(17/08/07) – Alain Resnais occupies one of the most distinguished places in the canon of the French Novelle Vague and cinema in general. An intellectual, humanist director, he authored modernist masterpieces such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and the enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the latter the subject of much contention at the time of its release, attracting wrath and admiration in equal measure. At the grand age of 85, he’s still active and last year Resnais released the well-received Coeurs (Private Fears in Public Places).

My American Uncle, from 1980, is one of his most successful films and was even nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar® in 1981 and won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes in that same year, as well as the Fipresci Prize. It also garnered several Cesar nominations. Not that such an intelligent film needs this type of endorsement, but it shows how an uncompromising cinematic vision like that of Resnais can transcend the parameters of the arthouse circuit, or at least used to be able to, and strike a chord with a broader audience. My American Uncle is a shiny text that sparkles at every second of its duration.

The film starts as a pastiche of a nature documentary, using the observations of human behavioural theorist Henry Laborit to describe the motivations of a group of characters whose lives are intertwined. This narrative framing is an extremely effective distantiation strategy, providing the viewer with a privileged, impartial perspective on the actions of the people we watch. It’s something like playing god.

The characters are René (played by a still young Gérard Depardieu), a manager in a textile factory who is demoted and has to move away from his wife and young child as part of a bum deal his company offers him. Meanwhile Janine (played by the mesmerising Nicole Garcia, the hinge of the film), an actress having an affair with married writer and radio boss Jean (Roger Pierre), is asked to make the ultimate sacrifice by her lover’s wife.

My American Uncle is a feat of filmmaking, a perfect match of words and images, the kind of cinema that uses the potentials of the medium to the maximum, with astounding originality. It’s an authorial tour de force. The playfulness of the editing and the art direction create a picture of crystal-like clarity and fine irony. The overall result is a philosophical illustration of life as a kind of humiliating joke presented with impeccable elegance.

The DVD of Mon oncle d’Amérique (My American Uncle) is out now on Arrow Films. Please follow links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.