Foundational fictions

by Bill Marshall

Excerpt from chapter two of Marshall’s Quebec National Cinema (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001). Jump Cut editors’ additions in brackets.

The construction of the canon of directors in Deleuze’s cinema books is open to some questioning. As far as ‘Third World’ figures are concerned, his choices are somewhat limited to those (usually one per country) adopted by Cahiers du cinéma in the 1960s, hence the choice of [Pierre] Perrault—Pour la suite du monde [For the Ones to Come] (with Michel Brault) 1963, Le pays de la terre sans arbre [The Country of the Treeless soil] 1980, La bête lumineuse [The Shimmering Beast] 1982as representative of Quebec. He might instead have alighted upon À tout prendre [Take It All or All Things Considered], shot in 1961-3 and released in 1964, which revels in ‘the minor’, but, paradoxically, a minor mode constructed from within the urban bourgeoisie (and whose main protagonist speaks impeccable metropolitan French). This quasi-autobiographical piece, produced in the private sector, portrays the affair between filmmaker Claude (Claude Jutra), and a Black model, Johanne (Johanne Harrelle), who is still living with her (estranged and unseen) husband. The vicissitudes of the relationship—first encounter, obsession, other dalliances, Johanne's pregnancy, subsequent rejection by Claude, and miscarriage [1][open endnotes in new window]—are less important than the way the film combines formal experimentation with a sustained problematization of identity itself. Where Pour la suite du monde, in one reading at least, seemed to be producing a ‘truth’ and seeking to uncover an ‘authenticity’ beyond the world of appearances, À tout prendre joyously undercuts the ‘self’ on which the film would seem narcissistically to centre. At the time however, the film was largely greeted with incomprehension, and seen as having little to do with the emerging assertion of Quebec identity associated with the Quiet Revolution.[1a]

From the opening scene in which Claude gets ready for the party, the spectator is confronted with the fragility of the ‘self’. The ‘realism’ of body details in the shower (such as washing feet) combines with a montage of shots of Claude in various guises in front of the mirror, ending with him firing a gun so that it shatters and fragments. The self-proclaimed ‘quest’ of the film is to "get rid of my youth and of the characters [personnages] inside me". The film proceeds to address this longing, but ultimately Claude discovers that there is no unified identity for him to step into. In fact, ‘Je est un autre’, ‘I is another’ (the quotation from Rimbaud’s Lettre du voyant of 1871 which Deleuze uses to describe the non-identical in time and the non-identity of image and concept, and which he sees manifesting itself in Rouch’s practice in Moi, un noir [Me, a Black Man]). The way forward is through fabulation.

The fragility of the ‘self’: mirrors and self-fiction in À tout prendre.

The style of À tout prendre, and the combination of cultural inputs it contains, testifies to that play of instability, plurality and difference. The dedications of the title sequence are to Jean Rouch, and indeed the film owes much to le direct (mobile camera, lack of aestheticism in the shots, sense of immediacy), particularly the experimental end he represents, but also to Norman McLaren. Jutra had worked with McLaren at the NFB on the short A Chairy Tale of 1957, with its use of stop action animation; the representation of the guns firing in Claude's fantasies in À tout prendre obviously recall McLaren's animation technique of scratching directly on the celluloid.

Jutra had first met François Truffaut, who makes a cameo appearance in À tout prendre, at a film festival in Tours in 1957 in which both A Chairy Tale and Truffaut's Les Mistons [The Mischief Makers] 1957 were entered. We shall discuss subsequently the relations between early Quebec cinema and the French nouvelle vague. Suffice it to say here that aspects of À tout prendre are reminiscent of both Les Quatre Cents Coups [The 400 Blows] 1959 (Claude's problems are those of a man in his early 30s still negotiating the identity crises of adolescence, bereft of a solid place in a society he can believe in) and A bout de souffle [Breathless] 1960 (for its formal playfulness). For Deleuze, the nouvelle vague was a key expression in cinema of ‘the power of the false’, in which the ‘form of truth’ was replaced by forces and powers, of life and of cinema.

