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.