My American Uncle
Is a film like My American Uncle didactic? We ask the question not as a critical term of abuse, but as a probing inquiry into a work that seem to set itself up didactically. Based on the theories of behavioural biologist Henri Laborit, the film explores the actions of three characters through some of Laborit's musings. At one moment in the film Laborit explains how rats deal with stressful experiments. He notes that when you put rats in a box and electrify part of the box, that if you offer a warning signal for them to pass through the door into the safe part of the box they learn very quickly. They also manage in this dangerous environment, which they nevertheless can control by jumping out of one part of the box to the other, to retain extremely good health. As the "animal is subjected to this experiment ten minutes a day, seven days in a row", at the end the week it is in a wonderful state of well-being. If you offer the same experiment with the door between the compartments closed, so the rat can't escape, the animal after a week is a wreck, and Resnais shows us the rat with hair standing on end and exhibiting what Laborit would call signs of inhibition. It cannot act, and for Laborit this is absolutely vital for beings. As he says as the beginning of the film, the mind is not for thinking but action: it must be able to react. But what happens if the second experiment is repeated but this time with another rat in the box? The punishment is inevitable, and neither rat can escape, but they can at least fight each other - and that is exactly what they do. This means that unlike in the prior experiment, there are no pathological side-effects and both rats retain good health.
The problem, the film explores, is that humans cannot so readily fight, and when caught in equivalent situations of fight or flight, they can often do neither. Resnais plays out the complications of human endeavour against Laborit's theories as his three characters get caught in various conflicts. There are Rene's (Gerard Depardieu) problems at work as he is more or less demoted and finds himself living 600 kilometres from his family; Jean (Roger Pierre) who is torn between his wife and his lover, and the third main character Janine (Nicole Garcia), who loves the theatre but cannot survive through it. There is for all of the characters a sense of compromise as they try to live their dreams (illustrated by intermittent footage of their favourite actors, Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux and Jean Marais respectively) but confront human reality. The rats and the stars are like the extreme poles of being in the film: between basic nervous systems and elevated iconographies, where does the general human fit into existence?
Not that the stars are utilised especially for their glamour: Jean Gabin would frequently play doomed heroes, and Jean Marais is shown tumbling down steps near the end of the film as Janine realizes that any relationship with Jean is completely over. But they do represent elevated selves in the sense explored by Laborit. The first brain is the reptilian brain, where the focus is in on eating, drinking and copulating as its purpose is basic survival. The second level is the memory brain, where without this memory mammals could not love, get angry, feel hurt. The third brain is the cerebral cortex, which is very developed in humans, and allows us to make connections between things and also to be creative.
An actor contains within him a great health taking into account some of the comments above (they can quite literally act), and also comments by the existentialist Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus when he says of man that "nothing interests him more than himself, especially his potentialities. Whence his interest in the theatre where so many fates are offered him..." Camus adds that the actor, "entering into all these lives, experiencing them in all their diversity, amounts to acting them out." There seems to be a sort of hierarchy of impulses here, where the theatregoer gets to hypothesize a scenario, and an actor goes further by taking the opportunity to act it out. That is exactly what Jean and Janine do when they first meet. Janine is the actress acting out her emotional pain, while Jean is in the audience watching and falling in love with her. Yet later in the film Janine is rejected and cannot act out the pain but must rely on the hypothetical, as we see images of Jean Marais falling down the stairs.
Now what stops the film from being didactic is that Laborit proposes man's potentiality while to some degree Resnais films his limitations - but at the same time shows how it could be otherwise. Many films have happy endings or pessimistic endings, but Resnais', by working from Laborit's ideas, goes beyond the happy and sad and arrives at potentiality. The three characters are too rarely it seems given the opportunity to express their third brain, and yet is that not exactly what Resnais wants us to do in watching his film, and is it not exactly what Resnais and Laborit themselves have achieved in their working lives? Resnais started out by making key documentaries in the fifties including Night and Fog, and went on to be one of the most important figures in modern cinema with Hiroshima, mon amour, and Last Year at Marienbad. Laborit's impressiveness is offered to the viewer shortly after we have been introduced to the three leading characters' lives. He is married with five kids, likes horse-riding and sailing, was awarded the Legion of Honour, the croix de guerre, 1939-45, and decorated by the Ministry of Education.
