Claude Jutra

Quebec CA
November, 1986

Director, scriptwriter, actor. Ancestor, enigma and martyr of queer cinema in Canada, Jutra’s prodigious oeuvre contained only one explicit queer moment. But that moment, in À tout prendre (1963), was accompanied by gongs and zooms. Well, there was also that lesbian parenting comedy with Patty Duke (By Design, 1981), quite explicit enough, which TBP called “Laverne and Shirley have a baby (Jan./Feb. 1983).”

I have written many times about Jutra and still can’t get him out of my system. The first time (1981), Jutra was still alive and a mutual friend told me he liked being called the E.M. Forster of Quebec cinema (which I did because of his problematical silence following À tout prendre). I next wrote about Jutra just after his 1986 Alzheimer’s-clouded suicide, a two-in-one eulogy for both Jutra and his mentor Norman McLaren who had died the same winter, a celebration of the two founding queens of our national cinemas ("Reclaiming McLaren and Jutra." Rites/ 4, no. 10. republished in the Fruit Machine, 2000). I came back to the pair in 1994 when I programmed the legendary Jutra-McLaren collaboration, A Chairy Tale (1957), as the inaugural text of Canadian lesbian and gay cinemas in my retrospective “The Fruit Machine” at the Cinematheque Ontario; playfully I encouraged the audience to read the playful pixillation as an allegory of relationships (the chair, skittish about being bottom, is non-gender-specific). That queer film subcultures have not beatified Jutra can be ascribed not only to his belonging to a minor national cinema and speaking the wrong language. The obliqueness of his representations of sexual identity also consign him to the canon's antechambers already crowded by Arzner, Murnau, Whale, Cukor, Eisenstein, Carné, Minnelli and other discreet members of an earlier generation.


Otherwise, thirty-five years of tidal undercurrents began when the teenager Claude went out with his birthday present camera and made two “amateur” films, Le Dément du lac Jean-Jeunes (The Madman of Jean-Jeunes Lake, 1948, 40) andMouvement perpétuel (1949, 15). The two films vibrate not only with precocious cinephile aestheticism, but also with intense and conflicted undercurrents of homoerotic desire - whether conscious or unconscious, we may never know. They demand an exploration of such undertheorized concepts as clandestinity, stigma and transnationality as both authorial and spectatorial positions.


They also force us to confront the issue of intergenerational eroticism as a historical social construction and artistic energy. In fact, this issue and the taboos it generates within our culture are no doubt responsible for the anomalous and contradictory position that this most canonized artist holds within the Canadian/Quebec film heritage. Consider the following: Jutra film stills grace the covers of no less than four major textbooks on Canadian film, and Mon Oncle Antoine remains firmly entrenched as number one on the all-time Canadian ten best list; in Quebec a memorial cult set off by his tragic premature death left us an auditorium, two national film prizes and an urban park in his name. Since his death a monograph on his work has appeared in English as well as a full length documentary on his life and work, yet neither Leach (Claude Jutra, Filmmaker, 1999) nor Paule Baillargeon’s Claude Jutra, portrait sur film (Claude Jutra, an Unfinished Story, NFB, 2002, 82) treat seriously the issue of sexual identity in his artistic biography.


For years the textbooks have repeated Jutra's centrality in the historical trajectory and generic makeup of Quebec and Canadian cinemas, in particular his theme of youth and the passage from innocence to knowledge. Yet this centrality has been constructed by the literature through codewords and stereotypes that range from the veiled judgements of "self-indulgence," the "Quebec Cocteau," "masochism" to "mental, moral and romantic confusion that we were all going through at the time...what is the secret, what is the key to the vault?" And then there are the subjournalistic idiocies that have more in common with Toronto Sun profiles of child molesters. Savour this 1970s excerpt from Martin Knelman, launched by an acknowledgement of Jutra's sovereigntist sympathies:

When you think of a shy, plump, forty-six year old film director with granny glasses dancing in the street [after the 1976 PQ victory], it's impossible not to think of it as a delicately humorous scene from a Claude Jutra movie... the personality of the man is more openly, more fully expressed in his movies than in his behaviour in what used to be called real life. As a human being, Claude Jutra is rather shy and understated. His smiles suggest that he has marvellous little secrets, and perhaps that's why he appears to communicate more readily with kids... his mild little smile and his subtle, cheerfully ironic remarks hint that there are things going on in his head that he's not quite ready to tell you... (This is Where We Came in: the Career and Character of Canadian Film, 1977, 56).


