Mon oncle Antoine (1971): Adolescence at the heart of a coming of age tale set in the town of Black Lake and in the surrounding countryside of the Eastern Townships.

Mon oncle Antoine is set at Christmastime in the 1940s in the small town of Black Lake, in the asbestos mining region of Estrie, between Montreal and the American border. Life there centres on the shop, which doubles as a funeral parlour, run by Cécile (Olivette Thibault) and Antoine (Jean Duceppe), assisted by Fernand (Jutra), their adopted “nephew” Benoît (Jacques Gagnon), and another adolescent in their employ, Carmen (Lyne Champagne). On Christmas Eve, Antoine and Benoît set out on a horsedrawn sledge through the snow to collect the body of the Poulin family’s fifteen-year-old son, but on their return journey the coffin slips off and the drunken Antoine is unable to help Benoît to recover it. Back home, Benoît discovers Fernand in bed with his aunt, but he nonetheless returns with Fernand to the Poulin farm only to discover the family gathered round their son’s open coffin, discovered by his father as he got back from a lumber camp for the holiday.

It is likely that the film’s success as a reliable workhorse on the art-cinema circuit is due to its combination of universal and particular concerns, or to put it another way, its dovetailing of anthropological and social-historical discourses. In other words, the moment of adolescence is poised between, on the one hand, that childhood tension between polymorphousness and oedipal identification, and, on the other, that adult tension between fixity and contradiction. The order of the adult world is thus relativized, its constructions and illusions laid bare. The specificities of Mon oncle Antoine lie in the social and historical context of 1940s Quebec, but also in the juxtaposition with death that qualifies and indeed drives this identity quest (as in À tout prendre).

The consequences for the semiotics of the film lie in the use of point of view and the foregrounding of performance and an almost slapstick deployment of what we might term structuring discontinuities. It is Benoît who is the principle focalizer in the film, and this role is supplemented by voyeurism (he and the other employee, Maurice, watch the lawyer’s wife Alexandrine [Monique Mercure] undress) and a more studied observation in which he watches the world of adults (beginning with the early botched funeral ceremony) with a reaction shot inviting a decoding of his expression. This structure, of observation, reaction, and (putative) action on the part of Benoît (what Deleuze would call affection-pulsion-action), forms the core of the film, ending, of course, with the freeze-frame on his face looking through the window at the Poulin house. The close-ups of Benoît’s face are, however, ambiguously embedded in the film’s action, because he participates for better or for worse in a network of looks (his own outward, but also on him from the community and from the spectator) that structure the present and what his own future might be. The only other bearers of the look are Fernand (in the early sequences towards Cécile and Carmen) and the community (towards Alexandrine as she makes her dramatic entrance; and towards Benoît himself: once he is invalidated by the denial of the look, following the snowball attack on the Anglophone boss, and once he is validated by it, as he proudly accompanies Antoine out of town).

This play of looks invites several interpretations: an existentialist one, as Benoît momentarily and comfortingly coincides with a preordained role; a Foucauldian, as his subjectivity and that of the whole community is brought into being by a collective, internalized, panopticism. But the point is that, as an adolescent, Benoît has only a provisional future: the film is the drama of what becoming like the others would entail, as it analyzes the processes which render adult life possible but also so unattractive. Thus the close-ups of Benoît link him rhetorically with both Fernand (as bearers of the looks, and in the second sleigh ride) and Antoine (the cut between them in the first sleigh ride) in a problematic relationship of similarity and difference. He has the potential to become either, or neither.

Benoît’s point of view: Final freeze-frame where Benôit gazes through the window of the Poulin farm house.

