Mon Oncle Antoine Commentary

Like many good films, Mon Oncle Antoine combines a well-known narrative type with a particularized setting. In this case, the political and social context of Duplessis-era Québec (1944-1959) provides authentic grounding for an apprenticeship narrative (or bildungsroman) about a young man’s social and moral initiation into adulthood. The apprenticeship narrative is a type of coming-of-age story that focuses on learning and mentoring. It demonstrates what the young man must learn in order to succeed and is therefore an excellent story-telling vehicle for revealing the failings of society.

The story of Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), the fifteen-year-old nephew of Antoine (Jean Duceppe), the local undertaker and owner of the town’s general store, is therefore framed by the story of another man, Joseph (Lionel Villeneuve), an adult trying to be a good man and good father in the ultra-conservative, church-dominated, politically-corrupt climate created by the Duplessis government. Joseph is not doing so well. In fact, there is no way that he or any other working class man could do well. He works in an asbestos mine that kill workers with lung disease; he lives in a landscape defaced by mountains of slag heaps; he is in perpetual thrall to foreign mine owners.

Joseph cannot stand this life. It reduces him to rage, which is how we meet him, sprawled under the engine of his broken-down, company-owned truck, swearing and trying to fix something. His English boss yells at him, saying that he’s costing the company money. We next see Joe in the toilet of a bar reading indecent comments about Duplessis on the wall. He rejoins the young men at his table warning them that they’ll end up dead from asbestosis like their fathers. Clearly they respect him, but are afraid to leave their jobs.

Joe decides to go north to work as a lumberjack for the winter. His wife understands sadly that he needs to work outside in the sun, where the air is clean. Before leaving, Joe asks his oldest son to stand in his stead as head of the family, promising to send him to school next year. The son realizes that this just a dream, but agrees to look after the family.

The narrative frame is therefore set for the apprenticeship story itself. Writer-director Claude Jutra has established the value of good role models, and the necessity of one generation mentoring the next so that social values can survive. But he has also suggested that the corrupt world in which Joe lives conspires to make success impossible for the average man.

Jutra now nestles the story of Benoit into the frame supplied by Joe. The Benoit character is a perfect age for the apprenticeship narrative – almost a man, but not quite. Like all children, he observes; but, at fifteen, he observes with a view to application. The lessons he learns from the priest, from Antoine and Cecile (Olivette Thibault), their employee Fernand (Claude Jutra), and others should teach him how to behave and succeed in life. Instead, on Christmas Eve, Benoit is exposed to the failure of each one of his main adult models.

Mon Oncle Antoine is replete with examples of intentional mentorship: Antoine and Fernand show Benoit about the trade of undertaking, the priest mentors Benoit as altar boy; Cecile shows her employee Carmen (Lyne Champagne), how to decorate the window for Christmas; and Antoine initiates Benoit into how to deal with a corpse. But there are many unintentional moments for positive role-modeling as well. Cecile and Antoine are generous people who look after the two children voluntarily and treat them well. Antoine refuses to give all Carmen’s pay to her shiftless father, keeping something back for the unhappy girl. When a customer shyly announces that she is getting married, Cecile immediately organizes an impromptu party, getting everyone to sing in celebration. Antoine hosts drinks for the men on Christmas Eve. Fernand makes sure that the kids are all right and looks the other way when they make mistakes.

For all their fine points, Cecile, Antoine and Fernand are human beings with frailties. Antoine drinks far too much. Cecile is vain and afraid of getting old. And Fernand is irresponsible. In the best of all possible worlds, none of these failings would matter much. They would be countered by social and moral institutions that would prevent disaster for the apprentice. But this is Duplessis’ Québec; the deceptive surface of his idyllic rural life is about to shatter.

At this point, Jutra brings back the narrative frame, blending Joseph’s story with that of Benoit. Because the father has had to abandon his family for work, his oldest son, unfairly asked to act as a man, has died. Knowing nothing of this, Joseph has decided to leave the lumber camp to be with his family. Antoine and another child, Benoit, go to the farm to fetch the body. The uncle fails the apprentice in every possible way: he gets drunk and can’t drive the horses; he insensitively gobbles food and drink in front of the dead boy’s mother; he brings the wrong-sized coffin; he falls asleep on the way home and fails to guide Benoit. When Benoit whips the horses so as to get home faster, the coffin falls off the wagon; neither Benoit nor Antoine can get it back on. It is a nightmare evening that finally leads Benoit to understand that even a poor man’s son is owed dignity and respect.

Benoit is no longer anyone’s apprentice. He has learned some lessons, but will they help him to survive? Will he be among the generation to rebel in Québec’s Quiet Revolution? Or has he become a cynic? Claude Jutra leaves us to ponder the possibilities.

This astonishing movie won eight Etrogs at the Canadian Film Awards and more than a dozen awards internationally. One of the few films from Québec to have national distribution, it is as loved in English Canada as in Québec. The Toronto International Film Festival voted it “the greatest Canadian film of all time” in 1984 and in 1993.

Evelyn Ellerman