Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine takes place during what Canadians often call the Grande Noirceur, the popular term for the government of Quebec’s far-right-wing Premier Maurice Duplessis. From 1944 to his death in 1959, Duplessis broke strikes, supported the control of the Catholic Church over education, persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses, and introduced Bill 19, a Canadian version of the Taft Hartly Act, a repressive law that would have made it almost impossible to organize labor unions. His goal, to sell out French-speaking Canadians as a cheap labor force to American multi-national corporations, eventually produced the opposite, the “Quiet Revolution,” a left-wing backlash that led to secularism, Quebec separatism, and the rise of the liberal politician Pierre Trudeau.
The catalyst for the “Quiet Revolution” was the Asbestos Strike of 1949, which took place in and around Black Lake and Thetford Mines, the setting for Mon Oncle Antoine, often considered the best Canadian film ever made. Mon Oncle Antoine, like the Asbestos strike, also takes place in 1949, “a time not very long ago,” but, unlike John Sayles’ Matewan, Jutra’s film does not show gun fights between company goons and union organizers. It doesn’t even dramatize the Asbestos Strike itself. Mon Oncle Antoine is a portrait of the “calm before the storm,” a “coming of age story” about a 15 year-old-boy growing up in a repressive, Catholic, right-wing society he doesn’t entirely understand. Mon Oncle Antoine is such a quiet, low-key movie that, except for a sneering Anglo Canadian mine-owner we never hear speak, it doesn’t have any villains. Rather, it focuses on the victims of the Grande Noirceur, the petty bourgeoisie who lead lives of quiet desperation, the proletarians who want to rebel, but who have no idea how to rebel.
Just a note: Mon Oncle Antoine is on YouTube in full (with English subtitles). Since it seems to be in the public domain in Canada, it probably won’t be taken down. But you never know.
Mon Oncle Antoine opens with Jos Pouline, a middle-aged asbestos worker, driving a pickup truck along one of the company roads owned by his employer. After the truck breaks down, he gets out, crawls underneath, and attempts to make repairs. A few minutes later, another car pulls up alongside Pouline. A man gets out, a company foreman, but instead of helping Pouline get the truck back in working order, he starts yelling, in English, a language Pouline doesn’t even understand. In one deft stroke, Jutra has dramatized the dirty little secret of Maurice Duplessis’ Quebec. Large multi-national corporations conduct their business in English, hire only English speaking managers, and keep the native Québécois confined to menial, low-status jobs they hate. French speaking Canadians are second-class citizens in their own country. Pouline, a married man with four children, two teenagers and two little boys, decides he can’t take it anymore. He quits the mines, picks up his axe, and heads out to the woods to earn money as a day laborer in the lumber business. Pouline is a man we see all too little of in American cinema, and all too much of in real life, the worker who has the brains to know he’s being screwed, wants to rebel, but just doesn’t know how to rebel, so he goes for the easy fix. He quits his job in anger.
The action then shifts to the film’s main protagonist. It’s Christmas Eve, a big event in a Catholic town like Black Lake. Benoit, a 15-year-old orphan who lives with his uncle, the Antoine of the title, and his aunt Cecile. Unlike Jos Pouine, Cecile are Antoine are solidly petty-bourgeois. They own the town’s “General Store,” profitable enough for them to employ, not only to Benoit, but Carmen, a pretty young assistant, and Fernand, a store clerk played by Claude Jutra himself. In addition to owning the General Store, Antoine also serves as the local undertaker, a lucrative business in a mining town where so many people die of lung diseases. In spite of his being an orphan, Benoit’s childhood is not immediately revealed to be an unhappy one. He assists at a funeral, quietly observing his his uncle and Fernand comment about the poverty of the deceased’s family. They could only afford to pay for two masses, and had to use a rented set of rosary beads, which Fernand clumsily tears out of the dead man’s hands before he and Antoine close the lid of the coffin. We realize later in the film that when Benoit sneaks a drink of the sacramental wine, then observes the priest doing the same thing, Jutra has subtly introduced the problem of alcoholism, a disease that affects the town in general, and Uncle Antoine in particular. At the moment it happens, however, all we really notice is a charming picture of a boy having his first drink.
