I’ve gone to a lot of different corners of the world on this little quest of mine.
I’ve seen stories of political conflict in countries across the globe, been taken into a satirical version of the distant past, and even rocketed into the watercolour tones of deepest space.
On some of the grandest stages, in some of the furthest reaches, I have watched some incredible stories play out.
But with that in mind, perhaps it’s finally time I turn my attention back to a story that’s more intimate…and perhaps it’s time I came home.
As the Canadian classic, MON ONCLE ANTOINE begins, we learn that the small Quebec community that serves as its stage is run by the anglophones that own and operate the asbestos mine. Tensions between French and English in Quebec were high at this time, so the point goes a long way in establishing the story’s place in the historical landscape of the province.
The story begins in-earnest when we arrive at the town’s general store. A young teenage boy named Benoit is working there with his uncle Antoine (also the town’s undertaker) in the days leading up to Christmas. The store is mostly run by his aunt, and a young girl Benoit’s age they employ.
Just before the holidays, Antoine and his wife are approached by the family that runs the mine after their eldest son passes away. Antoine and Benoit are tasked with retrieving the body and preparing it for a funeral. However, the trip from the miner’s homestead back to the site of the funeral proves eventful for all the wrong reasons, and a grieving community is sent for a spin.
There have been a lot of conversations about this series, the films chosen, and how they come along with expectations. “Canon” might as well be a curse word around these parts.
Many might not realize this, but MON ONCLE ANTOINE comes with its own set of expectations considering that the critics and artists who have voted on TIFF’s Top Canadian Films list since its inception in 1984 have named this the best Canadian film of all time on three of the four surveys. (Last year ATANARJUAT: THE FAST RUNNER finally eclipsed it, knocking ANTOINE down to the silver medal position).
Forgetting for a moment that “Top Canadian Film of All Time” is a bit of a dubious distinction, what sort of approach is one supposed to take to such prestige? I can only imagine that this is a glimmer of what those who have watched CITIZEN KANE for this series have experienced.
I don’t know for sure if I’d call this “Top Canadian Film of All Time”, but I will say that this 45-year-old movie is freakishly better than many of its contemporaries from the era, and has aged amazingly well. The work is every bit as subtle and stunning as contemporary work of the era coming out of America, England, Australia, and The Soviet Union (to name but a few), and hangs itself on an amazingly transcendent story.
The truth is that knowing its status actually lowered my expectations, and for that I should be saying several prayers of penance. I could absolutely see the case for this film being considered “Top Canadian Film of All Time”, and even look forward to how it will factor into the landscape of the films to come in this country I call home – especially considering that said films are going through something of a boon in this new century.
What makes MON ONCLE ANTOINE so powerful is the way it finds the beauty in small moments. It can be the way that mourners gather around a casket, or the way a teenage girl tries on a wedding veil. The version I watched even seemed to only subtitle what it felt was “important dialogue”, so sometimes moments or two went by where I couldn’t understand what was being said.
The result was to focus on expression, inflection, and body language. Much of the movie relies on this – going a long way to underline political influences, personal legacies, and individual infatuations – but these moments especially felt particularly beautiful. It comes with a great deal of trust, and there are too many movies nowadays without this much trust in their audience or themselves.
So when we witness a girl cry a single tear…or we watch two acquaintances share a drink in the name of the holiday season…we feel a closer connection. There is an intimacy to the moments, and a great deal of humanity. They are happening in rooms that feel authentic, dotted with people who seem familiar.
There is great beauty in these simple moments, and the simple lives they represent. That’s what makes the ultimate moment of drama feel so scandalous. It betrays the warmth of this community – the simple code they all believe in.
MON ONCLE ANTOINE is a fable about life and death, specifically the way that death affects the lives of those that survive. The bereaved are nearly numb, the community becomes a cortège, and the church takes care of business. The three hands of the clock spin in-concert, but all at varying speeds. It’s been this way since the beginning and will continue to be so for a long time to come. Big cities, small towns, no difference.
However, even when we are united in grief, that doesn’t mean that everything goes as it should.
Even death can’t overcome the weaknesses of our most flawed individuals. And noble deeds attempted in the name of honouring the dead don’t always work-out the way we’d like. We’d like to hope it can…that it can allow us to rise above, and be our “best selves”. The truth though is that faced with death, we are often our “true selves”…for better and for worse.
The dead won’t care what version of ourselves we put forward. For those who still live, it can change their perception of us for a long time to come…for better and for worse.
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for October so far…
Beatrice watched ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW
Coog watched CINEMA PARADISO
Erin watched ORDET
Wendell watched FRANKENSTEIN and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Katie watched GREY GARDENS
Joshua watched ANDREI RUBLEV
Jay watched THE EXORCIST
Brittani watched MARNIE
Sean watched HORROR OF DRACULA
Melissa watched PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK
Kristina watched PEEPING TOM
KEVIN watched LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD
Steven watched THE EXORCIST