Knelman's jokey affection also resulted elsewhere in a panic reaction to Jutra's late English-language masterpiece Dreamspeaker (R of T, ch. 5) whose climax happens to be an ecstatic skinny dipping scene between the blonde pubescent hero and his adult mentor, a mute native giant.


The posthumous memorial cult was equally symptomatic: journalists who wanted to discuss Jutra's homosexuality were threatened with lawsuits, and a telefilm bio-project that included scenes of adolescent peergroup sexuality was vetoed. The Cinémathèque québécoise's memorial booklet, a series of eulogies by heterosexual coworkers and friends, is crammed with odd embroiderings of their confusing discovery that they hadn't really known him after all:

WERNER NOLD (Jutra’s frequent editor): Today after he has gone, I realize that despite the fact that we worked together, having been what one can call without contradiction true friends, I don't know him very much. Can one have a secret nature to the degree of leaving his friends outside of a decision such as his? His last one. A decision that I admire. I wasn't aware of this courage of his....
Claude was always interested in children; he established with them very privileged relationships. He had succeeded in creating an absolutely special communication with my own children, a relation that I otherwise felt envious of...
Claude was always on a diet; he ate Metrecal cookies. One day he arrived with a tube of Swiss sweetened condensed milk: "Well Werner, I've found the sperm of the Alps" We put it in coffee, he even had some from the tube to wash down his cookies, a funny diet...."

CLAIRE BOYER: Claude adored children. When he came to my place, he would roll on the floor with my children and their dog Lupin. Screams and laughter would fill the house where he would suddenly become the youngest. It was one of the sadnesses of his life not to have any children.

CLÉMENT PERRON (scen. for Antoine): We had known each other already for several years but I was not close to him. I would say even that quite a few things, naturally, separated us....

LORRAINE DU HAMEL: He died as he lived, alone and discreet.

Was this tone of surprise and patronization based on a misapprehension of Jutra's artistic self-revelation as the real thing? Take his persona as an actor, for example, in his own films and those of others, in which he had no qualms about performing wrenching vulnerability and self exposure, even in the literal sense of the frontal nudity that happened to go along with several of his performances. Did his colleagues think because they had seen his zizi that they had seen the man? That this childlike auntie's entire life was on the screen and behind the camera?

Looking more closely at Jutra's first two films can help. Le dement, amateur cinema in the etymological sense of the word, declares itself a campfire melodrama for boy scouts and certainly is that, a child abuse melodrama. The film's first person narrator, a 12 or 13-year-old scout recounts the troop’s rescue of an abused boy from his hermit drunken father who eventually falls to his death from a cliff, pursued by the troop who become a vigilante mob of astonishing violence. The film is also, thanks to Jutra's and his lifelong collaborator Michel Brault's precocious handling of Claude's Bolex, a lyrical essay on the summer forest and on teenage male bonding and socialization, punctuated by not one but three bathing sequences, deliriously long and sensual, the Lord of the Flies gone Boys in the Sand. The abusive family is a demonic opposite of the idealized scout troop, that same-sex parental substitute and institution of male socialization, but the narrator's reference to the passive son-victim muddies the neatness of the opposition: "He must be his son, he seemed to love him even if he was brutal." At the end, their mission of normalization completed, the scouts abandon their now domesticated orphan at a foster home of stultifying tranquility.


Mouvement perpétuel, Jutra 's second film, is a dream narrative of a triangular romance that resolves itself in a violence that once again surprises. A hetero couple are menaced by a charismatic male, bare chested and oiled to kill, felicitously labelled "the other," who pursues the hero through the woods, across bridges and along roads and waterfronts, killing him four times. The heroine is ineffectual, and basically figures as currency in the real narrative exchange of the film, the intense attraction/repulsion between the two men. Mouvement is influenced by among others Maya Deren, Eisenstein and Cocteau but most surprisingly by Kenneth Anger's Fireworks, still wet from the lab in 1949. It is not surprising that Maurice Huot from La Patrie found Mouvement morbid, bizarre, obscure, surreal, and "sensation for the sake of sensation (Dec. 1949)." The jury at the first Canadian Film Awards disagreed and gave the teenager his first prize.


