Claude Jutra, an introduction

by Julianne Pidduck

Mythic Quebec filmmaker Claude Jutra in later life.

The Jutra Affair

With this special section, we turn the spotlight on Claude Jutra, a founding figure of Quebec’s modern cinema, and one of Canada’s most visionary and innovative filmmakers. Although Jutra has been dead for over three decades, he remains a mythic figure in Quebec on the strength of his original and varied filmography and because of his dramatic and curiously cinematic life and death. In 2016, allegations that Jutra was a pedophile were published in a new biography by Yves Lever, unleashing a scandal that shook the Quebec cultural establishment and broader society. In response, the Quebec Minister of Culture ordered that Jutra’s name be stripped from the annual Quebec film awards (formerly “la Soirée des Jutra” until 2015, and now Gala Québec Cinéma) and that his numerous awards be withdrawn. The Cinémathèque québécoise followed suit, announcing that the name of its main screening room, the salle Claude-Jutra, would be changed. Finally, all of the streets and squares across Quebec named for Jutra were renamed on the authority of the seven municipalities concerned. On Feburary 23, news outlets announced the vandalism of the sculpture “Hommage à Claude Jutra” by renowned sculptor Charles Daudelin; the sculpture was later boxed up, removed from the Parc Claude-Jutra and put into storage.[1][open notes in new window] It is as if this filmmaker who had so vividly marked the cinema of the Quiet Revolution and the Quebec collective imagination was erased from public memory in the matter of a few days.

In some ways reminiscent of the scandals surrounding Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and other film directors, there are crucial differences. The accused had been deceased for thirty years at the time of the allegations that date back decades, and no formal charges have ever been laid against Jutra. Further, the objects of the filmmaker’s illicit affections were boys, and we can only speculate on how the flames of the scandal were fanned by queer sexuality. Finally, Jutra was a mythic figure of a “minor” national cinema, a film prodigy and poster boy for a modern Quebec cinema given the mandate of forging an autonomous postcolonial cultural identity, and by implication a sovereign nation. The loyalty of many Quebec cultural figures and intellectuals to Jutra’s memory helps to ensure that the scandal has not affected public access to his works, at least in the short term. (See the Filmography for information about Internet access to Jutra’s works.) In the medium to long term, however, the stigma of child abuse may affect Jutra’s standing in Quebec and Canadian film canons.

We have put together this special section on Claude Jutra as a contribution to a more considered public debate that is beginning to emerge as the dust settles after the initial hasty and draconian official responses. On the occasion of Jutra’s recent disgrace, we propose a critical and considered return to this gifted and troubling filmmaker. Readers of Jump Cut will be interested in the figure of Claude Jutra as a brilliant filmmaker associated with a rich modern Quebec national cinema little known outside of Quebec and Canada. In our respective essays, we have included key contextual information in order to situate Jutra and his works in the dynamic period of post-war Quebec. In light of parallel scandals around artists and public figures, readers will also be interested our varied critical responses to the Jutra affair. We deploy queer, feminist and postcolonial thought and critique to respond to and to understand otherwise the retrospective moral panic and contemporary ethical dilemmas associated with the “Jutra affair.”

This special section brings together five essays addressing different aspects of Jutra’s works. Julianne Pidduck’s essay, “The ‘Affaire Jutra’ and the figure of the child,” investigates why this scandal became a “national” crisis in Quebec. She analyzes a shifting myth surrounding Jutra in relation to the figure of the child with reference to several of Jutra’s 1950s and 1960s documentaries and short works including Jeunesses musicales (1956), Pierrot des bois (1956), and Comment savoir (1966). Next, filmmaker John Greyson’s photo essay “Fix Yer Tie: An Ekphrastic Reply to Jutra’s Ekleipsis” injects incisive poetic commentary and unexpected humour into our discussion about the scandal, piecing together scraps from Jutra’s body of work as an actor and auteur to speak back to what he calls “Quebec’s McCarthy’s.”

Johanne Harrelle and Claude Jutra in À tout prendre (1963).

