I have no clue what anyone else has gotten out of World Cinema’s Alain Resnais retrospective, but it’s turned me into a major Resnais fan — and for that, I’m grateful. Before seeing the last two films on their schedule — Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963) and this one — I respected Resnais for his New Wave contribution with Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and was fascinated by his more idiosyncratic Last Year at Marienbad (1961). The only other of his films I’d seen had been You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012), which I enjoyed, but wasn’t blown away by. (In part, I think this may be due to a lack of in-joke knowledge.) Muriel, on the other hand, spoke to me far more deeply than any of these, and Resnais’ 1980 film My American Uncle (Mon Oncle d’Amerique) took me even further. It is a film that at once disturbingly deconstructs human behavior in an almost clinical — and bitterly comic — manner, while evidencing great warmth and fondness for its benighted characters.
On a single viewing, I feel incapable of really discussing My American Uncle in any depth, but I can lay out the basic approach. I will start with the fact — and this is key — that not only does this American uncle never appear, he probably doesn’t exist. (Whether or not this is a comment on the existence of God depends on your reading of the film.) In essence, the film deals with three characters — played by Gérard Depardieu, Nicole Garcia, and Roger Pierre — whose lives will at least intersect and in one case more than that. Into this mix, Resnais has added evolutionary philospher Henri Laborit as himself. Laborit directly presents his behavioral studies to the viewer in ways that comment on and explain the actions of the characters. At times, the characters even take on the appearance of lab rats. It is both playful and slightly disturbing — I mean, who really wants to be reduced to the reactions of a lab rat?
Resnais, however, sticks his own oar in by suggesting the impact of popular culture — specifically cinema — on his characters. Each in turn equates (via film clips) his or her life experiences to movies with Danielle Darrieux, Jean Gabin, and Jean Marais. This softens — or at least humanizes — the proceedings. It does not, however, let them — or us — off the hook, since the intercut foorage from old movies can’t help but suggest self-dramatization of the highest order. That it is somehow more comforting than having one’s passion being intercut with the death throes of a wild boar is perhaps more a comment on our own affectations than truly comfort. Even so, the film ends up feeling far more humanist than clinical — not in the least because Resnais clearly loves these characters in all their often boneheaded imperfection, regardless of how they got that way. Disturbing, funny, human, and mesmerizing.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present My American Uncle Friday, April 25, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com.