To wax in a state of eulogy about Alain Resnais is to have reviewed his last few features at the times they premiered. With Wild Grass, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, and the incredibly recent Life of Riley, reviewers understandably noted his age. Resnais was in his late eighties and early nineties, still producing films containing a youthful charm, his resolution on the festival circuit as firm as ever. Perhaps then, it still came as a surprise that at the age of 91, Resnais had passed, leaving a remarkable six decades of major work behind, rivaled at this point only by 105-year-old arthouse compatriot Manoel de Oliveira. Surprising, yes, thanks to his experimental shock to the film world in Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima, mon amour being equaled by his recent output, a promising second wind. His death has sparked many remembrances of first meeting Resnais’s challenging work, mostly experiencing boredom, frustration, or sometimes a dull fascination, yet all ending with acceptance, appreciation, and veneration.
The uniform progression of acknowledgment for Resnais is no surprise: while the rest of the nouvelle vague played with their appreciation of Hollywood, commenting on it while presenting their familiar images and tropes, Resnais and the rest of the Left Bank were starting anew. Resnais plays with time and narrative, but many directors play with the tools of their trade. However, Resnais does not merely rearrange — he layers, letting different events in time talk to each other in a way they previously could not, often placing any recognizable linear narrative aside. The result is confounding and challenging, yet undeniably influential, validating countless future filmmakers in their decisions to mesh experimental and traditional cinematic tropes. It is no different in his Mon oncle d’Amérique, but this is a film uncomfortably sitting between his royal arthouse status of the ’60s and the multi-medium tests of his later works. Nevertheless, it retains the studies of Resnais’s multitudes, inevitably lending itself as a passageway to his mind. His equally formidable colleague Jean-Luc Godard once said, “The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.” Mon oncle d’Amérique is a movie that criticizes itself.
Three vignettes are introduced and intertwined. These are the three principal characters, each rebelling against the stasis presented in their respective childhoods. René (Gérard Depardieu) is the child of a rural farmhouse, deemed an intellectual by his uncle (not an American), with dreams of studying in Paris until socially forced into wedlock due to his girlfriend’s pregnancy, his fate now in the hands of the local mill. Jean (Roger Pierre), the bourgeois, lives his upbringing in the land of adventure stories in protest of his family’s intellectual prowess until he finds himself trapped in a top position of National Radio. Finally, Janine (Nicole Garcia), the product of common workers, begins exhibiting mai-’68-style politics, a revolutionary mindset of which her parents are quick to censor until she gathers her things and moves away for good.
These stories are sometimes narrated by their characters, but often brought together through the narration of a fourth voice. It’s not another character; rather, it’s the real voice and the real ideas of French evolutionary psychologist (though his expertise is much broader) Henri Laborit, whose often philosophic yarns tend to illuminate the actions of the characters in a scientific context. The illumination involves rats in cages and talk of the different parts of the human brain, but often fluttered with such academic prose as “A being’s only reason for being is being.” His readings can either be seen as the central concern of the film, with the characters actualized as more sophisticated examples, or perhaps an intellectual addendum to refocus the chaos inherent in their actions. Regardless, it’s this layering effect that makes the film so tied to the mind of Resnais, who will repeat and literalize the image of controlled rats so often that scenes will become reenacted with mouse masks on the actors’ heads. The surreal aspect of these reenactments is appropriated in David Lynch’s Inland Empire, but here it has a substantial, albeit needlessly repetitive, cue.
The actual adventure that brings these rats together is one crafted by screenwriter Jean Gruault, whose previous credits includes many New Wave classics such as Jules and Jim, The Nun, and Les caribiniers. Resnais, always a master of adaptation, takes both Gruault and Laborit’s work and stirs in yet another ingredient: the history of cinema. Jean becomes fed up with the life of the casual bourgeois by leaving his wife to have an affair with Janine. It’s serious in tone, but humorous in theme, as what could further supplant Jean into a bourgeois stereotype than a heated affair? In the meantime, René is continuing to move up in his career as a businessman, much to the chagrin of his family who have to suffer distance from René in exchange for a better wage. René, secretly a gustatory expert, fittingly receives a stomach ulcer. Jean awakes in pain thanks to his kidney stones. Janine cuts Jean away from her after his wife confronts her about her developing malignant cancer. Laborit’s voice decodes the mysteries of these events through his ideas of creatures internalizing pain when trapped, only to lash out when another rat is introduced to the system (as the complication of Jean’s affair suggests). This is already a complicated system of introducing a scientific reading to pique the curiosity of human action, yet Resnais also provokes a further reading by cross-cutting dramatic scenes with those of older movies, always in black-and-white to promote an obvious contrast, and always on another level of melodrama.
This verbal science experiment with human action and the conscious relation of dramatic tropes to the history of cinema is sparked by Resnais’s own reading of films. In his interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Resnais describes his encounter with reading Laborit: “I was surprised to see that, in my mind, each time he was describing human behavior or even animal behavior, I was seeing scenes from films! But after all, I’m sure that after the 80 years that film has existed, all aspects of human behavior could be found in films–or in theater or novels, for that matter.” It comes as no surprise that Resnais would take this fascination and, following Godard’s previously stated adage, make a film to help realize it. This is perhaps how Resnais sees his own films: as ways of communicating his passion as if an extended article or study. To read cinema through science and to make a film that not only observes and promotes this, but is subject to the reading itself: this is Resnais’s intertextual play.
“By the way, the American uncle never shows up.” This is Ebert’s sign-off to his love letter for the film, yet it speaks for Resnais’s entire oeuvre. Despite his analytic nature with thematic material more relatable with featured Film Comment articles than other films, Resnais never fell into a pit of expectation. Resnais’s rat is the outlier of the experiment, even to the treatment group of his nouvelle vague mates, defying expectation of traditional and avant-garde all in one movement. While his works were being catalogued and early obituaries were readied, Resnais entitled a film You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a proud dismissal of any uniform statement of his work. Yet, if Mon oncle d’Amérique reveals anything, it’s that he loved analysis and writing. He loved pondering and investigating and wading his way through science, plays, literature, art, music, and cinema. Though formidable, his works are playful and inviting. They’re ultimately what little Jean helmed as a rebellious answer to his bourgeois air: adventure stories.