My American Uncle (1980)

Director:  Alain Resnais
Cast:  Gérard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia, Roger Pierre 
Plot:  Prof. Henri Laborit uses the stories of the lives of three people to discuss behaviorist theories of survival.

Genre:  Comedy / Drama / Romance
Awards:  Won Grand Jury Prize and FIPRESCI (Cannes).  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Original Screenplay. 
Runtime:  125min
Rating:  PG

My American Uncle is one of Alain Resnais’ most underrated films.  Part of the revolutionary group of film critics-turned-filmmakers that began the ‘French New Wave’ in the '50s, Resnais’ early experiments had a common and distinct use of style and form that were similar to works by his more illustrious counterparts: Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol.  Despite this, Resnais was and still is able to retain a degree of originality by slowly establishing his cinematic style over the years. 

My American Uncle is a detailed study of social behavior and survival instincts in a dog-eat-dog world of greed and love.  Using a documentary-styled narrative structure and a principal narrator, Resnais speaks to the audience using an intriguing mix of scientific and medical jargon, as well as references from lab experiments that provide explanations to human behavior.  Though this is a fictional account of the lives of several people as they hustle and bustle around in marriage, family, and the corporate world, the film has its roots in facts and actuality.  This makes it a more compelling watch. 

Despite the film’s dry content and the potential to bore audiences, My American Uncle does appeal very much to the intellectual crowd.  Its screenplay by Jean Gruault also received an Oscar nomination in a year dominated by brilliant American films such as The Elephant Man and Raging Bull.  There are moments of hilarity that are timed perfectly to break the monotony of the film’s serious tone.

One memorable set of sequences include actors wearing a ‘mouse head’ while going about in their daily proceedings.  The scenario that precedes this is an experiment which explores the response and survival faculties of a mouse’s brain when it senses danger.  The conclusion is that humans are animals too.  When we know that we are in trouble, we will move away from the source; we understand that the grass is always greener on the other side. 

Alain Resnais’ film is an educational and informative document of the natural instincts and behavioural patterns of the living community.  Although it is one of the director’s more obscure works, it is in my opinion, a recommended viewing.  Sadly, it is still under-appreciated and is never held comparatively as high a regard as films such as Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year In Marienbad.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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