"Mon Oncle d'Amerique," opening today at the K-B Janus, is nothing if not peachy. It carries didacticism in the French style to uniquely patronizing extremes.
Alain Resnais, who made his reputation as the director of stylized modernist kitsch like "Hiroshima," mon Amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad," has been attracted to the work of a behavorial scientist and theoretician named Henri Laborit, whose studies have led to the belief that humans can transcend conflict only by a rational understanding of how behavior is influenced by biological heritage and social conditioning. "Mon Oncle d'Amerique" presumes to be a bold, if modest, step in the direction of True Enlightenment.
A courtly, mellow figure of professional authority, Dr. Laborit explains his ideas by lecturing directly to the camera. Resnais has engaged the screenwriter Jean Gruault to "document" the lecture material with legislative fiction. Dr. Laborit relies on white rats to test his notions about agression and frustration; Gruault and Resnais invent a trio of dubiously analogous human guinea pigs whose lives reinforce the professor's conclusions.
The movie encourages spectators to view the vicissitudes of its three principal characters -- introduced in fleeting childhood episodes and then followed in more detail as adults played by Gerard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia and Roger-Pierre -- with "scientific" detachment. Th cross-cutting between lecture sequences and dramatic vignettes aggravates the fundamental weakness of the conception: the superficiality of Gruault's dramatizations, which have nevertheless earned him an inexplicable Oscar nomination from the Hollywood screenwriting community, evidently pushovers for French intellectual baloney.
The characters are assigned contrasting social origins, and the devilishly clever aspect of the scenario is supposed to be Gruault's eventual interweaving of their lives. Roger-Pierre's Jean comes from a provincial bourgeois background and ends up a teacher, writer and broadcasting executive. Nicole Garcia's Janine is a rebellious working-class girl who goes from student radical to minor actress to model to fashion designer to corporate boss. Gerard Depardieu's Rene is a farm boy who gets an engineering degree and becomes a supervisor in a textile plant.
Jean and Janine are linked fairly early by becoming lovers, alienating Jean from his wife and family. Belatedly, Janine is revealed to be one of the causes of Rene's professional woes, since she turns up calling the ruthless cost-efficient shots at a conglomerate which acquires his firm.
Th fictional characters never attain involving lives. They generate far less interest than the white rats seen absorbing electric shocks for the greater glory of Dr. Laborit's researches -- a spectacle that may inspire an irrestible urge to see the dear professor administered some of his own; sadistic medicine.
It's all very well to surmise that, given a primitive animal heritage and the reptilian brain and all, frustrated humans will duplicate the desperate behavior of rats trapped and zapped in their cages. The filmmakers have not invented a persuasively analogous test by showing characters who feel trapped or threatened by the loss of a job, a lover or a sense of self-esteem. We seem to diverge in ways that strain the analogy, to put it mildly, and that ought to be appreciated as curiously different from the environment Dr. Laborit can impose on is rate.
Dr. Laborit, an inventor of tranquilizers, closed by remarking that "until everyone knows that the prime motive is to dominate others, nothing will change." Resnais illustrates this wishful thought with a gratuitous tour along Charlotte Street, the most devastated thoroughfare in the South Bronx. It's the first and only time that in the real America is evoked in "Mon Oncle d'Amerique," whose title refers to a folklore benefactor who supposedly solves everybody's problems by returning from America with a fortune.
The social treat envisioned by Dr. Laborit seems to have a different source form the threat that preoccupies the filmmakers -- Janine, the liberated career women whose demands put both Jean and Rene on the spot.
Laborit's discussion transcends sexual conflicts, but the movie associates Janine with the forces that injure Jean and Rene. The filmmakers seem to identify social constraints and inhibitions with women. They certainly fail to suggest that Janine shares the suffering of the men. Far from being an integral part of the tragicomic human rat-race at perceived by the professor, Janine emerges as a species apart -- an incorrigible bitch.