“Don’t worry, I won’t steal your memories.”
Based on the behaviorist survival theories of Henri Laborit, playing himself, and written by Jean Gruault (who wrote for Truffaut and Rivette, including Paris nous appartient). One of the strangest, most off-putting movies I’ve seen by Resnais. It takes you through the lives and relationships of three characters, but without the subjective view of Providence or the single perspective of Je t’aime, je t’aime, and using the scientific mind theories to distance us from the characters, to think of them as lab animals (one recalls the white mouse from Je t’aime), like the Coens’ Burn After Reading but, of course, better. We’re back to the associative memory-editing of Muriel and Marienbad, appropriately as the narration explicitly tells us how memory works with our survival instincts.
Odd attempt to combine scientific thought with an entertaining story. Despite the lab comparisons breaking down our characters’ behavior, I didn’t feel completely detached from them or unsympathetic. In fact, maybe I was even more sympathetic, watching them fail and hurt each other while our scientist tells us their own lower instincts are responsible for the hurt. Besides the lab flashbacks, each main character has a favorite film actor, and when they’re having a mood, Resnais cuts in a short, dialogue-less associative clip of their hero portraying the same emotion.
Apparently this was supposed to be a documentary on Laborit, who said the only person who could make a successful documentary on his work would be Alain Resnais, who surprisingly agreed to do it, hiring Gruault to write the story around the theories. I would love to check out the half-hour interview with Gruault on the foreign DVD sometime.
Starts out by sketching the three protagonists’ life stories using stills a la La Jetee or Dog’s Dialogue, from birth through their career, then backs up to an earlier career stage and picks up with the story proper.
Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia of Duelle) had communist parents, defied them to become a stage actress. After starring in a successful play for a year, she started an affair with radio news reporter Jean Le Gall and started work at a textile company, eventually becoming a manager.
Jean (Roger Pierre), also a historian and a struggling author, had children with his wife Arlette (Truffaut star Nelly Borgeaud, the mysterious married woman in The Man Who Loved Women). He was born on a private island, to which he returns to clear his head or to impress girls.
René (Gerard Depardieu, who has come a long way since his Stavisky cameo) left his family farm to become an accountant. He works at the textile plant until there is a merger and he’s pitted against another accountant, an intimidating hyper-efficient guy (Gerard Darrieu, three shots down, who had small parts in Elevator to the Gallows, Z and The Elusive Corporal). Depardieu loses his post, is sent to a faraway town to manage another office, which separates him from his wife Thérèse (Marie Dubois, lead girl in Shoot the Piano Player, also in Malle’s The Thief) and makes him nervous all the time, not really being the managing type.
Jean has “kidney attacks,” lashing out at whoever is near him when he’s in pain. His wife Arlette visits Janine in secret and tells Janine she is dying as a (successful) scheme to get Jean back. Gerard can’t take the pressure of his new job and after a meeting with management (Janine herself) attempts suicide. All this is compared to studies of rats subjected to electric shocks, how they behave when escape is possible (escape!), when no escape is possible (depression) and when another rat is present (meaningless fighting). The movie’s scientist announces that the movie aims to show us how our brains work and cause negative behaviors so we can better understand ourselves and others. Ambitious movie!
Human behavioral analysis (and/or Gerard Depardieu) must’ve been in vogue in ’80 because this won major critics awards and a Cannes jury prize. Lost all six of its Cesar nominations to The Last Metro (also starring Gepardieu), and lost its writing oscar to Melvin and Howard.
I’m not clear who Zambeaux was, but he’s played by Pierre Arditi, Rossellini’s Blaise Pascal, who became a Resnais fave (he was the silver-haired main man on Not on the Lips and the bartender in Coeurs). Jean’s family friend Michel (who helps Jean lose his job) is Philippe Laudenbach, below, who played the war-scarred young man’s buddy in Muriel, later in Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours.
from Emma Wilson’s Resnais book:
Mon oncle d’Amérique seeks to set up mirroring patterns between art and science through its own internal reflections. The manner of presentation of Laborit mirrors that of the protagonists, despite his different status with relation to the film’s drama. Fusing fiction and documentary, Resnais opens space in the film for Laborit to offer short discourses on human behavior. We see him talking to camera, presenting his ideas as if he were in a documentary. The experimental basis of his work is reflected as Resnais illustrates Laborit’s ideas with close-up scenarios showing laboratory rats. The relation of these scenarios, and of Laborit’s discourses, to the action in the film as a whole is further suggested as in its late stages we see both Le Gall and Ragueneau in rat form, with rat faces, acting out their own dilemmas.
Houston, quoted by Wilson:
Not since Muriel, perhaps, has Resnais made a film structured for such precise, delicate and sympathetic effects; and it may not be coincidental that this is also the first film he has made for many years, really since Muriel, which is wholly French and of the present.
The title refers to an illusory ideal of happiness. What one of the characters says: “America doesn’t exist. I know; I lived there.”