In one of those epiphanies in my life, I was struck by this vision: the vision of an almost comical inevitability of the tragedy of our everyday lives. We wallow in the instant need of responding to external and internal stimuli, that the response itself takes a tangential ride from the original stimulus. Attempts to gain a supposedly broader and deeper perspective to evaluate and approximate are fraught with a curious mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. You may think of this whole affair of living life as something which is fundamentally funny.
This reminds me of a book I've read sometime back, when towards the end the protagonist of the story looses his weight totally, stays suspended upon the sky of his hometown. From that vantage point he could watch the town unfolding its vignettes of human follies and cruelties afflicted upon themselves and others. The behavior patterns have become so predictable, that the more he watched, the less he became amused and he started losing the point of it all. The reality of it all became surreal or meta-real (if there is such a word).
Alain Resnais' movie, My American uncle (1980) is a celebration of this vision. Probably, the best commentary movie ever made. It does not delve deep into the human psyche or questions of the soul, it simply juxtaposes a few scenes and conversations from the everyday lives of three highly motivated and extremely mixed-up persons.
They are René Ragueneau (Gérard Depardieu), a successful textile company executive who is suddenly faced with the loss of his career; Jean Le Gall (Roger Pierre), an ambitious politician with a desire for total power, both private and public; and Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia), Jean's mistress and a would-be actress who makes a noble sacrifice only to find that, like most noble sacrifices, it's a self-defeating gesture. While their actions and motives are being commented in the background, parallely a discussion on human behavior and the functioning of brain is going on with Dr. Henri Laborit, a bona fide behavioural scientist, who formulated his theories of biological and emotional triggers. You could find Alain Resnais himself, interviewing the doctor.
While the characters in the movie are going about living their lives, Dr. Laborit is the author. The doctor, one of the people responsible for the development of drugs to control the emotions, is the wise, literate, unflappable host, and My American Uncle is the show. (Remember the Ed Harris' role of director in The Truman Show?). Of major concern to Dr. Laborit is the manner in which people inhibit their primal urges to dominate their landscapes and everyone around them.
Gerard Depardieu portrays René, a good, practicing Catholic, a stalwart fellow who has left the family farm to make a career in industry, who has a decent wife and family and an unquestioned faith in the future, a fellow who is, in short, totally unprepared for the stresses and strains when they come. Being a civilized man, René doesn't fight back. He develops ulcers, a perfect disability for a man whose hobby is haute cuisine.
Jean, the politician, doesn't hesitate to leave his wife and children when he falls in love with Janine, but all the time he's living with Janine he is plagued by kidney stones. When Jean's wife comes to Janine and says she's dying of cancer, Janine sends Jean back to his wife, only to learn later that she's been tricked. Emotional blackmail is the common currency of their lives.
Miss Garcia is charming as the spunky, seemingly independent Janine, whose finally acknowledged fury with her lover brings the movie to a liberating conclusion. Even Roger Pierre's Jean, the only character in the film who is essentially nasty, is comic in the righteous way he attempts to justify self-absorption.
While the motives and behaviors of the characters are being mercileslly dissected, Resnais romps home the poignancy of his futile findings when towards the end. Dr. Laborit demostrates his theory on behavioral patterns on Laboratory mice followed by the violent transgressions between Rene, Jean and Janine into the physical and mental boundaries of each other. The experiment may be summarised as the following: Consider two mice in a cage separated by a wall and subject them to electric shock seperately and then take the wall off. In the first instance, the mice fought against the contours of the cage and finally resign to their fate, but when they were left together, they invariably ended up hurting each other.
Dr. Laborit contended, that the stress and strain can elicit such behavior in humans as well and we find the fictional characters in the movie obliging. Amidst all these Resnais toys with the concept of "life is elsewhere" with the mythical character of american uncle who is as elusive and hopeless as any other symbol of redemption.
This is not a fact finding film, but a deeply involved, comically empathetic narration on the pathos and bathos of human lives. Resnais has achieved such mastery over the medium that his freehanded use of soap opera, docudrama, personal reflections, dreams, commentary and sometimes flooding surrealistic thought processes unleashed on the engaged and involved audience make a powerful statement:
- that after all human behavior isn't quite as mysterious as we like to pretend it is and that, most of the terrible things that happen to us need not be inevitable and eminently avoidable. Alas! if only we knew how blind sighted we have been.
*Note: I watched this movie nearly about 12 years ago. So I had to rely heavily on NY Times review of the movie for the plot and other details. However the views are entirely mine and also the fact that Resnais had made such an unforgettable impact on my movie sensibilities that I feel relieved to be able to unburden my thoughts now. If and when I watch it again, I might want to revisit this review, but so far unsuccesfull. The movie is a must watch.
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