11/28/2012 10:53 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

A Favorite (Unconventional) Christmas Movie

The first scene of Mon Oncle Antoine ends with an image of a crane at work in a vast asbestos mine, and the second scene begins in a cramped room where we observe a small funeral service with a foregrounded corpse lying in an open casket. This cut, more than the splendid landscape and townscape photography that opens the first scene, is a fair index of the film's tone. Moviegoers with business connections to mining may want to seek other fare. Yet those who do not see this picture are missing one of the most sensitively executed stories in film history -- a story that combines great sympathy for human effort and frailty with moments of darkly acerbic observation.

This 1971 picture by Claude Jutra is one of the few best films that most American movie lovers have never seen. Many have never even heard of it. Yet for more than 25 years it has been routinely voted the best film in Canadian cinema history by the critics and directors at the Toronto Film Festival. Moreover, compared to the rest of the world, too, any fair critical appraisal would say Mon Oncle Antoine remains one of the masterpieces of cinematic art in general and auteur cinema in particular. The 2008 Criterion DVD release is a welcome antidote to the obscurity and inaccessibility the film had met over the prior 30 years in the U.S.A., ever since the wane of a brief period of attention paid to it in New York in the early 1970s.

Mon Oncle Antoine is at once a historical costume drama, a portrait of rural 1940s Quebec, a narrative of suspense and surprise and a coming-of-age story set against a bleak Christmas season in a troubled region of the province. It is worthy of the greatest compliment that can be paid a film: for the time you watch it, it lets you live in another world. I love the movie for the intricate world it portrays, I love the movie for Jutra's sensitive and humane storytelling, and I love the movie because it is an example of extraordinary indie filmmaking.

The story centers around two families. The first is the nuclear Poulin family, and the second is the unconventional crew of the general store operated by the aging Antoine and his wife. These two families do not necessarily have much to do with each other, but in provincial Quebec everyone knows everyone, and the undertaking side business that Antoine operates from the general store will bring the two families together. This general store is an exquisitely rendered film set. The building is a large wooden structure, and it serves at once as the residence for Antoine's family and as a commercial and social meeting place in their small asbestos-mining town. The store has a visual tone of warm colors in the midst of all that cold weather. Downstairs one can purchase hardware or alcohol or dry foodstuffs. Red boxes of Ritz crackers are shelved behind the handmade wood counter. Upstairs in the store's attic, Antoine's family can seek out other supplies that their customers may need, whether those be coffins or bridal wear. The store is the setting for some formative experiences of Antoine's nephew Benoît, whose point of view provides the narrative perspective for the film. Benoît lives with his aunt and uncle, and he is a tween or early-teen store employee and altar boy driven by his curiosity and occasional sense of mischief. To me, Benoît deserves a place alongside Truffaut's Antoine Doinel character, from Les Quatre Cents Coups, as the best young-teen male characters in cinema history.

I mention Truffaut deliberately. Jutra is a Canadian and not a French filmmaker, but he was a French-language filmmaker and a friend of Truffaut, and I believe the directors to whom Jutra best merits comparison are Truffaut and Jean Renoir. Jutra did not have as large a body of work or as long a career as Truffaut or Renoir, but his work exhibits the same depth of feeling, the same juxtaposition of human courage and frailty, and the same proclivity for long takes with detailed compositions that encourage a special type of observation.

The tone of Mon Oncle Antoine is consistently nuanced and delicate. Sensitivity to character and sympathy for each person's flaws and virtues, is Jutra's greatest of many strengths as a storyteller. I counted only one "flat" character in the entire movie, that being a mine owner who appears on screen for all of 20 seconds.

The unusually deep sense of character and place in this movie combines well with a somewhat unusual narrative pace. The third act of this movie could serve as a short story of its own, but what happens structurally is that the first two acts of the movie develop the characters and build context so that the pathos in the final third of the movie becomes much more intense.

When Benoît and Antoine go on a long nighttime Christmas Eve journey to recover a dead body from another town, it yields a different type of holiday story than we are used to witnessing. This is not your typical heartwarming pap. Yet it is also not dreadful or humorless. Jutra marshals the scenes of this Christmas Eve trip with such dramatic pace and suspense that it becomes as thrilling a cinematic experience as one can find. When Benoît drives their horse-drawn sled by moonlight, with his drunken uncle Antoine passed out beside him and corpse in tow behind him, he gets the type of gleeful rush that only a young boy can. He feels like a man. Along the moonlit, snow-covered road through the dark woods, he controls the horses and stands up in jubilation. The troubles of an hour ago and the troubles of an hour ahead are out of mind. It is a transcendent moment in a transcendent film.

Great movies are great collaborations, and Mon Oncle Antoine exhibits extraordinary work from the cinematographer Michel Brault, the musical composer Jean Cousineau, the co-writer Clement Perron and a handful of excellent actors. But, Mon Oncle Antoine is a movie where it does not seem inappropriate to fixate on the director. It is Jutra who provides such marvelous coherence to the disparate story elements, it is Jutra who can manage a tone of humor and gravity, nostalgia and remorse, and it is Jutra who coaxes each actor to display a range of performance that suits the complexity of the story. It is Jutra who creates such a technically adept and visually complex story on a tiny budget, and it is Jutra who casts himself and acts brilliantly as an awkward middleman character in the story, a character who bears some resemblance to Jean Renoir's Octave in La Règle Du Jeu. (Both are kind-hearted and good-willing characters who cause trouble in other people's sex lives, and both are played by slightly chubby and soft-faced film directors.)

Jutra directs with such a personal touch that it is hard to believe this is not a personal story for him. Yet, Jutra was not a provincial Quebecois at all, but rather from bourgeois Montréal society. (The story is surely more personal for Clément Perron.)

Like too many artists, Jutra has a tragic life story. It starts plainly enough with a privileged upbringing. That privilege on the one hand let him experiment with making film projects as a kid, but carried the burden of the fact that his father was a famous radiologist and that Claude was forced by his parents to study medicine. He did not seem to think of the time diverted to medical studies as entirely a waste. "My training required me to treat people one by one, to listen to their moaning, to touch their wounds," he said. "As a filmmaker, I do the same. I am a witness and a friend." In his 20's, Jutra was receiving acclaim for shorts he had made, but he had the tragic misfortune of suffering a major head injury in a Vespa accident. As his father's son, he received extraordinary care and eventually recovered. His film career progressed, but when he was not much more than 50 years old he began to suffer from early-onset Alzheimer's. Whether there was a direct relationship to the head injury is anyone's guess.

Jutra's niece, Gigi Duckett, herself also a radiologist in Montreal, confirmed for me that Jutra was a very personal storyteller. She remembers Claude Jutra as a great wit, a man who loved to quote literature and films, and said that he did not shy away from references to his own family in his filmmaking. The uncredited singing on the soundtrack of Mon Oncle Antoine is Claude's sister Mimi, Gigi's mother.

Claude Jutra's life ended too soon, and had too much suffering, but his films are a beautiful legacy. Mon Oncle Antoine is foremost among them.