That adult world observed by Benoît is predicated on performance and seduction played out in the troubling and disrupting context of death. Throughout the film a play is made of veiling and unveiling, and this has both sexual and theatrical connotations. Carmen tries on the bride’s veil. The shop’s nativity scene is revealed to the waiting public as a curtain is opened (and collapses in mishap). Cécile and Fernand’s lovemaking behind a closed door is discovered. The ultimate unveiling, of course, is the lidless coffin of the Poulin teenager. The performativity central to identity and community is unavoidable and can mean different things. Cécile’s song reinforces the community through performance but also hints at non-consummation and the unhappiness of her own marriage.

The rituals of Christmas and church are similarly exposed, the former scene re-enacted as the Poulin family gather round not a manger but their son’s coffin. Antoine’s performance of masculine bravado is revealed under the influence of drink to be a mere show covering up his own fear of death and corpses. The inevitability of performance implies ambivalent, provisional identities that in everyday life are covered up. It is thus difficult to see Benoît’s destiny as a linear one leading through revolt to new certainties. Any “certainties” are bound to be similarly provisional and prone to disruption. The figure for this in the early part of the film is the barrel of nails (used by Antoine for the coffins), delivered to the shop but constantly in the way: finally it is Carmen who stumbles over it, cutting short the boys’ observation of Alexandrine. Not only does the barrel neatly structure the film, announcing the lost coffin (Madame Poulin also stumbles on her way back home where her son’s illness is announced), it also serves to disrupt the continuous and coherent space constructed by the film classical mise en scène.

However, attempts have been made to appropriate Mon oncle Antoine for a grand narrative of the emergence of a more mature and finished Quebec identity than that portrayed in the film. For Weinmann in Cinéma de l’imaginaire Québécois, the film’s overthrowing of certainties connected to the church, and Antoine’s final rejection of his adoptive parents and, by implication, wider authority, make it fit into his notion of the Quebec family romance. (The other “absent” father is Jos Poulin, who abandons his work for the Anglais’ mine to spend winter in the lumber camps and is thus a twentieth-century equivalent of the coureur de bois). Again, however, Weinmann’s one-to-one allegories, with Benoît gazing on the possibility of the death of Quebec itself in the shape of a corpse his own age, recreate the authority and authoritativeness which Benoît and the film are supposedly calling into question. For Ian Lockerbie, the final scene also warns of the death of the nation, but, for him, Benoît is now in a position to act, and this “founding work of Quebec cinema” establishes him as a precursor or the Quiet Revolution and of modern Quebec nationalism.

Historical and geographical anchorage: an establishing shot of an asbestos mine from the beginning of Mon oncle Antoine and an image of the bitter 1949 asbestos strike at Thetford Mines.

It is beyond question that Mon oncle Antoine mobilizes collective, national discourses as well as individual and “universal” ones. The very opening scene is quite unusual in Quebec cinema: it portrays a confrontation across the linguistic dividing-line, with Jos Poulin walking out on his Anglophone boss. Moreover, the setting inevitably recalls the key strike at Asbestos in 1949, which became a cause célèbre for modernizing intellectuals against the Duplessis regime and has been inserted into a whole linear and teleological history of Quebec culminating in the Quiet Revolution. However, it is difficult to ascribe to Benoît any of that linearity (despite the snowball incident), since the technocratic discourse is absent from the film, and in any case it could lead to Trudeau’s federalism as much as Lévesque’s nationalism (Trudeau supported the strike and published a book about it in 1956, La Grève de l’amiante. Une étape de la revolution industrielle au Québec [The Asbestos Strike. A Step in Quebec’s Industrial Revolution].) As Jocelyn Létourneau has pointed out, this appropriation of the Asbestos Strike is highly discursive (and thus performative) act, as provisional as any of the social half-solutions in the film.

