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Old 01-07-2009, 07:34 PM
Claude Jutra's Mon Oncle Antoine

Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)

"Mon Oncle Antoine" takes place in a small town somewhere in Quebec, Canada, but is never named. It doesn't even matter that it is never named because this could be any small town anywhere in the world where everyone knows each other, rumors fly freely, and the most exciting thing to happen right before Christmas is the revealing of the General Store's decorations.

The film doesn't really follow a central story, but rather concentrates on a family as we watch them work at the General Store. One of them is a young boy, Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), whose uncle, Antoine (Jean Duceppe), serves as the town's undertaker while also working at the store. It is Antoine's job to go pick up the bodies and arrange funerals. On one particular pick-up, Benoit asks his Aunt, Cecile (Olivette Thibault), if he can go along with Antoine. She agrees and they set off to collect the body, but everything doesn't go according to plan.

Even though the film's title is "My Uncle Antoine," it is not really specifically about Benoit or Antoine. The film is more a study of life and death and the effects that they have on people. The film starts with one of Antoine's arranged funerals to establish what his line of work is, but then it quickly moves into its lively section. It concentrates on the General Store as everyone arrives and begins setting up the decorations for Christmas.

This festiveness puts almost everyone into a good mood and shows us that the most simple of things can make people happy...well, almost everyone. The second half of the film deals with Antoine's line of work as he is called out to retrieve the body of a woman's eldest son who has recently died. We are never really told why, but Benoit asks to come along. We can guess that it's to observe his uncle's line of work, just to see what he does, or it could be simply to spend time with him.

There is one particular scene where we realize that Benoit is observing everything very carefully. He and his uncle have just arrived at the grieving mother's house and are offered a meal. Benoit simply pushes the food away, not having the stomach to eat knowing of the job that he came there to assist in, but Antoine eats to his heart's content as we watch him through Benoit's P.O.V.

In a way, this is one of Benoit's first lessons in his uncle's line of work. We can only imagine what must be running through his head as he watches his uncle feast. It could be something like "Is this what decades of this work will turn me into?" We think we are being shown Antoine's complete lack of sensitivity for his work through his eating and drinking, but there is a scene that is just as important later on that explains to us just how much this job has affected him.

We are rarely shown Antoine in the first half of the film, but quite a bit in the second half. He seems to represent a sort of specter that is able to float between the worlds of the living and the dead as he goes from his job at the General Store, where everyone is joyously getting ready for Christmas, to his job as Undertaker, where he must deal with the recently departed.

It is fascinating to watch through the two different viewpoints. Through the eyes of Benoit, the world looks like such a bright, healthy place, filled with life. But through Antoine's eyes, it looks like a dark place, where only the dead seem to matter. When Benoit attempts to bring his childlike vision of the world into Antoine's dark vision, Benoit is hit with a hard dose of reality as he helps Antoine collect the body. Benoit discovers that this is probably not the best job for him as he hears and sees just what it has done to his uncle. He prefers his vision of the world, where there is hope everywhere, to his uncle's vision of the world, where there is only hope at the bottom of a bottle.

"Mon Oncle Antoine" works well as a exploration of life and death, but also a study of the relationship between an uncle and his nephew. Their visions keep them separate, but they still keep close to each other. After watching this, don't be surprised if you find yourself thinking about your own vision of the world and how it affects your life. 3/4 stars.
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