MY AMERICAN UNCLE is Resnais’ groundbreaking cinematic reification of the nexuses of evolutionary psychology, propounded by French neurologist and philosopher Henri Laborit’s (1914-95), who plays himself in the film and intermittently expounds his theory with crying lucidity and eloquence aided by an assortment of optimal visual cues (lab mice and the experiments, prominently). “The being’s only reason for being is being.” a tenet puts rationality to the fore in dissecting the pedestrian lives of the triad of our human-formed guinea pigs: René Ragueneau (Depardieu), Janine Garnier (Garcia) and Jean Le Gall (Pierre).
Deconstructing their discrete childhood upbringing and adolescent rebellions in rapid-fire, incoherent montages, often alternating with shots of sundry critters in conjunction with an explanatory voiceover, might stump some viewers in the off, but Resnais’ stream-of-consciousness modus operandi pays great dividends when one gets the general picture of the narrative, meanwhile being inculcating by Laborit’s fascinating theory on human behaviorism - chiefly, the three evolved reactions in the face of stressful environments: fight, flight and inhibition.
Hailed from disparate backgrounds, Jean is born on an island and is fed off on an orthodox bourgeois value to thrive in the society, married with his childhood sweetheart Arlette (Borgeaud), and sinks his teeth into politics and writing; René is raised in a farmland with strict Catholic doctrines, who grows up and rebels against the rural livelihood, working his way to the executive post in a textile firm, married with Thérèse (Dubois); then Janine, from a proletariat household, renounces her ideology and aspires to an acting career on the stage. Their trifurcated trajectories intersect when Jean and Janine become an item, causing fraction in his family whereas René’s career path meets with some unforeseen setback that also puts a pernicious strain on his family and even his own life.
Behavioral contradictions abound in the three main characters (whose actions are signposted by black-and-white movie footage of three French screen idols: Jean Marais, Jean Gabin and Danielle Darrieux): a free-spirited Janine will naively take a fabricated lie on trust without ever questioning the fabricator’s motive; René’s thickset build doesn’t chime in with his suicidal predisposition and Jean, the high-flying politician endures the status quo despite it is all constructed upon a tremendous lie which is at the expense of the love of his life. All that reflects Laborit’s theory of the aforementioned three-step coping mechanisms.
Among the main cast, Depardieu eloquently smothers René’s pent-up frustration, trepidation and indignation inwardly and Pierre seems to error on the side of his hangdog countenance which is counter-productive towards Jean’s cowardly evasion, indeed, it is Garcia who holds court marvelously, her gelid facade poignantly flakes away when Janine has to get the shaft for being what? Overwhelmed by her intuited compassion of another woman’s dying wish, a scathing revelation imparted with appealing deception by an exceptionally mutable Borgeaud.
Finally, a lingering question, who is the titular American uncle? Alain Resnais’ cerebral, analytical character study doesn’t give audience a concrete answer (all three mention an American uncle at one point), to this reviewer’s lights, it is subsumed into an extrinsic vector that magnifies the three protagonists’ personal scrapes, or signifies an alternative of evasion, of a Sisyphean effort that one might not see its light during one’s lifetime, the star-spangled land might just as well be a castle in the sky, like Zambeaux (Arditi) said: “America doesn’t exist. I should know. I lived there.”, also perhaps alludes to “The American Forest” mural by Alan Sonfist, materializes in the telescoped, lingering ending shots.
In short, MY AMERICAN UNCLE is a kosher food for thought secures for revisits and contemplation for its sublime philosophy and sophistication (dialogue and visual flourishes), like as not, mankind’s entire societal behavioral pattern is acutely recapitulated through Resnais and Laborit’s fine-tooth comb.
referential entries: Resnais’ PROVIDENCE (1977, 7.1/10); LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961, 8.3/10), HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (1959, 8.1/10).