À tout prendre combines immediacy and self-reflexivity, and so a promise of ‘truth’ or ‘the real’ is constantly undermined by a dazzling array of rapid camera movements, rapid montage, extensive use of zoom, freeze frame and slow motion, discontinuous interruptions from Claude's fantasy life, a soundtrack that veers from synchronous dialogue to music to Claude's stream of consciousness and his ironic voice-over commentary, and of course the film within the film, the love story Claude is shooting. Plot – the anecdotal ‘real’ of the film—is periodically suspended in favour of falsifying narration and sequences of ‘pure’ spectacle, in particular what Deleuze calls a gestus (250) of Claude’s body (a sequence has him performing various gaits, and then a return to ‘the true’ is announced – in fact to his film shoot).[2]

Pure spectacle: Johanne’s creole song "Choucoune" in À tout prendre.

The formal and thematic strategy is dovetailed in, for example, the scene of Claude and Johanne's first encounter. Longer takes than average for the film are used to portray Johanne's rendition at the party of the creole song, "Choucoune". (This scene is an unused sequence from the student film by Denys Arcand, Denis Héroux and Stéphane Venne, Seul ou avec d'autres [Alone or With Others] 1962). This contrast, along with that struck with the chatter of the (white, middle-class) gathering, suggests an ‘authenticity’ which is undermined not only by its status as performance, but by the cut (Claude's point of view?) of an increasingly out of focus female figure, who may or may not be Johanne, standing up to sway to the music. This is preceded and followed by shots of Claude looking at her. Significantly, he asks a partygoer what her name is: "Johanne" flashes up twice on a blank screen. That particular question thus provides an unambiguous answer, but who she is is a quite different matter. Johanne will prove to be, in a familiar treatment in Western culture, ungraspable as love object, but her identity is also a performance, as she confesses later to Claude that her status as ‘Haitian’ is a fiction, a performance she has learned, for she is in fact an orphan from Quebec. The cuts in that first scene to Claude looking, the last in extreme close-up, establish an equivalence in ambiguity of the two individuals and their interaction to come.

The gaze of Claude upon Johanne is thus not to be characterized as the standard male heterosexual gaze of mainstream Hollywood and even art cinema, fixing the threatening female body as an object of voyeurism or fetishism. Claude's position is continuously undermined by what we might term the apprenticeship of difference that Johanne forces him to experience. This is the case in terms of race (she explicitly refuses to be exoticized), her own identity masquerade, in the troubling scenes when Claude's gaze is returned (notably by Johanne and Barbara [Monique Mercure]), and most notably in the acknowledgement of his own homosexual inclinations that she in fact provokes. Claude's ‘identity’ or rather plurality of identities, is thus predicated on a dialogue with otherness, a becoming-other. This becoming the Other can lead Jutra/the film to embrace the process of decolonization, as in his documentary Le Niger jeune république [Niger, Young Republic] of 1961, shots of which are inserted into À tout prendre.

However, the lessons for Quebec are that any national struggle must be predicated on provisional and not full or unified notions of identity. This is the point missed by contemporary commentators such as Denys Arcand, who identified national maturity with heterosexual relations with "one's own", "women of the real, of the everyday": "There we find, I think, an unconscious refusal to coincide with one’s collective self. "[3] At the end of the film, Claude walks past graffiti for "Québec libre" with the preceding voiceover, at the end of the affair with Johanne, suggesting "Il faut penser à autre chose/We have to think about something else". The implication is that such a project is worth pursuing, but is qualified and tempered by what occurs in the film. Notably, À tout prendre ends not with that shot but with a gag sequence fantasizing about Claude's possible suicide and representing his departure for elsewhere.

In an interview later in the decade, Jutra made explicit his attitude to any kind of committed cinema:

“I believe in ideas: the right of a people to self-government, each person’s need for a national and cultural identity. But, as I get carried away with enthusiasm, I can’t help thinking that the worst collective crimes were committed in the name of nationalism. This contradiction tortures me and it is to this contradiction that I am committed."

His project is thus to "define the contradictions, and share the anguish”.[4]

The fact that À tout prendre can be co-opted only with considerable difficulty for a political project extends also to identity politics. The refreshing—and astonishing for 1963—treatment of homosexuality is far from constituting an "identity" (Johanne's phrase, "do you like boys?", is based on acts). It prompts Claude to act, by, it is heavily implied, seducing the lead actor of his film, but the fact that gay assertion goes no further is attributable not only to the historical context.[5] As we have seen, the film cannot be read as a straightforward assertion of ‘Quebec’ either. Its treatment of its identity position(s) is decidedly, and triumphantly, ‘minor’.

