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Film / Mon oncle d'Amérique

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Mon Oncle d'Amerique is a 1980 film from France directed by Alain Resnais, starring Gérard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia, Pierre Arditi and Roger Pierre.

On one level it is a collection of three separate but interrelated stories. René (Depardieu) is a farmboy who yearns to escape his father's farm, and eventually finds work in a textile firm. Janine (Garcia) is a young communist radical who finds work as an actress, against her parents' wishes. Jean (Pierre) is an upper-class man who works in the government's Ministry of Information and also writes. All deal with pressures at work and at home typical of working people in urban France. Although René's and Jean's stories do not ever intersect, Janine interacts with both of them, first as Jean's lover and then as a business associate of René's.

On a second level, it is a documentary about the unconscious brain and how basic human instincts, such as the urges to survive and procreate, shape human behavior. This part is centered around scientist Henri Laborit, who appears as himself. It is Laborit's thesis that little about human behavior is the result of our own conscious choices. According to Laborit, most of our choices are driven by the basic animal brain and its response to needs such as hunger and thirst and stimuli such as pleasure and pain. What choices we make that aren't driven by the animal brain are in fact the result of sociological conditioning, on how we have been trained and influenced by our parents, our families, and our work environments. Laborit's theories are illustrated by experiments performed on rats—and also by the three protagonists, who react to stimuli in much the same ways.


