Directed by Claude Jutra
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 104 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 mono French, English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: July 8, 2008
Review Date: July 14, 2008
Claude Jutra’s slice of French-Canadian life at Christmastime is the lovely, laidback comedy-drama Mon Oncle Antoine. Quiet, small, intimate: Mon Oncle Antoine might not deal with big issues on its surface, but it’s powerful enough to make a big impression if one is in the mood for such a candid look at small-town life in the same time frame as Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story but with a decidedly different atmosphere and ambiance at work.
Most of the film’s events are seen through the eyes of young teenager Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) who’s being raised by his uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and his wife (Olivette Thibault). Benoit is at the age where his first interests in the opposite sex are manifesting themselves, and in the small mining town where they live, there are only a few opportunities to do some exploring: with Carmen (Lyne Champagne) who works in his uncle’s general store with him and with the town beauty Alexanderine (Monique Mercure) who comes to the store occasionally to try on new clothes and on this particular day, to try on a new corset she’s ordered). Otherwise, he’s up to the usual mischief and procrastination that teenagers are usually susceptible to. By the end of this particular Christmas, however, he will have left his childhood far behind.
Clément Perron’s script (as adapted by himself and the director) neatly divides the film into two halves: the first is a scene-setting introduction to the town and its important inhabitants while the second is a particularly harrowing excursion Antoine and Benoit must undergo on a cold, snowy Christmas Eve delivering a casket to the family of a newly dead child and bringing the casket back to town. Jutra’s direction of each section is exemplary. Such wonderful little touches like the townsfolk gathered anxiously around the general store’s holiday window waiting for its unveiling, the genial camaraderie of the men as they luxuriate inside the store swigging down shots of schnapps and telling stories, the women clustering around the notions counters gossiping or looking at fabrics and patterns, the boss of the asbestos mine grudgingly sledding around the village tossing out Christmas trinkets for the children since he‘s planning to withhold a pay raise from his workers: all these events and more are lovingly and delicately portrayed. Conversely, the morbid journey to the home of the dead child in terrible weather and with the mother almost beside herself with grief is a dominant counterpoint to the frivolity of the earlier portions of the picture. These extreme emotions are the heart and soul of the movie, its reason to be frankly as the plot is of lesser importance here than one would expect in a movie with this many interesting characters. Benoit's symbolic journey from youth to young adulthood is the film's primary concern.
Performances are all solid without anyone standing out from the pack. In addition to the actors and their roles already named, all of whom do very well with the parts they’ve been assigned, director Jutra has given himself a very large role playing Fernand, the store’s general bookkeeper and salesman who’s also attracted to Uncle Antoine‘s wife. Hélène Loiselle does haunting work as Mrs. Poulin, the mother of the deceased boy, in perhaps the finest performance in the movie. Her real-life husband Lionel Villeneuve also plays the deceased child's hotheaded father.
The film’s 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in a high quality anamorphic transfer. Sharpness is good rather than great, but colors are well conveyed, and the light to medium grain always reminds us we’re watching film. Black levels are nicely achieved with only a tiny amount of crush present at the odd moment. Subtitles are large, white, and easy to read. The film has been divided into 18 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is free from age related artifacts like hissing and crackle, but the fidelity is limited by the low budget nature of the sound design. An English soundtrack is offered as a choice, but I listened to the original French track.
On disc one is the original theatrical trailer in English which is presented in 4:3 and runs for 2 ¾ minutes.
Disc two contains the majority of the bonus features. All are presented in nonanamorphic 16:9.
Up first is the 2007 documentary On Screen!: “Mon Oncle Antoine.” The feature contains not only information about how Mon Oncle Antoine came together but also provides a number of biographical highlights in the life and career of director Claude Jutra including clips from many of his films. This feature runs 47 ¼ minutes.
Even more comprehensive is the 2002 documentary Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story which spends 82 minutes recounting the relatively brief (56 years), mostly unhappy life of the award-winning director. This features interviews with many leading film critics and members of the Canadian film industry both before and behind the camera and also includes clips from many of his best known works.
A Chairy Tale is Claude Jutra’s award-winning 1957 surrealistic short film that’s as inventive and hilarious as early Chaplin or Keaton comedies. It runs 10 minutes and is in black and white.
The enclosed 14-page booklet contains production stills from the movie as well as a lengthy interpretation of the film by film professor André Loiselle.
Mon Oncle Antoine is a small, beautifully crafted piece of Canadian cinema that deserves a wider audience. Perhaps this excellent Criterion set will help it find one.