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  Mon Oncle d'Amerique All Action Is Useless
Year: 1980
Director: Alain Resnais
Stars: Gérard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia, Roger Pierre, Nelly Borgeaud, Pierre Arditi, Gerard Darrieu, Philipppe Laudenbach, Marie Dubois, Henri Laborit, Bernard Malaterre, Laurence Roy, Alexandre Rignault, Veronique Silver, Jean Lescot, Genevieve Mnich
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The heart beats and psychologist Henri Laborit (as himself) starts to narrate a set of images of wildlife, plants and animals, to illustrate what he has to say about human nature, which is plenty. In this lecture, three people will demonstrate his scientific theories of behaviour and how they relate to that of the fauna we share the world with, from crabs to rats to boars and more. First, Rene (Gérard Depardieu), who left his family business to move into textiles, then Janine (Nicole Garcia), daughter of Communist activists who became an actress, and finally Jean (Roger Pierre), born into privilege and aspiring to be a writer and politician...

The question here is whether we would be quite as interested in this French trio if we did not have the benefit of Laborit discussing their activities as if they were three of his rats, and contrasting so-called civilised behaviour with that of animals which do not entertain that kind of filter. In truth, they would each make for a decent film in themselves - their paths do cross eventually - but more one you would describe as "solid" than absorbing. Yet while they act out their drama in a fashion that you have to judge as realistic if you are going to get along with director Alain Resnais' film, it was seeing how they conformed to type that was intriguing.

Laborit tells us that humans are forever trying to attain a dominance over other humans, which is not quite what the animals do, so in every social situation we will be working out a method of what might in the sixties Britcom School for Scoundrels be termed oneupmanship (that film is not a million miles away from this one, only without so many jokes here). But there was humour, mostly taken from clips of the three characters' favourite movie stars, Danielle Darrieux, Jean Marais and Jean Gabin, which comments on the action in winking, cheeky manner and was obviously the inspiration for the style of cult sitcom Dream On that arrived around a decade later.

The problem with this approach was that you could be forgiven for sitting through it in a dispassionate frame of mind, noting the comments from the shrink on such subjects as the fight or flight impulses, not that he actually calls it that. But by showing us experiments on rats which are punished with electric shocks, or it appears given shocks arbitrarily no matter what they have done, we come to perceive that nature's way of either running away and hiding or picking a fight with someone to cope with the cruelties of this world are not the done thing in a community where we are meant to be civil with one another. In one vignette, a little man believes he has been bumped into by Rene emerging from a restaurant, for instance.

This little man demands an apology: he is taking the fight option. What he doesn't know is that Rene has been taking the flight option from a very unpleasant business meal and is in no mood for this nonsense, leading him to take the fight option: he pushes the little man to the ground. Again, we are told by society this is simply not the way to behave, you either sit out a bad situation and take it on the chin if you have any self-respect, and you do not resort to violence in any circumstances because there are consequences to all of this. Time and again we are served up anecdotes of how our suppressed animal nature is either diverted or adapted to cope with stressful situations, but sometimes that means a husband walking out on his family as much as it does more self-destructive reactions to the building pressure of modernity. Yet then, just at the end, we are pulled up short when a scene of genuine, tragic emotion arrives, and we are reminded this was not some dry treatise, these were real people we were watching, even if they were played by actors. It's a little late, but it has an effect. Music by Arie Dzierlatka.

[Click here to watch on MUBI.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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