Christmas Crazy: Mon Oncle Antoine – Claude Jutra (1971)


I’ve always found that the best kind of art is the coy kind, the kind that sneaks the seriousness in through the back door. The way Kurt Cobain used to hide the serious lyrics in a mishmash of nonsense and contradiction, or the way Bergman and Ozu could deal with death and broken dreams while still bringing the fart jokes. Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine is of that same mold, ostensibly a charming, somewhat sentimental tale of a rural Christmas from the point of view of Benoit, who at fifteen is trying to figure out his place in the cycle between his childish behaviors and his adult feelings.

The film is set in the 1940s, in a rural Quebec mining town that seems to revolve around the general store owned by Benoit’s foster family, uncle Antoine and aunt Cecile. It’s the kind of store where you buy your baby food, your wedding veil and, eventually, your coffin. In the early winter morning, everyone comes out in the cold to see the unveiling of the Christmas display in the window, but is really just a reason to get together and have a few drinks and gossip. To Benoit’s eyes — and to his foster cousin Carmen’s eyes — it’s a stuffy, vaguely oppressive environment, but the isolation of the town, where horse and sleigh are still legitimate means of transportation, leaves them bemused rather than moody and sullen until one of the miner’s children dies and Benoit and Antoine make the trip as undertakers.

It’s the first trip of the kind for Benoit, the first test of his adulthood. Will the adult overtake the child, or will the child remain? Though the film is 40 years old, it somehow becomes more relevant as the idea of delayed adulthood grips us. Jutra’s Christmas setting and balance social politics and wry comedy — mostly at the expense of the hapless townsfolk — is the perfect setup for this question. More subtly the question is also asked of Carmen, who has new feelings of her own to contend with while Benoit braves the snow to take a peek at death.

DVDs NUTS – Goodbye First Love/Tomboy/Harold and Maude

Goodbye First Love

First love is not an un-essayed topic in film. It may be the most over-essayed, in fact, but French director Mia Hansen-Love brings a delicate combination of immediacy and an arm’s-length distance to the screen as she traces almost a decade’s worth of scar tissue built up on a young girl’s heart. Minutes become hours, hours become days, days become weeks as 16-year-old Camille (the lovely Lola Creton) breaks apart emotionally while waiting for a letter from her first love, Sullivan, who seems to have forgotten her as he backpacks around South America. But Hansen-Love doesn’t hold Camille up for ridicule for her love-sick teen silliness in this fly-on-the-wall drama. Everyone’s been there, so instead, the picture painted almost causes a collective sigh of relief at a shared, intimate moment of helpless awkwardness. (available now through video on demand)


Celine Sciamma’s unflinching childhood drama stars newcomer Zoe Heran as a 10-year-old girl named Laure who, upon moving with her family to a new city, convinces the new group of kids that she falls in with that she’s really a boy named Michael. She disguises herself with short hair and boyish tank tops and a little sister who is good at fibbing, but carefree summers always have to be paid for eventually. Tomboy is a tough and often uncomfortable film to watch (think My Life as a Dog commingled with a less aggressive Fat Girl), but it’s a thoroughly rewarding look outside of the walls of the normal emotional prisons that adolescence constructs around us. (available now)
Special Features: Behind-the-scenes featurette

Harold and Maude

Criterion Collection Cocaine is a hell of a drug, and it did a hell of a number on director Hal Ashby, who ruled the 1970s with a solid decade of eccentric brilliance, earning seven Oscars from 24 nominations for films like Shampoo, The Last Detail and Being There. But perhaps the best of the bunch is the one that received no Oscar nominations at all: 1971’s beautifully delicate Harold and Maude, featuring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon as the most unlikely couple to ever be in cahoots together. Gordon’s Maude is the Grand Dame of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls, one that none have ever lived up to, and Cort sets his world on fire with a pair of wickedly bright downcast eyes to match a wicked sense of the macabre. Modern auteurs like Wes Anderson and Gus Van Sant owe an awful lot to Ashby for making this film. (available now)
Special Features: Audio commentary, Hal Ashby seminar, Cat Stevens interview

Le Mans – Lee H. Katzin (1971)


I don’t care for racing. I don’t like NASCAR, or Forumla One, or Indie or stock car racing, or even demolition derbys. I don’t watch for the racing, nor do I watch for the crashes. I’ve feared for my life during every impromptu drag race I’ve been an unwitting participant in (always in the passenger seat) down Aloma or University. Honestly: I don’t even have a driver’s license.

But Steve McQueen’s Le Mans is, to me, one of the most exciting films I’ve ever seen.

If you explained the movie to someone without saying it was a Steve McQueen film, you’d probably get a blank stare and a shrug. There really isn’t much to the film beyond McQueen’s screen presence and the charm of a revving Porsche for nearly two hours. But when it’s Steve McQueen and a souped up racing Porsche, that’s more than enough to carry a film.

Le Mans is a 24 hour race in France where two drivers take turns racing one car and the film is portrayed as realistically as possible. It’s a race that McQueen himself has taken part in it, coming in second place behind Mario Andretti’s team in 1970.

The plot is the race, and the theme is overcoming demons to win a race. There are side characters and rivalries with other racers and car manufacturers, but boiled down to it’s essence, it’s all about the race. When you put it like that it sounds overly simplistic, but when it’s put in action by this group, the balls and guts behind it elevate it to something beyond. You feel the fatigue of driving in a way that you don’t in any other racing film. The race is edge of your seat stuff, and the portions when McQueen is resting are perfectly paced, and much needed, breaks from the action so you can collect your nerves and relax your ass muscles as well.

While you have to take movies like The Fast and the Furious or The Legend of Speed on face value and call them dumb fun, you couldn’t rightly call Le Mans dumb fun. There is a serious-minded bent to the film. There is so much riding on the race personally and financially, and doubtless some of the pressure from the film itself needing to be a hit (it wasn’t) comes through in the film as well.

It’s not meant to be fun, it’s meant to be exciting. It is fun, but not in the modern sense, where there is some resignation behind the sentiment, but fun in the gritty 1970s sense, like The French Connection and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three were fun, a sense that is now dead and will never return. In short, you don’t have to turn your brain off for Le Mans to make a connection and take hold in your brain. It’s all down to McQueen. By rights, you’d have to call this Steve McQueen’s Le Mans — he called the shots, he was the muscle that got the film made.

McQueen is, of course, a man’s man. He is probably the very definition of the term. There is a movie called The Tao of Steve that uses that idea as it’s basic thesis (though the thesis is sound, it’s application in the movie by Donal Logue is basically adolescent in nature). He’s done this stuff for real and it shows on screen. There is an easy confidence to him being on the race track that exudes from every pore of his being. He’s driven these cars in races. He belongs in that white and red racing suit, it’s as natural on his body as his short blond hair.

Of course, Mario Andretti just thought of him as an asshole from Hollywood, not as a real racer. Andretti, I think, was more terrified of losing a race to an asshole from Hollywood than he was of just simply losing, which is a position that you can certainly understand.

Andretti won at Le Mans, but McQueen won with Le Mans, even if it took years after the fact (and after his death) for that to come true.