MON ONCLE D’AMERIQUE (Alain Resnais, 1980)

Alain Resnais’ Mon oncle d’Amérique blends documentary and fictional aspects. Evolutionary biologist/behaviorist Henri Laborit, who appears as himself, had selected Resnais as the logical person to direct a documentary in which he, Laborit, would present his views about human behavior on the basis of experiments with rats. Resnais brought in Jean Gruault to expand the concept, however, by devising a script about fictional characters to accompany Laborit’s science lectures. A female and two males, these characters whose lives intersect come from different backgrounds; they are a one-time radical who subsequently pursues careers in acting and business, a factory middle-manager who anxiously faces corporate downsizing, and a public radio news manager who leaves wife and kids for the actress. Their autobiographical voiceovers extend a documentary air to the fiction. Depending on one’s point of view, the film conforms to a point-point model, in which fictional characters illustrate Laborit’s ideas, a point-counterpoint model, in which the characters’ actions and behaviors ill match Laborit’s ideas, or a more elusive and ambiguous thing that falls somewhere in between these two models—if you will, a partial illustration.
     Among the issues addressed: inhibited behavior; uninhibited behavior/“defensive violence”; circumstances under which one turns aggressive behavior against oneself or others; the relationship between social conditioning and nervous system functioning; competition; domination; “what we call ‘mental illness’”; group and individual survival; the cultural, political and geopolitical applications of all these, including war and racism.
     Laborit: “Language convinces the individual that in serving the group he is serving himself.”
     The title refers to an illusory ideal of happiness. What one of the characters says: “America doesn’t exist. I know; I lived there.”
     Wonderfully, characters at certain points wear rat heads!
     The film ends with a montage of building bricks, a metaphor for human “personality” and the unconscious.
     Fascinating film!

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