In a sense, Lockerbie is employing the same discursive procedure for Mon oncle Antoine as the 1960s technocracy did for the strike, with a little bit of Oedipus added. For he deploys totalizing assumptions about age and gender roles. Fathers have again failed; Jos Poulin is a “révolté impuissant/ impotent rebel.” This neglects the fact that the coureur de bois figure offers a potentially different sexual and racial economy from Quebec familial discourse. Similarly, the coupling of Cécile and Fernand could be read as liberating—the older woman gets herself a younger lover—but, for Lockerbie, it represents “the regressive character of a relationship in which the age difference is shocking.” (This reading is influenced by Benoît’s point of view, but is this to do with age gap or the disruption of expected “family” behavior?) More severely still, Weinmann sees Cécile as “guidoune/whore”, in Benoît’s eyes. Similarly, whereas Lockerbie sees Antoine’s fear as “neurotic” but “natural” for an adolescent, it is possible to see here a vindication of the film’s extension of adolescence’s denaturalizing gaze to the whole of this society of appearances.

It is clear that any reading of the film must take place across the caesura of the Quiet Revolution and its aftermath. However, instead of a linear, totalizing reading, that relationship between past and present must partake of the national-allegorical tension. The past is both similar (the origins or previous incarnation of “us,” “our” ancestors) and different (it’s ignorance and poverty, infant mortality), often undecidably so (the status of the Québécois). The result is a transtemporality, a relatedness, a to-ing and fro-ing between temporal periods and cultural/political epochs. We shall discuss this further in relation to Jutra’s next film, Kamouraska. Suffice it to say here that Mon oncle Antoine challenges both the authority structures of the Duplessis era and a comfortably installed identity of self and nation. It does this not by debunking identity and community but by emphasizing their provisionality and lack of groundedness, their “lies” but also the “truths” they can offer in snatches. There is the pleasure of community in the film, notably when the annoncement of the wedding is celebrated in the shop, but that, too, is balanced by the bleakness of the marriages represented, its commercial and commodified dimension, and of course, the proximity of death. Similar comments might be made of Benoît’s burgeoning sexuality (the emphasis in the film on close-ups of his face ambiguously eroticizes him as much as the women he looks at).

The film thus recalls Renoir in its historical construction of a community, the “illusions”, “grand” or not so grand, by which it lives, and the way in which “theatre” is extended to the whole of social relations. Like Renoir, Jutra masterfully conveys a sense of place, whether of the town or the family shop, and choreographs his characters within it. However, more bleakly than in Renoir, the relation between inside and outside is marked not by depth of field emphasizing the interconnectedness of social and spatial relations (as in the shots through the windows in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange [The Crime of Monsieur Lange] (1936), or the beckoning landscapes in the final part of La Grande Illusion [Great Illusion] 1936), but by the all-pervasiveness of performance in identity construction, the corollary of which is death.

The success of Mon oncle Antoine led to the biggest film budget of that time ($750,000): a literary adaptation, co-produced with France, Kamouraska (1973). Anne Hébert’s novel, originally published in 1970, recounts the story of Elisabeth d’Aulnières and her marriage in the 1840s to Antoine de Tassy, seigneur [Lord] of Kamouraska, who turns out to be drunken, violent, and abusive. She takes a lover, Dr. George Nelson, an Empire loyalist, and together they conspire to kill Antoine. But after the murder Nelson flees to the United States and Elisabeth is put on trial. She is freed, but in effect a new “sentence” begins, with her marriage to the respectable Quebec City bourgeois, Jérôme Rolland. However, this fabula (chronological story) of the novel gives way to the complexities of its narrational arrangements, the syuzhet. Indeed, telling and remembering are the fundamental problems of the novel, as the fabula is recounted from Elisabeth’s position as the sits up awaiting Jérôme’s death twenty years after the events, which she recalls in a confused guilt-ridden, and half-drugged state. (The film exists in two versions: a 124-minute theatrically released version from the 1970s; and a 173-minute video re-edited by Jutra for television in 1983.)

