An unexpected critical success, Resnais’ sly, mosaic-like film about behavioural psychology as explored through the personal stories of a trio of interconnecting characters is a masterclass in associative editing, and one of his finest pictures.
Dir. Alain Resnais
1980 | France | Drama/Romance | 125 mins | 1.66:1 | French
PG (passed clean) for some thematic elements
Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia, Roger Pierre
Plot: Writer Henri Laborit presents three stories that illustrate the complexities of human behavior. Rene is a man from farming roots who becomes manager at a textile factory. Meanwhile Janine, an actress turned stylist, is involved in an affair with Jean, a politician who faces difficulties at home.
Awards: Won Grand Jury Prize & FIPRESCI Prize (Cannes); Won AGIS Award (Venice); Nom. for Best Original Screenplay (Oscars)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Psychology, Self, Society
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
An unexpected critical success when it won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, Alain Resnais’ My American Uncle is one of his finest pictures, made more than 20 years after his breakthrough film, Hiroshima mon amour (1959), became one of the key works that sparked the ‘Left Bank’ side of the French New Wave, which included the likes of Agnes Varda and Chris Marker.
My American Uncle is a sly exploration of social behaviour and behavioural psychology through the personal stories of a trio of interconnecting characters who face problems at work and home.
Using a complex, mosaic-like narrative structure and a principal narrator, Resnais spoke to audiences using an intriguing mix of scientific jargon, as well as references from lab experiments on rats that provide extrapolated explanations to human behaviour.
It is an intellectual work made with rare skill and acumen, that despite its subject matter and rigorous interplay between fiction, documentary and archival elements, still feels so seamless in its execution.
“Like most people, I thought happiness was something I had coming to me. Like an inheritance… from an uncle in America.”
Much of it has to do with the brilliant use of associative editing, where montage techniques are used to bring about both dissonance and harmony.
An obvious example is how the characters’ emotions are emphasised—perhaps even exaggerated—with quick cuts to black-and-white footage of actors (e.g. Jean Gabin) expressing similar feelings in old French movies.
I also think what makes My American Uncle a film worth revisiting again and again is its naturalness, be it the performances or cinematography; it has a very earthy, carefree feel despite its structural and thematic rigour.
It is this weird, sometimes surreal, mix that Resnais was able to concoct something meaningful, timeless and universal.