2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
Introduction to À tout prendre
byy Thomas Waugh
Launched in April 1963, with its American commercial debut in English two years later, À tout prendre was the first feature-length autobiographical fiction film produced in Quebec/Canada, and among the first anywhere, (1963, 139 minutes; Best Picture 1964 Canadian Film Awards; Take It All and All Things Considered are the common translations for the untranslatable idiom that is its title). Director Claude Jutra (1930-1965), trained both as a medical doctor and an actor, had been since the late 1940s the darling of Montreal cinephile culture and of the two Canadian state media organizations, Radio-Canada (the French wing of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and the Office national du film (French wing of the National Film Board of Canada).
In this first independent, low-budget project Jutra experimented with multiple influences—from European art cinema (Cocteau, Fellini, Truffaut…) to American independent cinema (Deren, Anger, Cassavetes) to the emerging Quebec direct cinema (part of the NFB’s famous “French unit,” he had also collaborated with his film’s dedicatee Jean Rouch) and Canadian experimental animation (another major mentor was the film’s other dedicatee Norman McLaren).
Written by, starring and edited by Jutra himself, the narrative of this “auto-fiction” is based on his own real life, specifically an affair with black model Johanne Harrelle he had lived with several years earlier (Harrelle, a real-life actress and model, plays herself at his side in the film). Their love affair is filmed with a frankness that is astonishing for 1963—in terms of the taboos of both heterosexual adultery and interracial sexuality—as are middle-class Claude’s relationships with two other women and even his leading man on his film set (Claude’s character is a film director in the narrative). The film’s fluid black-and-white aesthetic is remarkable for its improvisational, playful and intimate nature, as the fractured narrative unfolds within Montreal’s cosmopolitan urban world in the midst of modernist transformation and the bohemian francophone subculture of the day, at grips with a Catholic heritage during the historical period known as Quebec’s révolution tranquille (Quiet Revolution).
Both characters offer climactic confessions within the narrative: Johanne is not the exotic Haitian she claims to be but a rejected Montreal orphan struggling to fit into white Québécois society, and Claude admits to the viewer (though not to Johanne) that he is homosexual. After a rhapsodic relationship, Johanne suddenly announces that she is pregnant and Claude reacts badly, pushed to the brink by negative reactions from his overbearing mother, a manipulative priest, and Johanne’s bullying ex-boyfriend; his reaction is played out in multiple masochistic fantasies inspired by Scorpio Rising and film noir. Claude breaks off the relationship cold turkey by telephone, and mails Johanne borrowed money to pay for an abortion. Johanne is not amused, the breakup is messy, and Claude escapes on a plane to Africa at the end, where it seems his own African-flavored fantasies are replacing Johanne’s!
Commentators often notice that fantasy scenes where Claude’s roller-coaster emotional life is playfully enacted in two fatal plunges into a river anticipate the director’s own 1986 suicide (Jutra's diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimers led to his real-life leap off the Jacques-Cartier bridge into the St. Lawrence River).
Jutra’s prolific subsequent career, inside both the state agencies and the independent production sector in both French and English Canada, would arguably never achieve the aesthetic heights of À tout prendre. However, for reasons of the latter film’s uneven availability in either French or English until recently, it was eclipsed by Jutra’s 1971 coming-of-age drama Mon oncle Antoine that stayed at the top of the Canadian cinema ten-best film lists for decades.