With the likes of Rare Exports and Tokyo Godfathers becoming cult classics around this time of year, and after a handful have cropped up in the past, this year’s Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar focuses solely on foreign language/ non-English Christmas films. Some simply less heard of around the world, and in some cases their home country, while others aren’t deeply rooted in the season. And so, via this year’s Calendar, let’s go abroad for this year’s Christmas vacation.
As we find ourselves firmly in the week of Christmas the Calendar continues with snowy landscapes amidst another offering of festive fun. Today we take a trip to Canada, keeping the foreign-language theme going by landing in the French-Canadian territory of Quebec for a coming-of-age tale confronting those oh so festive of themes, life and death.
Perhaps a fine summary of Mon Oncle Antoine comes in a sequence about halfway through the film as we see the English-speaking owner of an asbestos mine (Georges Alexander) slowly riding through the local town on a wooden cart led by a horse. Wrapped in warm clothes amongst the cold air and fading snow, he lamely throws flat stockings onto the ground for the local children. While the kids are excited at the prospect and eventually rush out to greet the packages the parents are clearly dismissive, appearing to frown upon the activity – even the face shows a lack of connection to the festive spirit; his pipe emitting more warmth than anything else in the scene.
This opposes the time and effort that has been put into the decorations of the local general store, covered in all sorts of different-size Christmas displays. Times have been tough within the area, with 15-year-old Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) arriving in town for the winter not long after the asbestos mining strikes which took place earlier in the film’s setting of 1949. The titular Antoine (Jean Duceppe) doubles up running the general store, alongside his wife Cécile (Olivette Thibault), with being an undertaker. Through a busy Christmas Eve Benoit must leave the fascinations of the shop – largely his interest in young employee/ colleague Carmen (Lyne Champagne) – to travel through the snow with his weakening uncle to collect a dead body.
It’s through this journey that the ideas about reflecting on life and death come most of the fore within Antoine’s ramblings and insistences upon his teenage nephew. The coming-of-age style switches to a new tone and path as Christmas almost becomes a time of regret and loss over anything else – not helped by the adult’s continuous drinking throughout the day.
While the store tries to push the spirit of the season to the occasional onlookers of the window display unveiling, it generally lacks in the surroundings and soon makes its way into the views and actions of the central figures. Benoit may spend the couple of days the film spans growing up and exploring various elements of the limited world he finds himself in but there’s plenty of contrast in the streets – both views occasionally playing out at the same time. Christmas is a time in this town, particularly in the state it finds itself in, where truths are revealed and attempts are made to accept them. Everyone’s looking for some form of change and development, particularly in regards to the strikes and actions of ‘the Big Boss’. It’s hinted that it may be the young people, still discovering the workings of the world, who at some point can cause that. All encapsulated within the push of the season from some parties, and the lack of reception to it from a great many others, creating the clash which forms the coming-of-age style.
Mon Oncle Antoine can be watched in the following places:
National Film Board of Canada website
To see any other places where the film might be available, particularly if you’re in another country, it’s well worth having a look at JustWatch where most services are listed.