My American Uncle – Alain Resnais and the thing that drives us. (Film Review)

My American Uncle is a metaphor for the happiness we all hope comes out of no where for no reason that we as human creatures for some strange reason think we deserve. There is a wonderful moment in the film when Janine (Nicole Garcia) is speaking with Zambeaux (Pierre Arditi) and she describes an assumption she’d always had that she would be happy in her life – that happiness would arrive, like a gift from an Uncle in America.  Zambeaux replies:  “America doesn’t exist. I know.  I’ve been there.”


The idea of the American Uncle sending a gift out of the blue for no reason is one expressed by each of the three main characters in this film at different times. The film is built around the ideas of French physician, writer and philosopher Henri Laborit, who plays himself in the film. It uses the stories of three people to illustrate Laborit’s theories on evolutionary psychology regarding the relationship of self and society. René (Gérard Depardieu) leaves the family farm to become an executive at a French textile firm. Janine leaves her proletarian family behind to become an actress who becomes involved with Jean (Roger Pierre), a well-educated bourgeois writer/politician. All three characters face difficult choices in life-changing situations that are designed to illuminate Laborit’s ideas.


Polish Film poster for the film.

Polish Film poster for the film.

The ideas expressed and the film itself, may seem a little dated now.  Laborit will sit as if being interviewed and explain his theories, which are then followed up by experiments with rats that act as supporting evidence for the theories and then the film will jump to key events in the lives of the three individuals, meant to further back up Laborit’s theories. The theories are based on the ideas of the three components of the psyche.  It show the unconscious, Resnais takes the (extremely interesting and quite subversive step) of having each characters subconscious represented by a film star they watch, admire and the inference is, emulate subconsciously. For René it is Jean Gabin, for Janine it is Jean Marais and for Jean it is Danielle Darrieux. To use film stars as the subconscious that Laboriot will tell us is the driving force behind all our behaviors, is subversive because of the glib and arbitrary nature of the choice of influence.  It is also an interesting commentary on the endless problem of our relationship with cinema (sinema) and its ability to affect the viewer because of their passive receptive attitude to the medium.


What is very interesting about the film is that despite Henri Laborit having co-written the script, and his appearing in the film, we are not at all certain that Resnais agrees with him. Shots chosen to represent human versions of the behavior that Laborit wants to illustrate often do not match his point. For example, an image of a warthog revealing its “base drive” by foraging for food will be intercut with a group of hunters who are going to shoot the animal. However, the hunting party are not shooting for food, but for sport. Resnais could easily go for the cliché of the family meal at such moments – the kinds of shots we expect from those promoting the ideas of evolutionary psychology. At first glance it is almost like Resnais is deliberately confusing the point.  But if course he is not. He is asking us to question, within the film medium, the way the film (life) affects us and the way our subconscious is driving us. In this way the film is very intense and complicated. It weaves in and out of itself using devices like plot and characterization to lift the viewer out of the film’s power as well as draw us back in.


In this way, the film is an important statement by a master film maker on the nature of film and its role / counter role in our lives. And this is far more Resnais point than promoting Laborit’s theories on evolutionary psychology. And yet, by taking this round-about route (a very common esnais trait) he does in fact promote Laborit’s theories, but in a fr more complex and sophisticated manner than Laborit is doing himself. Embedded in the film are questions about the role of the external influence – the big other as Lacan would call it – as people allow politics, marriage (as an institution and the enemy of love) and religion to guide their lives. At first glance it appears that adherence to these structures is convenience, or a point of rebellion. The scientific approach taken by Laborit overrides the decisions made by the protagonists. However, the film images that control the subconscious of the individuals override Laborits examples, and here Resnais is suggesting an artistic and philosophical dominance in the way the subconscious makes its choices. Laborit seems to argue the base drives are at the heart of our subconscious and in this Resnais does not agree. This argument is carried out within the subtleties of the film itself – never overtly – so that one gets the feeling it is a battle being waged in and for our subconscious.


Resnais likes to play with our viewing in this way. He is a director (who started out as an editor) extremely conscious of the power of film to influence, and he is not at ease with this problem. In films like Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour and Night and Fog he questions the role of memory and consciousness in our lives. In My American Uncle he is playing with the mind and our ability (or inability) to give up the childish longings of ‘rescue’ from life’s harsh realities and the adult willingness to take responsibility, within the framework of the possibility that this is never fully possible.


One final thing I will add.  Another very interesting aspect of the film is the impossible-to-miss influence this film must have had on Wes Anderson, particularly in his earlier films. Sections of the first half of My American Uncle reminded me very much of Rushmore and The Royal Tannenbaums (I haven’t seen Bottle Rocket to date) and although I can’t see Wes Anderson citing Resnais as an influence, I found it impossible to miss. My American Uncle starts almost as an off-beat comedy and it continues in that fashion till about three-quarters of the film. If you are a Wes Anderson fan, you’ll see the connection I’m sure.