Clearly, there is much potential for reading the film Kamouraska as Quebec’s great national romance. But instead of a foundational fiction that legitimates the nation-family, Kamouraska portrays the impossibility of romance in the colonized space of French Canada. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Patriotes’ Rebellion in 1837-38 [where French Canadian “patriots” rebelled against British colonial power], it depicts a Catholic society that stifles women, a Law that is literally in English (the trial), decadent aristocratic remnants, and an ultimately unreliable lover who possesses the freedom that Elisabeth (“that damned woman”) lacks. Such a reading would require a linear, progressive relationship between that past and this present, that of the mature Quebec of the Quiet Revolution and its aftermath.

Kamouraska resembles Maria Chapdelaine (Gilles Carle, 1983) in these and other respects such as landscape and the “national,” but Hébert and Jutra’s project can partly be read as an attempt to problematize some of the linear spatial and temporal readings to which that work has been put. Unlike in Maria Chapdelaine, the myths of heterosexual romance and of national survival are to be found wanting, and as in Les Bons Débarras [Good Riddance] (Mankiewicz, 1980) the diabolical comes to be the preferred figuring of feminine (dis)empowerment. The fact it is a co-production with France means that none of the characters (in the theatrical version) speaks with a marked Québécois accent, with the possible exception of the one lower-class character, the maid and childhood friend Aurélie (Suzie Baillargeon), so that the audible “inscape” fails to participate in the production of nationhood. The casting of Philippe Léotard as Antoine, while he is arguably too “attractive” for the role, does enable his decadence to be tarred with the feudal remnants of “Frenchness” (although a reading is also possible which sees him as very “Canadien” in his powerlessness: Elisabeth does comment early in the relationship that he is very “unhappy,” and it is clear that his stern mother is the one who fulfils the patriarchal role both before and after his death). Geneviève Bujold as Elisabeth is cast not only for her undoubted talent but also as, at that time, the only Québécois “star” on the international and therefore co-production circuit.

Above all, the problematizing of narration places the novel in traditions of European modernism themselves influenced by cinema (Anne Hébert had been living in Paris since the 1950s, before which she had written scripts for NFB documentaries). In the film, the fragmentation of Elisabeth’s narration and the fragments of her story are translated into an extensive use of flashbacks, especially temporal cutting in the same scene, shorn of a voice-over narration but partaking of what Deleuze via Bergson calls “the memory-image.” However, the tension in the film is between what we might call a will to chronology, in which the memory-image actualizes a former past in a way that can be reinserted into a cause-and-effect narrative, and a time-image in which actual and virtual (“pure memory,” where the past is preserved in itself) are indiscernible. The novel more radically disrupts and even renders impossible the process of re-membering. As Bergson and Deleuze argue, “not being able to remember” is often more significant than remembering, because then the present image “rather enters into relation with genuinely virtual elements, feelings of déjà vu or past ‘in general’…dream-images…fantasies or theatre scenes (54-5).

The film uses the techniques of basically 1950s and 1960s art cinema to dislocate the relationship between landscape and inscape, between the workings of individual and collective memory and the physicalities which purport to be continuous and given. For nothing is given in Kamouraska, and this is basically because of the relationship between gender and history. As I argue in chapter 8 of Quebec National Cinema, Quebec women’s cinema set out to challenge many of the totalizing linearities of Quiet Revolution hegemony, and Kamouraska to an extent participates in that early 1970s moment. The fate of a woman is for the first time at the centre of a Jutra film, but this seems strikingly appropriate for the cineaste of provisionality and performance. Elisabeth’s negative view of motherhood, despite her numerous children, means that she rejects the filiation on which the national family, particularly one called into being by the revanche des berceaux depends. [translation: revenge of the cradles] [8] [open endnotes in new window] Benoît in Mon oncle Antoine and Elisabeth here are made to share the motif of gazing through windows, one to contemplate a problematic future, one a problematic past.