We then turn from these first three essays that directly address the scandal. Given the importance of À tout prendre to Jutra’s filmography and to this special section (notably for the Rodríguez-Arbolay Jr and Waugh essays), we provide a brief introduction to the film. In “Black Bodies, Queer Desires: Québécois National Anxieties of Race and Sexuality in Jutra’s À tout prendre (1963),” Gregorio Pablo Rodríguez-Arbolay Jr. analyzes the complex relations of power and performance in À tout prendre, an early filmic attempt to explore race in Quebec. This author deploys postcolonial and queer of colour critique to develop fresh insights into this dramatization of a love affair between Jutra (playing himself) and the black model and actress Johanne Harrelle against the backdrop of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.

In “‘Do You Like Boys?’ Claude Jutra’s Disappearances: Confession, Courage, Cowardice,” Tom Waugh develops a passionate radical queer response to the Jutra affair. His article integrates a close reading of À tout prendre (1963), as well as an analysis of six of Jutra’s films that are most relevant to the 2016 allegations (Le Dément du lac de Jean-Jeunes (1948), À tout prendre, Rouli-roulant (1966), Wow (1969), Dreamspeaker (1976), and La Dame en couleurs (1984)) searching for the secret and the courage as well as the poetry and the erotics.

Finally, we are grateful to Bill Marshall and to McGill-Queen’s University Press for having generously granted the permission to reprint an excerpt from Marshall’s important 2001 book, Quebec National Cinema. Grounded in the book’s lucid and carefully argued account of the complexity of Quebec’s “national cinema,” this excerpt frames Jutra as a Quebec auteur of the 1970s, with close readings of the features produced in Quebec: À tout prendre, Mon oncle Antoine (1971), Kamouraska (1973), Pour le meilleur et pour le pire (1975)and La Dame en couleurs (1984). With his readings of Kamouraska and the underrated Pour le meilleur et pour le pire, Marshall’s piece complements the other essays in his attention to Jutra’s sensitive treatment of women. Finally, we have compiled a comprehensive bibliography with details about access to the works many of which are now streamable online, for free.

Finally, I would like to note that this special section is the fruit of exchanges during three conference panels: the “Reprendre À tout prendre” colloquium at the Cinémathèque Québécoise in November 2015,[2] the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago in March 2017, and the Film Studies Association of Canada conference in Toronto in May 2017. The contributors to this special section gratefully acknowledge the invaluable insights of our panel hosts and respondents Michèle Garneau, Diane Poitras, Pierre Jutras, Frédéric Moffet and Brenda Longfellow.

This still from the animated film Jutra (2014) by Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre evokes the many identities of Jutra the actor, screenwriter and director. From the Quiet Revolution, a central theme of Quebec modern national cinema is the quest for an autonomous postcolonial Québécois identity.

Who was Claude Jutra?

Claude Jutra was a founding figure of Quebec’s modern cinema that emerged in the 1960s. Amidst the political and cultural dynamism of Quebec’s révolution tranquille (Quiet Revolution), the seventh art had as its mission the forging of a distinct autonomous Québécois imaginary. Jutra’s masterpiece À tout prendre (1963) is widely recognized as one of the inaugural films of a new wave of Québécois cinema for a secular and progressive independent nation. Formally audacious and daring in its “fuck you!” to much of what a traditional Quebec Catholic society held sacred in 1963, this confessional “auto-fiction” broached taboo subjects of adultery, interracial sexuality, abortion, and homosexuality. Always a showman, with this film Jutra staged his own on-screen coming out as homosexual or bisexual six years before homosexuality was legalized in Canada. Further, Jutra’s best loved feature Mon oncle Antoine (1971) has been consistently ranked as the best Canadian film.

Even so, Jutra’s films and the rich tradition of Quebec cinema that he helped to inspire remain relatively unknown on the international film scene and among film studies scholars. Over the years, some Québécois directors have broken into the international film arena, but the list is short: Denys Arcand (Le Déclin de l’empire américain, 1986; Jésus de Montréal, 1989; and The Barbarian Invasions, [Academy Award], 2003), and more recently Pierre Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar, 2011; Chuck, 2016), Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., 2005; Dallas Buyers Club, 2013), Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, 2010; Arrival, 2016), and of course Xavier Dolan. Boy genius Dolan’s brash and stylish red carpet entry into Quebec and international film scenes prompts a renewed transnational visibility for Quebec cinema. As a queer prodigy, Dolan in some ways recalls a young Claude Jutra who made his first 40-minute independent film at 18 and won the Canadian film award at 20. Like Dolan, Jutra moved in international art cinema circles, collaborating with film legends Jean Cocteau, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean Rouch, François Truffaut, and Norman McLaren. Yet while to date Dolan has gone from success to success, Jutra’s career was much more uneven with his full share of critical and box-office flops. Also, Jutra struggled to fund his features in Quebec from the late 1950s when the film industry was dominated by documentary production under the auspices of the National Film Board of Canada.

