least two films, badly mixed together, a grafting which doesn't take, but which adheres to its necessity all the same.")
- Françoise Lazard-Levaillant, in L'Humanité, 4 juin 1980: "...ce film illustre ces thèses réactionnaires, et le spectateur doit en être d'autant plus conscient que ses qualités lui assureront une grande diffusion". ("...this film gives illustration to these reactionary arguments, and the spectator needs to be all the more aware of that inasmuch as its qualities will guarantee it a wide distribution.")
- Vincent Canby, in New York Times, 17 December 1980, page C25: "... an exhilarating fiction... Almost any description of Mon Oncle d'Amerique tends to make it sound solemn though, in fact, it's immensely good-humored and witty." [Retrieved 9 June 2020]
- David Robinson, "Resnais's imaginative parallels of human behaviour", in The Times (London), 12 September 1980, p. 8: "Mon oncle d'Amérique is not only a wholly original film, but also an urbane, funny, witty and highly enjoyable one ... [Its] brilliance ... is that the two lines of narrative are kept parallel but independent. The narrative seems never to be formed in illustration of Laborit's theories; and the theories are never offered as a direct interpretation of the action."
- Nicholas Wapshott, "Resnais's continuing capacity to surprise", in The Times (London), 17 November 1980, p. 10: "... a dreary low-brow lecture."
- Richard Combs, review in Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1980, pp.239-240: "... Resnais seems to have found an alien source to which he has happily surrendered his responsibilities as a narrative film-maker."
- Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide, 2001 ed. Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin Books, 2000. p 935-936: "...film illustrating research scientist Laborit's theories on human conduct."
- Christian Zimmer, in Le Monde, 13 sept. 1980: "...puisqu'il inverse sans profit les rapports du savoir et de la fiction en donnant cell-ci pour une espèce de confirmation, d'illustration de celui-là" ("since he fruitlessly inverts the relationship between science and fiction by presenting the latter as a kind of confirmation, of illustration of the former").
- John J. Michalczyk, "Alain Resnais's Mon oncle d'Amérique: from memory to determinism", in The French Review, vol. 55 (no. 5), April 1982, p. 661: "In Mon oncle d'Amérique ... Laborit studies the behavior of laboratory white rats and relates it to human behavior, especially that of Jean, Janine, and René."
- Fabienne André Worth, "Six théories en quête d'auteur: qui dit 'mon' dans Mon oncle d'Amérique?", in The French Review, vol. 57 (no. 6) May 1984, pp. 834-842.
- Penelope Houston, review in Sight & Sound, vol. 50, no. 1 (Winter 1980/1981), pp. 62-63: "The structure of the film is at the same time vigorously taut and excitingly free ...It would be disingenuous to deny that the stories are likely to be read by an audience as case histories, checked against the laboratory information. But, having set up one system of cross-references, the film can more easily accommodate others: the use of animals; the linking of the characters to their favourite film stars ... even the incidents of impudently graphic illustration when white rats' heads fleetingly appear on human shoulders."
- Robert Benayoun, Interview with Resnais in Alain Resnais, arpenteur de l'imaginaire. Paris: Éditions Ramsay, 2008. p. 249: "C'est un film qui est imprégné par Laborit, c'est sûr, mais ce n'est certainement pas une illustration systématique de Laborit...."
- Mon oncle d'Amérique: scénario de Jean Gruault pour Alain Resnais précédé d'entretiens avec Alain Resnais et Henri Laborit par Madeleine Chapsal. Paris: Éditions Albatros, 1980. pp.14-15: "Je ne suis ni biologiste, ni philosophe, ni sociologue ...il serait stupide de ma part de dire que ces théories sont les miennes. Toutefois j'aime beaucoup le définition que donne Henri Laborit de l'inconscient ... pour lui ce sont toutes nos habitudes de pensées, tous nos automatismes."
- L'Avant-scène cinéma, no.263, 1 mars 1961. p. 7: "Nous ne cherchons à aucun moment à tourner ses théories en ridicule. Nous sympathisons profondément avec Laborit. Nous ne voulons pas proposer un 'digest' de ses travaux, ni les vulgariser. Il agit sur notre film comme un catalyseur."
- Mon oncle d'Amérique: scénario de Jean Gruault pour Alain Resnais précédé d'entretiens avec Alain Resnais et Henri Laborit par Madeleine Chapsal. Paris: Éditions Albatros, 1980. pp.18-19. Resnais: "Chaque spectateur doit ressentir le film à sa façon, en faisant jouer ses propres souvenirs et ses propres associations. Ce que je désire lui proposer, avec Mon oncle d'Amérique, ce sont des éléments - les plus clairs possible - pour construire librement le film qui lui plaît et se reconstruire lui-même face à ce film. En amusant si possible."
- Mon oncle d'Amérique: scénario de Jean Gruault pour Alain Resnais précédé d'entretiens avec Alain Resnais et Henri Laborit par Madeleine Chapsal. Paris: Éditions Albatros, 1980. p. 25: "Dans Mon oncle d'Amérique mes idées ne sont pas là pour expliquer les comportements des personnages auxquels elles ne s'appliquent pas directement, mais servir à les décoder"; p. 23: "On passe peut-être d'une façon un peu simpliste sur les problèmes de pathologie générale - la façon dont les inhibitions, l'angoisse, conduisent à des troubles et des maladies - mais je sais bien qu'il ne s'agit pas d'un cours! Ce que je trouve très bien c'est le côté ludique du film. A chaque instant on rejoint le comique. Et d'ailleurs aussi le cosmique."
- "Festival de Cannes: Mon oncle d'Amérique". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 28 May 2009. (Archived at the Wayback Machine, 11 August 2019.)
- 1981|Oscars.org. See also the YouTube video on the "Oscars" channel: "Ordinary People and Melvin and Howard Win Writing Awards: 1981 Oscars". (Retrieved 30 June 2020.)
- Mon oncle d'Amérique at Académie des arts et techniques du cinéma: César 1981. (Retrieved 9 June 2020.)
- My American Uncle on IMDb
- Mon oncle d'Amérique at Rotten Tomatoes
- Jonathan Rosenbaum. Interview with Alain Resnais on Mon oncle d'Amérique. 1980. (Archived at Wayback Machine 8.12.2019.)