Much more is going on in these two films than fun with Claude's birthday Bolex. It doesn't take a psychoanalytic PhD to wonder what the young artist is working out in the obsessive repetitiveness of the narrative and the dramatic excess of the violence by which the figures of heterosexual romance and the nuclear family are dispatched in the two films. And there is the blatant beefcake of both films, or should I say calfcake, with the hunky bad guy coming back as obsessively as Nosferatu, and the scouts rushing into the water for ritual communion at the blow of a whistle, even in the midst of orphan rescue (the narrator performs his own striptease for the camera early on, throwing each garment in turn from off camera into the frame). Clearly the scophophilic fantasies of bathing, of same-sex combat and pursuit, of male mortality, represent tentative and contradictory confessions and disavowals, steps back and forth on the cultural continuums that span from homosocial male bonding to same-sex genital exchange, from parental love through same-sex mentorship to intergenerational eros.

Skipping back and forth across his filmography, I am drawn to the critical and commercial failure of Jutra’s two ambitious features about doomed heterosexual passion, Kamouraska (1973) and Pour le meilleur et pour le pire (1975). These films more or less reconstitute Mouvement’s boy-boy-girl triangle, and in their failure led to Jutra’s final period of exile, disarray and films like By Design in English Canada. I prefer to see these works in the larger context of Jutra's Forsterian silence following À tout prendre. Certainly, the instability of the last fifteen years of his oeuvre was inextricable from the obliqueness with which he felt obliged to approach his homoerotic sensibilities and preoccupations. This may have been due in large part to the hurt he felt after the public queerbaiting he faced, not only from critics but from collaborators and peers Denys Arcand, Jean-Claude Labrecque and even Michel Brault in the decade after coming out in À tout prendre, his only venture in explicit autobiography, a hurt compounded by the censorship later imposed on the film's gay voice for its CBC broadcast. How not to make a Canadian film, he asked in 1968? "Choose a non commercial subject, so personal it is indecent, banal, futile, immoral, sordid..." was the first prescription. We can never know to what extent this bitterness was coloured by his awareness of the monstrosity with which society would brand the erotic sensibility he expressed on celluloid, a closet within a closet, a closet that was not to be decriminalized the following year, 1969.


Silence is relative, and it is essential to move back to the documentaries of the fifties and sixties, counterposing them to his late feature films, in which adult mentorship would be increasingly problematized—remember Mon oncle Antoine's drunken Antoine and frivolous Fernand (played interestingly by Jutra) —or futile, as in Dreamspeaker (R of T, ch. 5), Pour le meilleur ou le pire (1975) or La Dame en couleurs (1984). The earlier nonfiction inevitably aligns the idealist openness of children and teenagers with the beneficient nurturing of adults. The Age of Aquarius increasingly ushered in the blind destructiveness of adult authority, for example the cops who clamp down on the humpy Westmount skateboarders in Rouli-roulant (The Devil’s Toy, 1966, 15), a film dedicated, appropriately for those who read such things between the lines, "to all those who are victims of intolerance," or the range of authority figures excoriated in Wow! (R of T, ch. 3). In this broader view of the documentaries and features as complementary visions of these same processes of growth, education, and socialization, one thing is incontrovertible: Jutra's sense of these processes, the most profound within our two national cinemas in which youth films have long been a privileged genre, is channeled and deepened through the physicality of his pubescent heroes and through his eroticization of their pedagogic interactivity. Jutra the poet of youthful learning cannot be separated from the Jutra whose erotic fulfilment derives from engagement in that process. This is the essence of Jutra's work. Here is the terror it has held for critics and film historians, here are the secret and the courage which his closest collaborators couldn't face.

The final word I give to Jutra himself, a testamentary line from the commentary of Jutra's finest documentary Comment savoir (1966, 71), a film purportedly about new technologies of learning but one really about the persistence of the intergenerational human dimension within the encroaching techno-cybernetic order. The line was written and read by the director over a magistral scene in which a boy is taking a lab dish to a sunny classroom windowsill in order to watch crystal formation: “What I will have learned, what I will have understood, are, along with love, my most precious possessions, and like love are the best things to receive and to give. It is with these religious precautions that this afternoon I have just placed this in a ray of sunlight.”