That image connotes not past or future plenitudes but the dichotomous relationship between the spatial and the temporal/subjective which maps the arbitrary gender roles Elisabeth at some points in the film (the hunt scene) challenges. When Elisabeth looks out of the window, in fact she looks in. This means that the spatiality in the film becomes part of an undecidability of identity which is basically temporal, in that it both sets up boundaries and narratives and then problematizes them: Sorel and Kamouraska (Elisabeth in the first, the murder in the second, linked by Elisabeth’s litany of the place names linking them), Canada and the United States, Canada and Europe (the bourgeoisie’s desperate imitation of European culture in this colonized and “primitive” space), and, because of the film’s co-production, a (this time) highly appropriate hovering between Quebec and France. Above all, it is that undecidable relation between the énonciation of the moment in time of the narration (the relationship between the film’s “omniscient” narrating camera and the implied spectator) and the énoncé of the events being narrated.

What marks out Kamouraska as an art movie rather than a “popular” representation of the past is the fact that ambiguity is already self-consciously constructed into the narration. Bhabha, of course, wishes to deconstruct the totalities of “nationness” via an engagement with its literal minorities and the renegotiation of historical and contemporary narratives. Arguably, this procedure is particularly appropriate for Quebec’s specific history as simultaneously colonizing, colonized, and post-colonial, “major” and “minor,’ for Hébert’s investigation of women’s historical experience and problems of representation, and for Jutra’s sensitivity both to the non-linear provisionality of identity and to the persistence of ideas of “home”:

“Minority discourse acknowledges the status of national culture – and the people – as contentious, performative space of perplexity of the living in the midst of the pedagogical representations of the fullness of life. Now there is no reason to believe that such marks of difference… cannot inscribe a “history” of the people or become the gathering points of political solidarity. They will not, however, celebrate the monumentality of historicist memory, the sociological solidity or totality of society, or the homogeneity of cultural experience” (307-8).

Jutra’s articulation of these problems in relation to gender, sexuality, and childhood can be seen in his later films. Pour le meilleur et pour le pire (1975), whose mixed critical reception at the time did nothing to help Jutra’s career, is daring in both its form and its content. It condenses over a twenty-four-hour period four seasons and seventeen years of married life of an advertising executive, Bernard (Jutra) and his wife Hélène (Monique Miller). Her time is divided between domestic work and visits to a divorced, “liberated” neighbor (Monique Mercure). Bernard leaves for work, is fired for being late, and obsessed with the notion of his wife’s infidelity, invites to dinner a man he supposes to be her lover. After that fiasco, the couple confront each other with recriminations and at one point a gun. Their now late-teenage daughter leaves with her boyfriend, never to return. Bernard and Hélène retire to bed, resigned to endure each other.

Jutra’s break with the realist tradition of Quebec and Canadian cinema is as decisive here as in À tout prendre. In addition, the devastating satire of the institution of marriage, present in his previous two films was still relatively rare in Quebec cultural production. Marriage is seen as particularly damaging to woman’s mental health, irrelevant to the child, who develops autonomously from the adults as in other Jutra films, and in general productive of misery all around. Moreover, this social comment is hitched to an innovative temporal structure. Whereas Kamouraska was preoccupied with the (doomed) attempt to unify sheets of past time in a coherent, teleological memory-image, the time of Pour le meilleur et pour le pire is contracted in a way that renders indiscernible the division between past, present, and future.

Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) had portrayed a decaying marriage through a montage of newsreel-like clips which represented a succession of “former presents” akin to the imperfect tense in French or the habitual past in English. If anything, it is the future, not the past, that gives a perspective to the events in Jutra’s film, but that future is one of repetition in the most negative sense, as the outcome will be death (“till death us do part”). It is as if each moment of their relationship contained the past, the present, and the future of Bernard and Hélène. This is another element in the film along, with the mutual torment, which evokes Sartre’s play Huis Clos [No Exit], set, of course, in a hell, in an afterlife (Bernard: “I see Hell but the Hell you see is better than seeing nothing”).[9]

Pour le meilleur ou pour le pire: a re-enactment of the movements, choreography, and sentiments of a stifling married existence.