What’s in a name? Formerly called the Soirée Claude Jutra, the 2016 annual Quebec film awards were renamed the Gala Québec Cinéma after the Jutra affair. The “Jutra” trophy changed names twice, and it seems that the “Iris” prize has now prevailed.

Born in 1930, Jutra completed his first substantial film, Le Dément du lac Jean-Jeunes at 18 and won the Canadian film award at 20 for his experimental short Mouvement perpétuel (1949). The son of a well-known doctor, Jutra had a comfortable childhood and studied to become a qualified doctor, but famously chose not to practice in order to become a filmmaker. Cutting his teeth as an actor, a screenwriter and a director in the early years of public television at Radio-Canada and at the National Film Board of Canada, Jutra was part of the NFB’s legendary équipe française (French unit) from the late 1950s. In the creative and collaborative climate of the times, Jutra joined other young wolves of his generation including Denys Arcand, Michel Brault, Gilles Carle, Gilles Groulx, Pierre Perreault and Anne Claire Poirier in documentary production drawing on direct cinema techniques to document the everyday lives of ordinary French Canadians. These filmmakers also went on to establish a distinctly and deeply political Québécois auteur cinema in the 1970s.

Pour la suite du monde (1962) directed by Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault of the NFB “French unit”: a feature-length direct cinema documentary that has marked world cinema.

Le chat est dans le sac (Gilles Groulx, 1964): another inaugural film of the Quiet Revolution, alongside À tout prendre.

The best known of his generation of Quebec filmmakers, Jutra directed important documentaries Niger, jeune République (1961), Comment savoir (1966), and Wow (1969). After Jutra’s first cinematic feature, the controversial À tout prendre, the family romance Mon oncle Antoine was undoubledly his most popular and successful film, sweeping the 1971 Canadian film awards and now a classic of Canadian and Quebec cinema. Jutra also worked extensively for both French (Radio-Canada) and English-language (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) public television, producing a number of documentaries and excellent telefilms including the extraordinary CBC telefilm Dreamspeaker (1976). During this period, he also directed a feature film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing (1981).

Several factors have contributed to the fact that Jutra and his works are not well known outside of Canada. Given the difficulty in funding feature films, Jutra worked prolifically across different film genres, styles and media platforms in Quebec and in English Canada. Also, there have been problems with copyright, preservation and access to Jutra’s films. None of his English-language dramas are in distribution, although Surfacing is streamable on YouTube. Further, À tout prendre, considered a key film in the Quebec “new wave” of the 1960s and 1970s, was largely unavailable for decades until Jutra’s siblings Mimi and Michel Jutra signed over the rights to the Cinémathèque québécoise in 2005; the institution has since made the film available to stream online in three versions. Fortunately, as we detail in the Filmography, many of Jutra’s Quebec productions including documentaries and telefilms and features have been digitized and are now publicly available thanks to public and private conservation initiatives.

There is a tragic side to Jutra’s life and career that has contributed to his mythic status. À tout prendre was a critical and box-office flop at the time of its release in 1963. If Mon oncle Antoine marked the pinnacle of his career, Jutra’s subsequent film, the costly and much anticipated Kamouraska was a commercial and critical disappointment. An avowed sovereignist, Quebec cultural lore has it that Jutra was forced into “exile” in English Canada in 1976 due to a dearth of funding for Quebec feature films. Jutra also faced personal difficulties that were woven into the ever-evolving myth: Suffering from Alzheimer’s Claude Jutra disappeared in November 1986, and his body was only discovered downriver from Montreal six months later; he had committed suicide by jumping off the Jacques-Cartier Bridge in Montreal. Jim Leach argues that while Jutra’s suicide was most logically related to his struggle with Alzheimer’s, “this explanation did not completely allay suspicions that he had been worn down by the constant struggle to make films in an unsupportive cultural climate” (5). Quebec society mourned the premature loss of one of the most visionary and innovative cultural figures associated with cultural and political dynamism of the Quiet Revolution.

The shoot of À tout prendre, Montreal in the early 1960s.