Alain Resnais’s Mon Oncle d’Amérique (My Uncle in America) is a minor effort that experiments with, and raises several questions about, film narrative. Combining an overview of the theories of neuropsychologist Henri Laborit, expressed by the researcher himself in interviews and narration, with a dramatization of those ideas through three fictional characters, the film struggles to say something about how the human condition is shaped by deterministic biology we refuse to accept.
The title refers to a recurring idea expressed by the three main characters (played by Gérard Dépardieu, Nicole Garcia and Roger Pierre). The “American uncle” is a mythical someone who has made it big, who will arrive to solve all of the characters’ problems. Those problems are contrived for dramatic, not scientific verisimilitude. Dépardieu’s attempted suicide, Garcia’s unhappy love affairs, Pierre’s marital problems are all realistic but they are not reality. Thus to have them treated as such is a bit disconcerting. As if to remind the viewer of the contrivances, Resnais occasionally includes brief shots of the characters dressed like the rats we have seen scurrying around Laborit’s laboratory. It’s an amusing idea, but exactly what those shots contribute besides unnecessarily underlining the relationship between Laborit’s ideas and the characters’ behavior is unclear.
Sacha Vierny’s pearly, Corot-like cinematography and Resnais’s editing skill combine to engage the viewer in the narrative sequences as smoothly as in any “normal” narrative. Because of the back and forth between fiction and reality, however, interest in the drama has to be repeatedly reconstructed. The limited insight provided by Laborit’s narration results in a mixed bag, neither satisfying emotionally nor particularly insightful as science. (His ideas don’t seem all that profound or original.) The melodrama threatens to degenerate into a pattern as predictable as Laborit’s mechanistic theories, or, the scientist’s theories offer a description of behavior no more varied or diverse than the limitations of cheap fiction. Both seem strangely limited and limiting although they do give Resnais yet another opportunity to demonstrate his peerless control over balanced, elegant form.
Pauline Kael once observed that while most filmmakers have difficulty finding the form to express their ideas, Resnais had nothing but form in his head. One wants to demur, but in truth, if Mon Oncle d’Amérique works at all, it is largely through the compelling grace of the filmmaking. The question then becomes whether that is enough. Perhaps Resnais was trying to demonstrate that the satisfaction we crave from storytelling results from hard-wired neurology, that there is nothing mysterious about it and that our desire for happy endings is little better than a quest for an “American uncle” in artistic dress. Such intentions would certainly make Amérique a radical artifact, as disruptive in its way as Godard’s most didactic efforts and far more rigidly deterministic. But to burden such a featherweight film with such heavy intentions is probably taking it more seriously than it deserves.