Are we creatures caught in the web of chance and necessity? Is freedom an illusion? Dr. Henri Laborit, a French biologist, provides the frame of this provocative, whimsical, profound, and often infuriating movie directed by Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, La Guere Est Finie, Last year at Marienbad, and Providence) and written by Jean Gruault (Jules and Jim, The Story of Adele H.). He gives a lengthy lecture on nature science and the evolutionary patterns of life on earth from the lowest forms through the human species. His contention is that because certain codes are imprinted in the human brain, our actions are similar to all animal behavior in regard to consumption, gratification, response to aggression (flight or fight), and inhibition.
Three characters are introduced: Jean Le gall (Roger-Pierre), a director of cultural programs for French radio; Rene Ragueneu (Gerard Depardieu), a farmboy who has become a textile executive; and Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia), an actress who has an affair with Jean and works for the same conglomerate as Rene. The film shows us scenes from their childhoods, their attempts to break away from their families, and their efforts to find happiness and fulfillment. These characters share a fantasy life shaped by three different movie stars.
As the movie progresses, intermixing portions of Dr. Laborit's lectures and experiments on white mice with curiously witty vignettes from Jean, Rene, and Janine's lives, we see them develop as rounded figures propelled by urges toward success and erotic pleasure. They wrestle with conflicts in the work area and squirm under the pressure of love. Occasionally, the director shows them with rodent heads acting out Laboritian laws.
Mon Oncle D'Amerique (the title refers to each of the three characters' legendary uncle in America who has achieved success) begins to work its magic most effectively in the last portion of the screenplay when the themes merge. The viewer is compelled to consider: Is it presumptuous to draw conclusions about human beings from the behavior of rats? Are habits and responses to love, hate, rejection, and recognition solidified in childhood and never changed? Does the human mind free us from enslavement to nature's laws? Can free will liberate us from the manifold external forces which seem to control our lives?
Of the three characters, Janine proves most effective in dealing with the changes which challenge her existence. She's a fighter. Rene caves in to the pressures of his job. And Jean, after ending his affair with Janine is left stranded in the status quo.
Mon Oncle D'Amerique is a philosophical puzzle which raises more questions than it answers. Thanks to exquisitely textured performances by Nicole Garcia, Roger-Pierre, and Gerard Depardieu, the often-tedious lectures by Dr. Laborit are lifted out of abstraction and given carnal poignancy. The film lingers in the mind long after the closing credit. It's another classic from Resnais.