The one point in the film in which communication, dialogue, and solidarity seem possible is found in those pre-climatic scenes which evoke the shared memory of a film musical. But, whereas in musicals the transition from “normal” action to song and dance signals entry into another world or worlds, and thus liberating movement in which characters are depersonalized and swept into a generalized mouvement de monde, in Pour le meilleur et pour le pire the couple’s performance is one that re-enacts in a different form the movements, choreography, and sentiments of their stifling existence.[10] (Hélène: “We can’t change what we think but we can change the way of saying it.”) Prompted first by the “happy” memory from early in their marriage of going to see in New York Rio Rita (Simon, 1942), a musical starring Kathryn Grayson but also that dysfunctional “couple” Abbott and Costello and with a wartime plot, Bernard and Hélène proceed to recite names of stars, reminisce briefly in English, but then waltz around singing lyrics about mutual detestation and sexual repulsion. This “dancing” ends with Bernard’s “orgasm” as they clutch each other.

Jutra was to continue his interest in sexual politics in the films he made in Toronto: an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing (1980), and a film about a lesbian couple seeking to have children, By Design (1981), which happily denaturalizes received perceptions of masculinity, femininity, heterosexuality, and homosexuality.

La Dame en couleurs (1984) is set in the 1950s in a children’s home, doubling as a mental asylum, run by the church. Opening with a new batch of arrivals that reproduces the spectator’s point of view, it evokes the strict regime (“licence to circulate” is needed) and generalized sexual repression. The fourteen-year-old Agnès (Charlotte Laurier, Manon in Les Bons Débarras) represents temptation for her tutor, sister Gertrude (Paule Baillargeon), who ends up walking out of the institution and the church. This world is then bypassed by the children as they discover a secret access to the institution’s cellar, where they seek to create an alternative domain with the help of an adult epileptic painter, Barbouilleux (Gilles Renaud, Cuirette in André Brassard’s 1973 Il était une fois dans l’est [Once Upon a Time in the East] : the role was to be played by Jutra himself).

The enterprise fails, brought on by conflicts with Barbouilleux and an escape attempt, abortive for most of the kids. A coda in the “present” has the “adult” Agnès, having refused to join another child in escape, now one of the mental patients. Again, the film could be read in linear fashion to “justify” the Quiet Revolution and demonize the Duplessis era, with consumption (the kids raid the cellar’s provisions, including its narcotics), art and sexuality breaking loose in the alternate subterranean domain. However, just as in Kamouraska the feminine position is used to disrupt that linearity and the costume drama to inhabit the split in national subjectivity, so do the kids in La Dame en couleurs contradict “national” ideas of maturity and plenitude, and the representation of the past impels a problematic relationship to the present.

Barbouilleux, the visionary epileptic painter: Jutra had co-scripted the role for himself.

Childhood and adolescence are confronted with the grids of authority imposed by the state: in a recollection of the coureur de bois [runner of the woods][11] tradition, the kids in the subterranean passageways ask, “Who’ll be the Indian chief?” As we saw in the analysis of some of the contes pour tous [stories for everyone][12] films, Western civilization depends on the suppression of the child within. Jutra’s “home” portrays that hierarchy of child and adult in the blurring of the distinction between the two (the kids are “enterprising,” the patients are like children). The subterranean cultural resistance, however, ends in failure, and the contemporary coda, seen by some critics as unnecessarily pessimistic, in fact hurls the critique beyond that of a mere period in Quebec’s history or even a problematization of the similarity/difference of past/present.

The onset of Jutra’s degenerative mental illness, which eventually drove him to suicide, adds an extra dimension to the film. “We don’t think the same way when we’re small as when we’re big,” asserts Barbouilleux in the final confrontation with the children, but “for a grown-up it’s much more difficult.” Partly perhaps because of the film’s uneven plotting, a fruitful alliance is not and cannot be built between the alienated artist and childhood. Is it Jutra himself talking as he tells the kids in the cellar, “There’s no one on my side, neither here or up there”?