Mon Oncle d’Amérique – Alain Resnais

Mon Oncle d\'Amerique (Poster)

Resnais is important. His method is to present a personal sentimental subtlety but place it beneath a higher social situation, a sweep, historical. Most films use the higher social sweep to fill empty space, to make the drama appear more ‘full’. It’s a very old notion and some might say inherent to film, starting with Griffith and ‘Birth of a Nation’. But what Resnais does with the higher context is merely infer it. Today, Wong Kar Wai works in the same way, and Lynch too (his contexts are not social though, but previous cinematic worlds so he can toy with our viewing expectations).

I say all this, and some might not agree. I guess some will think this truly is about behavioral psychology. After all, the thing is framed by a ‘real’ professor, and the three characters are archetypes which the theories describe. But no, apart from the emotional subtleties it describes, I choose to see this as a meditation on cinematic memory. Several threads here underscore this idea, starting with the framework: the professor and his running commentary on the psychology of the characters. And one key quote : “A person is a memory which acts.”

While I describe the devices Resnais uses here I will also describe the way the thing is shaped.

We follow three characters from childhood to adulthood. (One of them is an ‘aspiring’ actress, the other a radio officer in the government and a student of astronomy, and the last one a simple factory supervisor but notably an exquisite cook). The film begins with an introductory treatise by a professor of cognitive science, this treatise is on the nervous reactions of species. The images we see are those of animals and at times people, but still strangers to us. The professor then begins to introduce the characters and we see a series of still photographs and some motion sequences of what we assume is their childhood. Suddenly, after the professor has stopped narrating, the characters begin talking to us (to the camera), introduce themselves, and recount their childhood. We see some of the same images we saw before, except some of the stills are now in-motion, and previous short sequences are longer and shown within all their context (they were previously shown muted with only the professor’s voiceover commenting).

You have to see this to truly appreciate the rich design. It is like a tapestry. But the impressive stuff is the way the images plant themselves in a certain context only to re-appear later with their contexts expanded, stretched; we see the before and/or the after.

To annotate this idea of cinematic memory and to enrich the meditation, we are told the characters’ favorite actor/actress and shown a movie sequence, as part of their introductory presentations. Later, as their stories unfold and we watch them involved in dramatic situations, the film cuts to movie sequences of their respective favorites, these sequences echoing the current action of the character. The strength here is that with the music used, these cuts are subtle and vague enough, clearly echoes, poetic, and a wonderful representation of cinematic memory and the self as a collaborative construction.

There are all kinds of self-references: early pictures that later become key locations in the narrative, theory spouted by the professor that reflects in obvious ways previous scenes, allowing them to be recontextualized, plays-within that die only to later be revived, entities (the factory & the government) relocating, evolving, undergoing unexpected change, unfinished books as large evolving projects. Oof. I have hardly seen anything like it before.

Nicole Garcia is clearly the best here. You can see how she picked up ideas about layered storytelling and later used them for her own films afterwards (see ‘L’adversaire’).

I am thinking of implementing a rating system soon, as well as better browsing and more frequent updating. I will put this down as an ‘N’ for Necessary. ‘Hiroshima’ is ‘Essential’ which is a notch below Necessary, but clearly as important. In Hiroshima, the chamber piece was nested in the stay in Hiroshima, and this stay was nested in the shooting of a film, and the film nested in the event of the blowing of the bomb. It is a difficult film to watch because there is no space for us, or rather, the space has been ‘blown up’. But that’s the challenge, and the work put in can be rewarding.

Oh yes, some of the acting here is off…but it’s not a distraction, it’s not important at all, with a shape and form this rich, it hardly matters (in fact there are some ‘fantasy’ scenes with a PUPPET MOUSE character just so we don’t begin to take everything too seriously.)

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Categories: Notes

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