Claude Jutra’s seminal coming-of-age film featured young bodies in caskets, snow-covered landscapes and a loving but dysfunctional family — essentially birthing a whole new cinematic tradition around a stone hearth
MON ONCLE ANTOINE (1971)
Directed by: Claude Jutra
Starring: Jean Duceppe, Jacques Gagnon, Lyne Champagne, Olivette Thibault, Claude Jutra, Hélène Loiselle, Lionel Villeneuve, Monique Mercure.
Running time: 104 minutes
Still referred to as one of the greatest Canadian films of all time, Mon Oncle Antoine marked the beginning of narrative feature film in Canada (right alongside Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road) and set up much of the film cinematic grammar we use in this country to this day with its use of natural light, blue-hues, lack of narrative artifice and an abundance of snow-covered landscapes.
The story focuses on Benoit (Gagnon), a kid living with his uncle Antoine and Aunt Cecile, who run the general store in Black Lake, Quebec. On the brink of adulthood, Benoit embodies a manly sense of duty with a boyish flare for mischief — and Jutra revels in the ambiguity. He shows us Benoit playing pranks on his foster sister, Carmen, one minute and stumbling into sexual awareness the next. This is common coming-of-age stuff — and explains why the movie has often been compared to Truffaut’s 400 Blows. But Jutra takes it one existentialist step further with his central motif, death, which hangs over the film like a big, grey asbestos cloud.
As Benoit and the family get the store ready for Christmas, Uncle Antoine (Duceppe) is summoned to a house a few miles away, where a young man close to Benoit’s age dies from a fever. Antoine obliges and trudges through a blizzard to pick up the body with Benoit in tow.
Unceremoniously, they place the dead teen in a plain casket, and head back into the cold night. Antoine, tired and depressed, gets sloshed. The sleigh bounces out of control and the coffin falls off the buggy, leaving Benoit to pick up the body — which has now tumbled out of the coffin. Absurd, grotesque and yet oddly funny, the next scene shows Benoit wrestling with the corpse in the cold night as Antoine numbs himself to the macabre scene unfolding around him.
The image is almost a definitive one in Canadian film as it incorporates the landscape, death, a mirror image of self, and an undeniable sense of loneliness into one single frame. This melancholic progression into awareness is an element that haunts almost all Canadian films released in the immediate years that followed Jutra’s call to creative arms.
As Ferdinand, the store clerk, Jutra takes part in his own drama and assigns himself the most ambiguous role of the film. Ferdinand seems to be the sole responsible figure. We see him balancing the books and playing first lieutenant to Aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault) in the opening sequence, but Ferdinand is not to be trusted. He’s sleeping with Antoine’s wife under his roof, challenging the institution of marriage as well as the Church itself.
As a result, Ferdinand seems to stand apart from the rest of the townsfolk. He is an outsider who watches, semi-detached, as the life and death events of the town unfold around him. This could be seen as a commentary on the act of making a motion picture: he is central to the drama, but somehow always behind the scenes — shaping events emotionally, while letting fate and free will deal with the rest. Because the movie is built on a human scale, even the most depressing moments are comforting as they outline the geography of the human condition without false drama or misguided attempts at larger meaning.
You can watch the movie free here! https://www.nfb.ca/film/mon_oncle_antoine_en/