The Blindspot Series is a series of twelve posts spread throughout the year designed to offer bloggers a chance to catch up classic films we somehow may have missed. Started by The Matinee, here is my list of Blindspot films for 2016. December’s selection is Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine.
“Coming of age” is a tricky thing to capture on film. In life, it’s usually not something that happens all at once, but I suppose it can come in small bursts of activity. I feel the later is sort of what my blindspot selection for this month depicts. We are sort of dropped into this very specific setting and see how the events of one night change how a child sees the world.
Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) is a boy of about thirteen or so, who works in a general store in a small Quebec mining town in the 1940s. It’s Christmas Eve, and the store is busy preparing for the rush of customers it’s expecting. Owned by Benoit’s Uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and Aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault), operated by their clerk Fernanad (the director, Claude Jutra), and also employing Carmen (Lyne Champagne), the store seems to be the only one in the town, providing just about anything the town could want or need. This includes an undertaking business, and that night Benoit and Antoine ride out to a neighboring town to retrieve the body of a boy about Benoit’s age who has suddenly fallen ill and died.
The film is clearly divided into two parts. The first, during the day, is focuses very much on the normal workings of the town and the store. We see a lot of shots of community activity; the unveiling of the shop window display featuring a nativity scene (which is really cute because the kids mess up the curtain), the mine workers all getting paid and then rushing over to the store, the adults gathering around to hear Cecile sing…. there’s a great sense of joy and life in these early scenes. There’s also an exploration of sex in the first half, as Benoit and his friend spy on a rich woman trying on a corset and Benoit chases Carmen around upstairs when she’s secretly trying on a bridal veil.
In the second half, the focus switches to the horror of death. Without knowing the rest of his life story, it seems like Benoit is aware of mortality and grief for the first time. During the ride out to the house, he seems very excited to drive the horse, not thinking about what they are actually being sent to do. When they reach the house, they find an almost catatonic mother. She serves them dinner, and the scene is shot with a wide angle lens close to the subjects. It creates a distortion that seems to suggest the horror and trepidation with which Benoit looks upon his uncle and the grief-stricken family. Jutra continues to cut to the door to the dead boy’s room where the body is, as though it is forcing itself upon Benoit’s consciousness, unbidden. It’s slightly ajar but the lights are off, so all we see is a sliver of blackness inside the room, suggesting not just the specific boy’s death but the void of death itself. It’s a marvelously shot scene that does a lot to get you inside Benoit’s head. What happens on the road back is darkly humorous, showing how the awkwardness of life doesn’t stop for one person’s death.
The way this film works is to sort of drop you right into this town and this boy’s life as you watch everything unfold over one night. It’s amazing how much you can learn about the various characters this way, through close observation over a short period of time. Mon Oncle Antoine is Benoit’s story, but it almost becomes an ensemble piece especially in the first half. It actually reminds me of an Altman film in a lot of ways, with its emphasis on community and some of the zooms Jutra uses. Come to think of it, the town is somewhat similar to the town of Presbyterian Church in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (made in the same year).
I got most of that information about the setting from the back of the DVD cover; there’s something about this movie that feels out of time, though perhaps it’s just my unfamiliarity with the setting it does have. It feels very old world, with the whole town based in the mine, and all gathering at once in general store. Nobody drives a car throughout the whole movie; it’s all horses. The only connection with the outside world or technology comes at the end, when two characters listen to a radio. The combination of the rural environment and the period made it very hard for me to tell when this was set, and the isolation of the community and its specificity made the film feel very timeless to me.
There’s a lot to admire in Mon Oncle Antoine, even if I didn’t super connect to Benoit as a character I think the second half of the film does a lot to get you inside of his head. The most accomplished part of the film for me was definitely the richness and specificity of the setting, and the sense of the community. More than Benoit’s (presumably) transformative experiences, I really appreciated seeing this town and its people over the course of one Christmas Eve.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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