Sep. 21, 2011
Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980)
Grade: 53/100

Director: Alain Resnais
Stars: Gérard Depardieu

What it's about. The saga of three middle-aged upwardly mobile French citizens. Their story is compared to tests involving laboratory rats, as explained by know-it-all professor Henri Laborit, who plays himself.

Our three featured players are stressed-out textiles manager Gérard Depardieu, radio executive Roger Pierre, and stage actress Nicole Garcia. Depardieu's job is threatened by ambitious ladder climbers brought in by a merger. Pierre, who suffers from kidney stones, must choose between his wife, Nelly Borgeaud, and his mistress, Garcia.

How others will see it. Director Resnais has had a lengthy and successful career in his native France. This is the only movie of his that I have seen. His career appears to have peaked with Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), but he continues to work, now in his late 80s.

Mon oncle d'Amérique was highly praised upon release. It picked up an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. In France, it was nominated for six César awards. The New York Film Critics Circle, who ought to have known better, named it Best Foreign Language Film. Today at, the number of votes is relatively low, but the user ratings are nonetheless very high. There is a modest decline with advancing age, from 8.0 under 30 and 7.8 under 45 to 7.5 over 45.

How I felt about it. We feel sorry for Depardieu, who has a family to support, as he is gradually pushed out of his familiar and well paying job into ultimate unemployment. The villain is Gérard Darrieu, who is competing for his job and is better at corporate politics.

If the film was all about sad sack Depardieu, it might be more engaging. But his downfall becomes exaggerated, and plays second fiddle to the ménage à troi between boring Pierre and the two women who not only love him, but go to great lengths to get him back. And the two women aren't that interesting, either.

What does make the movie different than the usual overdone romantic drama/comedy are the irregular appearances of co-author Henri Laborit, who makes sweeping generalizations about people based on the behavior of rats exposed to electrical shocks. We even see giant rats dressed like people walking around in houses, in case we still haven't gotten the analogy.

But one has to question the ethics of torturing rats with "mild" electric shocks, and whether the simplistic situations the rats are confronted with accurately parallel the complexity of contemporary human society.

People are subjected to stress every day. They tend to persevere, because they don't really have any choice. They don't fall on the floor writhing in public restaurants, and they don't stalk their discarded lovers on their private islands. They simply swallow their injustices, then complain about them at a later time to someone they trust. That isn't dramatic enough for our director, but it's life.