Alain Resnais is turning into one of the most interesting discoveries I’ve made since starting this blog. I mean, yeah, I did see Providence back in the mid-90s and Night and Fog around 2003, but I haven’t really started deliberately exploring his work until just recently. So we’ve leapt ahead a bit in time since our last look at him, he had a quiet 1970s and the films of that decade usually seem to be thought of as being more straightforward than his earlier ones. If they were (I haven’t seen Stavisky yet and remember bugger all about Providence), then this one seems him going back to heady territory… We have, technically, four characters, three fictional and one real, the latter being behavioural scientist Henri Laborit; the three fictional figures are all outlined at the film’s beginning in some detail, so we know how they’re going to interact before we see them doing so. As for how they interact with Laborit, that’s kind of in the manner of experimental animals (hilariously literalised in a few scenes where they appear with giant rat heads), cos the film is really intended as an illustration of some of Laborit’s theories, mainly one about how we react to negative stimulus either by changing the environment, fighting those who are trapped with us, or just giving in to complete passivity and associated physical complaints (the semi-Nietzschean idea that when we can’t turn our aggression against others, we turn it against ourselves). All three of them run away from home, for example, literally and metaphorically. But this is hardly a dry or even precise illustration; as Resnais says in this 1980 interview, neither he nor scriptwriter Jean Gruault wanted the characters to schematically fit the theories, and indeed one of the things that saves the film from that tendency is the hint that, however conditioned we might be to react in particular ways to particular situations, fate can still come along and throw a spanner in the works, maybe even for the better.
Mon oncle d’Amérique (1980)