Giscardian Desiring Machines: Alain Resnais's Mon Oncle d'Amerique
Reader, Keith, Journal of European Studies
Alain Resnais's international reputation - going back more than thirty-five years to his feature debut with Hiroshima mon Amour - as among the greatest of film directors can be said, generally, to hinge on the craft and audacity of his experiments with cinematic syntax. Hiroshima and L'Annee derniere a Marienbad between them contributed as much as the work of any other film-maker to defining the modern European art cinema, and it is the view of Resnais as, to quote Robert Benayoun, 'arpenteur de l'imaginaire' that dominates - in many ways rightly - critical discourses about his work.
What I want to do here is to suggest that one of Resnais's major films, Mon oncle d'Amerique of 1980, is as important as a representation of the France of its time as for the rich formal interest it undoubtedly holds, and that now is a particularly good moment to look (back) at the film in that perspective.
Mon oncle d'Amerique (scripted by Jean Gruault) takes place in what turned out, a trifle unexpectedly, to be the final years of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's France. 'La France giscardienne' is nowadays a somewhat neglected entity, largely because it lasted only for the period of one seven-year mandate and resulted in the first and only defeat of a sitting Fifth Republic President - a defeat from which many years later Giscard himself has, it is cruelly obvious, shown a well-nigh Thatcher-like inability to recover. Compressed between the decade-plus of Gaullism and Pompidolian post-Gaullism and the vicissitudes of fourteen annees Mitterrand, the Giscardian period may now appear almost insignificantly transitional. Yet the Giscardian stress on 'solidarity', defined by John Frears as 'a preparedness to make an effort on behalf of less fortunate groups like the elderly, the handicapped, widows, or single-parent families, or dwellers in shanty-towns', no less than his repeated invocation of 'pluralism', 'ensuring that different kinds of power in society, state power, economic power, the power of mass communications, are both separate from one another and free from excessive concentration', have much in common with the discourse of ouverture in the second Mitterrand term. Nor has the 'post-ideological' President Chirac - he of la fracture sociale - found anything very different from the blandly caring capitalism of his ersthwhile master to offer. The evident disparity between Giscard's decentralizing, liberalizing rhetoric and the continuing Jacobinism of the French state under his presidency is not at issue here. What seems clear is that his presidency marked a significant break with de Gaulle's and Pompidou's France - a break characterized by a more relaxed, 'classless' style, a heightened awareness of the importance of the visual media, and a more 'Atlanticist' approach, at once less overtly hostile to the United States and more strenuously informal in style than its predecessors. The invitation issued to the Elysee dustmen to join the presidential breakfast table, or the cultivated spontaneity of Giscard's dinners chez carefully-chosen French(wo)men, surely betoken a hankering after the appearance of classlessness identifiably American in its origins as well as ludicrously patrician in its execution. Whether or not the revision of French post-war history that the end of the Mitterrand era will clearly bring in its wake leads to a re-evaluation of the Giscard years along with all the rest, those years were undoubtedly marked by major cultural changes, and in that context a revisiting of perhaps their major cinematic expression may well be timely.
Mon oncle d'Amerique follows its three central characters - Jean Le Gall/Roger-Pierre, Janine Garnier/Nicole Garcia and Rene Ragueneau/Gerard Depardieu - from brief childhood glimpses and memories through to the unresolved 'mid-life crises' among which the film ends. The 'plot' is less a linear intrigue than the overlapping and interaction of three lives - and more; Resnais, as is his practice, prepared with Jean Gruault thumbnail biographies of thirteen minor characters (some barely more than extras), detailing their personal, professional, political, cultural and even medical histories. …