If Mon Oncle Antoine is a damning indictment of conservatism, then it’s partly because it’s so low-key. It doesn’t club us over the head. It does tell us that we must be secular. We must be liberal. We must support Quebec nationalism. Rather, it draws us in, subtly, makes us feel nostalgic for the small-town, rural, Canadian past, then pulls the rug out from under us, and shows us the spiritual sickness that was at the heart of the Grande Noirceur. Benoit and Fernand, for example, flirt with Carmen, the pretty young shop assistant. Fernand swats her on the ass and calls her a “servant who thinks she’s a princess.” Benoit playfully chases her around the General Store’s small attic, warehouse, putting his hand on her breast when they both trip and fall. It all seems harmless, until we notice the unused coffins, also in the warehouse. Death and sex are inextricably intertwined. Getting married, and raising a family, also means bringing up more children who, in lieu of any real social mobility, will go down into the asbestos mines. Carmen doesn’t dislike Benoit. In fact, she seems attracted to him, nodding in approval after he and a friend throw snowballs at the English speaking mine owner, a hilarious scene which shows why every young man who’s ever joined a protest joins a protest. When Carmen’s father comes into the store to take her paycheck for himself, however, which he’s legally within his rights to do since she’s under-age and he’s her legal guardian, we see the repressive patriarchy that will eventually doom the poor young girl to the same kind of life faced by Madame Pouline, Jos Pouline’s wife.
The climax of Mon Oncle Antoine comes when Madame Pouline’s eldest child, a boy about the same age age as Benoit, dies of an unspecified illness. 15-year-olds rarely die of natural causes, and the young man’s death seems so abstract, and so unlikely, that it effectively stands in for all the early deaths caused by the poor working conditions in the asbestos mines. The call that Madame Pouline makes to Fernand is heartbreaking. Her husband has abandoned her and her four children. Her son has died on Christmas Eve, but she tries to remain stoic. Will he send Antoine to come out to her house with a coffin to pick up the body? It’s a long journey, several hours by sled through the brutal cold of the Canadian Winter and a developing blizzard. But what else can Antoine do? Benoit offers, even begs, his uncle to let him come along in place of Fernand. For Benoit, who has little or no consciousness of death, it’s more of an adventure than a job, a chance to act the role of a grown up. Cecile talks her husband into letting the boy go. Her motive will be revealed later in the film. Antoine grabs a large bottle of whiskey. He puts it into his coat, and the two “men” had out into the driving snow. Several hours later, they make it to the Pouline home, both sightly buzzed from the alcohol, everybody, Antoine, Benoit, Madame Pouline, and the three surviving children trying to maintain a brave face.
Antoine has brought candy for the children. Madame Pouline serves them dinner. But Benoit can’t eat. The horror of seeing his uncle stuff his face with pork, then drink shot after shot of whiskey, while Madame Pouline, unsuccessfully, tries to maintain her stoic demeanor, is too much for an innocent 15-year-old boy. It’s also too much for the viewer. I found it about as emotionally wrenching a 10 minutes I’ve ever seen in any film. How exactly do you act in front of a woman who has just lost her 15-year old son on Christmas Eve? Jutra then tilts the camera, which, up until this point had been placed at a fairly convention angle. Suddenly we see Antoine, the older, conservative generation that consistently voted for Maurice Duplessis year after year, from the point of view of Benoit, the young, liberal generation that would eventually usher in the “Quiet Revolution.” Antoine isn’t a bad guy. Earlier in the film, he actually stood up for Carmen against her exploitative father. But he is a gross, simple-minded, unimaginative, middle-aged alcoholic living a life of quiet desperation. The shift in perspective is startling. Up until then, we had never thought to question Antoine’s patriarchal authority, or his urge to take a little drink now and then. Now we see how completely Jutra had brought us into the mindset of the Grande Noirceur, just how much conservatism, and the church hierarchy, had blinded French Canadians to their own oppressed condition. The veil has been lifted from Benoit’s eyes, and from our own, so much so that when they set out for home through the blizzard, and Antoine keeps drinking, cradling the bottle of whiskey in his arms like a baby as he keeps falling asleep at the reins, we know that disaster waits for them on the road ahead.
The disaster, when it finally comes, is so low-key and seemingly insignificant, yet so devastating, that we realize just how much Mon Oncle Antoine deserves its reputation as the greatest Canadian film ever made.