  • Anachronic Order: The bulk of the film is in chronological order, but there are many short sequences that show the future or the past.
  • Anger Montage: A montage of the three characters acting out and being angry both as children and adults is painted by Laborit as a response to negative stimuli.
  • Animal Motifs: The actions of the characters are explicitly compared to the behaviour of animals, in particular of a rat that is trapped in a cage where he receives electric shocks.
  • As Himself: Laborit appears as himself, explaining his research.
  • At the Opera Tonight: Jean and his wife attend a theatre play. Janine plays the main role. In the end, Jean wishes to congratulate her and so he meets his future mistress.
  • Behavioral Conditioning: Pretty much the whole message of the movie, which presents three fictional characters as illustrations of Henri Laborit's theories of how the unconscious brain and learned responses to stimuli condition us to make what we incorrectly believe are conscious choices.
  • Book Ends: The same images are showed in the beginning and in the end (a wild boar, a turtle, a bicycle, a sewing machine, a patchwork of photographs of the main characters, and a view of Jean's island).
  • Bungled Suicide: René tries to hang himself but is saved when his landlady enters his room to tell him that Janine called. Laborit explains suicide as a nervous system directing its aggression inward when it can't direct it anywhere else.
  • Call-Back: Many of the scenes from early in the movie are replayed later as the product of stimuli as predicted by Laborit's theory. The scene where a young Jean flips a turtle on its back is later reframed as the nervous system expressing aggression in response to stress.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: René does it before leaving his father's farm.
  • Character Narrator: Jean, René and Janine narrate part of their respective story.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: Jean's wife tells Janine that she is sick and she will die soon. She begs Janine to let Jean come back home. So, Janine breaks up with Jean. Later, when Jean meets Janine again, he tells her that he knows why she dumped him: because he had just been fired.
  • Desk Sweep of Rage: René swipes his daughters' books off a table because he is frustrated about his job.
  • Dinner with the Boss: René invites Léon Veestrate for dinner at home. He prepares an elaborate dish, but unfortunately, Veestrate does not like it. Downplayed, because Veestrate is not René's boss, but a rival who supervises his work.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Even in French movies! Here the Eiffel Tower is used to demonstrate that René has arrived in Paris for a meeting with management.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Jean is fired from the radio. He asks his friend for advice. Janine shows up and she reveals that his friend was involved in the firing decision.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father:
    • René's father wants his sons to be farmers like himself. They have to hide to read books about accounting and even agronomy (because he does not want to modernize his farm).
    • Janine's parents does not want her to be an actress. When she is getting ready to leave with a company for a tour, her mother shows up and slaps her in the face.
  • Firing Day:
    • Jean understands that he is fired from the radio because the door of his office is locked and all his belongings have been put outside.
    • Subverted in the case of René. His rival seems to be more successful. He is invited to meet his boss in Paris. René outright tells his boss that he expects to be fired, but he is only reassigned to another job.
  • Follow in My Footsteps: René's father wants his sons to be farmers like himself.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The general presentation of the three main characters reveals some important plot points: René will leave his father's farm and have a successful carreer in the textile industry; Jean will not work very long for the radio; Janine will meet a powerful man, then will work as a stylist...
  • Genre-Busting: An odd mix of contemporary drama and documentary.
  • Greek Chorus: Laborit appears As Himself on screen, but he does not take part in the action. His scientific explanations can be considered as comments about the actions of the protagonists.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Laborit demonstrates scientifically that human actions always aim at dominating others. Violence is only prevented thanks to social conditioning. The actions of the protagonists are not heroic: Jean mocks a radio presenter whose show he unceremoniously cancelled, leaves his wife and children for Janine, and then dumps Janine as well. Janine is quick to take her friend's role in the play Julie after said friend has one argument too many with the director, and she thinks nothing of charming the married Jean. René is generally kind to others, but the film implies that this is what makes him attempt suicide.
  • Hyperlink Story: There is not a single main character, but three. Their storylines seem unrelated at first, but they are drawn together over the course of the film (Janine becomes Jean's mistress, then René's colleague). Moreover, they are all used as illustrations of Laborit's scientific theories.
  • Imagine Spot: The sequences with actors wearing rat masks show what the characters would do, if they were not conditioned to avoid violent behaviours. For example, René fights with Léon Veestrate in his office.
  • Love Triangle: Janine and Arlette compete for Jean's love.
  • Match Cut: The association between the three protagonists and the movie stars associated with them (see Stock Footage below) is deemed by the frequent use of match cuts between the protagonists and the stock footage. A shot of Janine angrily going through a door is matched with a stock footage clip of Jean Marais exiting a door.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The film starts off with the births and childhoods of the three protagonists before following then into adulthood, demonstrating how our choices are influenced by early childhood.
  • The Mistress: Janine becomes Jean's mistress after he goes backstage to congratulate her after the final performance of the initial run of Julie.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Jean is a would-be writer. He would like to write a book about the sun. Finally, he writes a book about his experience as a radio executive.
  • Nice Mean And In Between: Downplayed, because René is not very nice and Jean is not very mean, but Jean is the meanest character: he makes fun of the guy that he has taken off the air, he abandons his wife and children for his mistress, and finally he drops his mistress. Janine is in between: she does not hesitate to take her friend's role in the theatre play, and she charms a married man. René is quite nice with other people: the meanest thing he does is losing his temper when he is under pressure (for example, he shouts at his wife when he has to move to Cholet to keep his job).
  • Non-Human Head: Some scenes are played by actors wearing rat masks.
  • Once More, with Clarity: Some scenes with animals are shown twice (for example the wild boar, the crab, the puppy, the turtle). The first time, they seem to be part of a wildlife documentary unrelated to the main characters. The second time, the images are shown in a longer sequence that links them with the characters (the wild boar is hunted by Jean and Janine runs into it when she is looking for him, the crab is caught by Jean and his grandfather on the beach of the island, the puppy was René's pet when he was a child, the turtle was turned upside down by Jean when he was a child).
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Downplayed. Part of René's career slide is when the management of his textile company reassigns him to a run-down factory out in the boonies. He is unhappy with it because it is far away from where he lives, but he is given more responsibility and a higher pay.
  • The Rival: René's career starts to go south when another executive, Léon Veestrate, is introduced into his office. He dresses like him and starts answering his phone.
  • The Runaway: Janine runs away from her home because her parents do not want her to be an actress.
  • Second-Act Breakup: In the middle of the film, Janine breaks up with Jean. They do not make up in the end.
  • Set Behind the Scenes: Janine is a would-be actress. We see her attending a rehearsal. Then she is given a role and she takes part in the rehearsal. Finally, she performs the play in front of the audience.
  • Shout-Out: Stock Footage of classic French films is inserted in the main story: Mayerling (1936), Ruy Blas (1947), Pleins feux sur Stanislas (1965), La Belle Équipe (1936), and Les Grandes Familles (1958).
  • Show Within a Show: Parts of the theatre play of Janine are shown.
  • Small Town Boredom: Jean wants to leave Brittany. He wants to go to Paris to enjoy its brilliant cultural life.
  • Staggered Zoom: The final sequence shows a series of shots of grim urban blight, then shows an elaborate mural on the side of a building, a painting of a lush green forest. Then the camera goes into a closeup via a series of Staggered Zooms to show that the mural of the forest looks like meaningless blotches of paint when examined close up.
  • Stock Footage: Each of the three main characters is matched with a star of classic French cinema: Janine with Jean Marais, Jean with Danielle Darrieux, and René with Jean Gabin. Their moods are often illustrated with stock footage clips from performances by those stars.
  • Tantrum Throwing: Janine throws a vase when Jean locks her up in her room.
  • Title Drop: No one actually has an American uncle. It's a stock French saying about imaginary people that will solve all your problems, and the three leads each reference their supposed American uncle at different times during the film.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: There are three narrative threads: Jean, René and Janine's story. Quite early, Janine meets Jean and their narrative threads are merged. In the end, Janine meets René.
  • You All Share My Story: The storylines of the three main characters seem unrelated at first, but they are drawn together over the course of the film; Jean has an extramarital affair with Janine, and when it ends and she gets a job in the textile industry, she becomes a professional colleague of René.