This could of course give the film a smug superiority towards its characters, as we're likely to know something of Resnais' achievements, and are made aware within the film of Laborit's. But though the film offers an ironic detachment, this is the ironic as wistfulness: it is a wry look at how the characters haven't quite achieved their hopes and dreams as Rene recovers from a suicide attempt, Janine is distressed at losing Jean, and the book Jean has written isn't about the history of the sun as he had hoped, but a presumably more prosaic book on politics: we see copies of this political tome all around his study desk near the end of the film. After Laborit's impressive credentials are laid out, he himself is shown on screen, not so much self-deprecating, but at least giving a broader context to his achievements. This seems less modesty, false or otherwise, than professional awareness: this is what living and working in France has allowed him to do. As he explains that he comes from Vendee, where the government imposed liberty, equality and fraternity and left half a million dead, he nevertheless still uses the national grid as an ironic proof of his patriotism. He's become successful at what he does, but that doesn't mean he is in complete control of his identity.
What interests Resnais and Laborit is less condescension than behavioural exploration: to see what we are products of. When Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time Image says "Resnais has never disguised his liking, in his preparatory works, for a complete biography of the characters, a detailed cartography of the places they go and their itineraries..." this is absolutely consistent with Laborit's exploration of the nature of being. If Resnais wants to work from Laborit's ideas, it is to deflect attention away from the subject as immediately self-governing, and instead to see our lives as a complex equation. When near the end of the film Laborit proposes that the unconscious is so powerful a tool, central to this power is all that we cannot know about ourselves, as well as what we do know and also what we sometimes hide from ourselves. "What we call the personality of an individual is built up from a grab bag of value judgements, prejudices and platitudes." These value judgements harden, and threats to them can damage severely the subject.
What My American Uncle sets in motion is an exploration of the self from the point of view of the sum total of being, and not the portal of personality required for the development of plot. There have of course been many even great films dealing with complex personality disorders, and this disorder has given rise to fascinating stories, from Hitchcock's Psycho to Vertigo, from Buuel's El to That Obscure Object of Desire. But their genius has come from the specific nature of psychology - they are pathologicalnarratives - not through exploring the general nature of human behaviour.
Rensais and Laborit's achievement is nevertheless to generate out of this general psychology, singular empathy. When Rene's life unravels and he moves towards suicide, the battery of potential distanciating devices - the clips from Gabin films, the explanation of animal behaviour - become instead like metaphors giving greater perspective to Rene's crisis. Resnais may be exploring general behaviour, but it is always for specific ends. As he once said, technique serves character "The flashforward in La guerre est finie, for example, was for me the simplest way to give the feeling of premonition that the life implied." My American Uncle avoids both the didactic and the condescending by attending to the needs of the characters without reducing them to ciphers for the theoretical through line.
But if the film finally activates the very empathy so many other films work from, why bother with the theories of Laborit at all? Not least because the film offers the very perspective most films avoid for fear perhaps of the collapse of identification. Who do we sympathise with if the film is so obviously puppeteered both by a self-conscious filmmaker and the filmmakers' x, y and z - or the a, m and x, as the leading characters were labelled in the director's Last Year at Marienbad? Resnais' answer might be threefold: with the nature of the specific situation, with more general problems of human 'nature', and the characters' themselves. This is pretty much true of most narrative cinema, but on this occasion Resnais has played with the hierarchy of these elements: instead of character, situation and humankind; it is humankind, situation, character. Central to much of Resnais' work - including the aforementioned films and also Muriel and Je t'aime, Je t'aime - has been the order of events in relation to the characters he films. "My idea is that the complexity of the film comes - must come - from the characters of the story." Put another way, this means that the editing comes out of the most pressing questions, and here the pressing question is beyond the characters but not to the detriment of them. By always holding to the human problem, no matter the vastness of the variables at work in the human mind and body, Resnais creates a deeply intellectual piece that also needn't undermine the human. This is its optimism; opposed it would seem to an American uncle the film alludes to where vague hope replaces concrete possibility. At the end of the film we see rundown images of the US, while at the same time a tree has been painted into the brick work of one of the buildings. Resnais seems to invoke the often horrible reality behind the American dream on the one hand, yet creative potential on the other. My American Uncle is a work of that potentiality.
© Tony McKibbin