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  Mon Oncle Antoine Unhappy Christmas
Year: 1971
Director: Claude Jutra
Stars: Jacques Gagnon, Lyne Champagne, Jean Duceppe, Olivette Thibault, Claude Jutra, Lionel Villeneuve, Helene Loiselle, Mario Dubuc, Lise Brunelle, Alain Legendre, Robin Marcoux, Serge Evers, Monique Mercure, Georges Alexander, Rene Salvatore Catta
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 1 vote)
Review: Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) is a young boy who has been sent to stay with his Uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) and Aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault) in a rural region of Quebec. There, they run the local store of the small town they reside in, and his uncle has a sideline in being the resident undertaker, respectfully collecting and preparing the corpses for their funerals and eventual burial. It is hoped Benoit will learn this trade, because after all every young man needs a trade to learn, but there's one problem: the bodies and being around death in general makes him squeamish; will he grow out of this or will he be trapped in a profession he hates?

For a long time, Mon Oncle Antoine was named by critics and cognoscenti as the greatest Canadian film of all time. Roger Ebert put it on his Great Movies list, time and again it was voted top of polls, and it was taught in the film studies of their esteemed universities. But these days? It's not so much talked about, in fact it's kind of an embarrassment. Now, the film remains the same, whether you enjoyed it or not, so what changed? It was the audience's reaction, for the real issue was its creative instigator and guide, Claude Jutra, yes, it was something we could call the Roman Polanski effect, for revelations about his private life sabotaged his efforts retrospectively.

In 2016, it was revealed (or claimed) in a biography that Jutra, who was gay, had a predilection for teenage boys, specifically his sexual appetites were for rent boys who he apparently had no problem in finding. Now, if you were Pier Paolo Pasolini, cineastes were willing to overlook the same thing, but Jutra really only had one classic film under his belt as the rest of his career, while no disaster, had not made the same impact, therefore his previous supporters had little choice but to throw his reputation under a bus, as the saying goes. Therefore, pretty much overnight a champion of queer cinema had become a pariah, a cinematic persona non grata. Was this unfortunate?

It was certainly unfortunate for those young boys who crossed his path, so maybe we should have no sympathy for someone who had made what amounted to an anti-Christmas movie with this, but had done it artfully so that it appeared as if it was a respectable takedown of the holiday season. It was no Bad Santa, granted, but if you preferred you Canadian Christmases to feature Santa Claus being gunned down in a shopping mall as in David Cronenberg's Rabid, this would probably not appeal, for there was a self-importance about Jutra's technique, not to mention an unpalatable lesson about the harshness of existence he wished to impart, that was performed with little humour (or few actual laughs, at least) and a whole lot of boredom for anybody but the most nostalgic Quebecois resident.

In fact there was an anti-nostalgia here, in that it depicted rural Canadian life with such lack of sentimentality that it rendered what could have been moving, or engaging anyway, with a cruelty that was difficult to take, since it was put across with such a directness there was nothing left to react to, the only nuance varying from nasty sexuality or overbearing religiosity and always that spectre of death to tackle. It was like the sort of person who, if they see you enjoying yourself, is wont to point out some unpleasant fact or opinion to give themselves an authority that a simple joke would never consider, that overbearing quality especially evident when in the second half Benoit must accompany Antoine to a remote house where a boy has died, to collect his cadaver. Jutra also a took an acting role as the store clerk who is shagging the aunt of the unfortunate uncle (who admits being an undertaker makes him sick), and true to form with many an acting auteur, he showed himself naked here. It was doubtless a cultural thing, but didn't travel well, and there was not enough to rise above its director's behaviour (he killed himself in quasi-mysterious circumstances fifteen years later). Music by Jean Cousineau.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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