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My American Uncle (1980)

Mon oncle d'Amérique (original title)
The intersecting stories of three people who face difficult choices in life-changing situations are used to illustrate the theories espoused by Henri Laborit about human behavior and the relationship between the self and society.


Alain Resnais


Jean Gruault (scenario and dialogue), Henri Laborit (writings)
Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 11 wins & 10 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Gérard Depardieu ... René Ragueneau
Nicole Garcia ... Janine Garnier
Roger Pierre ... Jean Le Gall
Nelly Borgeaud ... Arlette Le Gall
Pierre Arditi ... Zambeaux, le représentant de la direction générale à Paris
Gérard Darrieu Gérard Darrieu ... Léon Veestrate
Philippe Laudenbach ... Michel Aubert
Marie Dubois ... Thérèse Ragueneau
Henri Laborit Henri Laborit ... Himself
Bernard Malaterre Bernard Malaterre ... Le père de Jean
Laurence Roy Laurence Roy ... La mère de Jean
Alexandre Rignault ... Le grand-père de Jean / Jean's Grandfather
Véronique Silver Véronique Silver ... La mère de Janine
Jean Lescot Jean Lescot ... Le père de Janine
Geneviève Mnich Geneviève Mnich ... La mère de René


Prof. Henri Laborit uses the stories of the lives of three people to discuss behaviorist theories of survival, combat, rewards and punishment, and anxiety. René is a technical manager at a textile factory and must face the anxiety caused by corporate downsizing. Janine is a self-educated actress/stylist who learns that the wife of her lover is dying and must decide to let them reunite. Jean is a controversial career-climbing writer/politician at a crossroads in life. Written by Dragomir R. Radev <radev@cs.columbia.edu>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Comedy | Drama | Romance


PG | See all certifications »






Release Date:

17 December 1980 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Mi tío de América See more »


Box Office

Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

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Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:



Black and White (archive footage)| Color (Eastmancolor)

Aspect Ratio:

1.66 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


There are several scenes from films featuring Danielle Darrieux, Jean Marais and Jean Gabin used in this film. See more »


Henri Laborit: From infancy... the survival of the group is linked to teaching a youth what he must know to function in society. We teach him not to soil his pants, and to pee in his potty. Then very rapidly, we teach the child how to behave so as to maintain the cohesion of the group. We teach him what is beautiful, what is good, what is bad, what is ugly. We tell him what he must do and punish or reward him accordingly, no matter what his own pleasure dictates. He is punished or rewarded according to ...
See more »


Referenced in The Player (1992) See more »

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User Reviews

Mechanisms of apparent reality
26 May 2011 | by chaos-rampantSee all my reviews

Usually with films we supply our own model of viewing, what values and parameters we accept to matter. Here the model is built in the film itself. It's an epistemological vision of human behavior patterns, guided by a behavioral biologist. We are provided with a set of criteria that govern our actions, fight or flight, actions taken to prolong pleasurable sensations or to avoid their opposite, and based upon the scientist's research, Resnais creates scenarios to exemplify them. Theory in practice, more or less.

This is the first handicup of the film for me. Resnais's consistent mark of genius has been his ability to visualize the mind as a threedimensional space, where by characters who act as our proxies into this world of the mind we can wander that space in an effort to discern the mechanisms that sustain it. How the forms we later experience as real come into being, illusionary. His vision is poignant for me precisely because it is translated as cinema, which as a blank canvas where upon it various flickering narratives are projected, is an ideal replica of the mind. He gave us Hiroshima and Marienbad, which is more than most directors contributed to the medium.

But Resnais always approached his subject as a poet, with capacity for awe and mystery, whereas now his vision feels constricted to fit criteria and structures.

Nonetheless the film does well to present us with situations we may know from life. An illicit thryst, frustrations at work, various ambitions for love or power thwarted, the outcomes of these don't matter. We're meant to identify the roots of suffering, how it arises in the form of sensation within the matrix that we experience as reality.

So far the film is wise, in showing us to be lab rats trapped in a glass panel box which is intermittently electrocuted by unseen devices. Perhaps we come to understand by this how suffering is an inate response to life in the cage, therefore inescapable. And how the devices that produce our suffering are invisible to us from inside the cage. Even more importantly, how our various attempts to imprint meaning on the objects of our world, by naming them or pretending to arrange them into patterns or hierarchies, are merely masks we have devised to conceal simple impulses and desires. To be safe or sated, or to avoid pain.

But the film is cautiously scientific, and will not venture further. The above important realization is mute for me without the spiritual. It is a dry understanding of fascinating stuff.

None of which is very subtle anyway. We're lectured a bit. We actually revisit excerpts of earlier scenes so we can identify specific reactions as narrated to us by the scientist. The lab rat metaphor couldn't beat us around the head more, if we actually saw the actors with the head of a rat reenact an angry exit. Wait, we do! But none of this bothers me overmuch. What bothers me is the pessimism.

Which is to say that having understood all this, the mechanisms that control the apparent reality we experience as our everyday routine, we are in position to transcend them. Our bodies may remain in the cage, yet having understood all this, how various forms of ego and desire blind us, our consciousness is already out of it. A glimpse out of the box is possible. Or as the film says, understanding the laws of gravity does not mean we escape them but we can get to the moon.

This is of course a fundamental attribute of how we are not like animals. We are not even animals with the unique ability to remember and form connections between the objects of memory. We are spirited beings. The film, conservative as issued under the credence or pretence of science, does not dare to articulate as much.

But then we have the final image, which says more than most films ever did. It's something I'll want to keep inside of me.

We see the mural of a tree painted on the brick wall of a building. From a distance, it looks beautiful, perhaps the real thing. But once up close, we see the beautiful, harmonious shape for what it is. Bricks as particles, a structure ugly, functional, nondescript, bearing no resemblance to the overall shape.

Two levels of reality then, apparent and ultimate. Order, shape, meaning from afar. Distinctions between brick and tree, as created in the eye. But once inside we understand the emptiness, the sameness of everything. How the above attributes are illusionary, imprints of the eye upon the wall. Will this image terrify or soothe you?

Perhaps the film understands more than it lets out from its cautious application of science. This is one of the 5 best metaphors in the history of cinema. It's so good, it's worthy of being in Blowup.

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