The criticism of the film's "narcissism" is also somewhat misplaced (Brady). The equation of homosexuality and narcissism is a highly debatable amalgamation of Freud and the ‘common-sense’ view that since lesbians and gay men desire the same sex they must be narcissistic. As I have argued, far from being a withdrawal into the self, reminiscent, in the Quiet Revolution narrative, of the defensiveness and impotence of the Duplessis era, the film's preoccupation with self is based on a fragmentation and disintegration of that self, a provisionality born out of an encounter with difference. The ‘selfishness’ of Claude is constantly undermined, his 'self' cannot be taken entirely seriously, form and content combining here in the ludic nature of the film. Claude and Johanne circle each other in the photography scene not in some closed repetition but in a relationship of mutual dependency and attraction: they consist of bits, fragments, atoms, rather than complete and finished persons or identities (although Johanne ultimately turns out to be trapped within the desire for wholeness predicated on heterosexual romance). Narcissism is self-consciously an issue in the film, and ‘narcissism’ itself is an extremely complex phenomenon. There are arguments to be made that it can represent a way of reducing, not affirming, rigidity of self. It looks back to the polymorphous perverse before the entry into Oedipal identifications (Hocquengem). The plenitude of the Lacanian mirror stage is a misrecognition, and can never be attained, so the self desired as object is in a sense other and not the self.[6]

À tout prendre is noteworthy for its preoccupation with death mediated by ultimately French cultural references. Claude's fantasies of being shot need to be placed in the context of the other references to death in the film: the death-like mask Claude and Johanne see in the city streets; his constant references to ageing and lost youth; the fantasy ‘suicide’ at the end (anticipating Jutra's own death in 1986 when he threw himself into the St. Lawrence having been diagnosed with Alzheimer's); and of course the x-ray sequence which exposes another hidden but insufficient ‘truth’ of the self while at the same time displaying his future bare skeleton. It is this obsession and perspective which qualify the theme of birth: his drawing of the pregnant Johanne which points to himself as the foetus; and the extraordinary scene when he visits his mother to discuss the possibility of his marriage to Johanne.

Yves Lever has criticized Jutra for an insufficient critique of the bourgeoisie, but this scene subtly combines social, filmic and metaphysical anxieties. Claude approaches his mother's bedroom like a furtive burglar, but also like a devout worshipper. The tempo of the editing slows radically; the house is seemingly empty except for the dogs; the usually cacophonous soundtrack reproduces a ticking clock only; the camera follows Claude, in slow motion, climbing the stairs; his hand, in extreme close-up, is seen to turn the handle of his mother's bedroom. His mother (the splendid Tania Fédor), propped up in her bed and stroking a dog's head, is calm and authoritative; there is no reverse shot, her face and upper body fill the screen. The scene connotes both birth (the mother's body, the womb, attained via a long series of ‘passages’) and death (the frozen, interminable time of the bourgeoisie). Incidentally, the sceptical mother formulates Claude's dilemma in the very Québécois or French-Canadian terms of that between the "voyageur" [traveller] and the "sédentaire" [home-body].[7]

À tout prendre is thus marked by a certain existential and even Existentialist attitude which juxtaposes the search for meaning in life with the proximity and inevitability of death. This is the implication of the visit to the (rather unusually free-thinking) priest, rather than Claude's unwillingness to break away from past sources of authority in Quebec society. In addition, the debt to the nouvelle vague, and the rather Cocteau-ish ‘solution’ to sexual and metaphysical preoccupations to be found in the aesthetic, make the film a very open and porous example of ‘national cinema’. It is certainly much more individualist than Pour la suite du monde, but that individualism is very modern, and at the same time not based on a fixed and complete identity. Claude's disarray is bound up with history and society, and is also a source of enjoyment for him and for the audience. It is a film very much of its time, with its portrayal of the decay of older certainties, but it also looks ahead, even far ahead, as it faces the possibility but also questionability of new ones emerging. The tension in the film is between an aspiration to identity and wholeness and a falling away or flight from it. For D.N. Rodowick, in his lucid summary of Deleuze’s film writings, this is what characterizes ‘becoming other’:

“Rather than identity, becoming-other is driven by a tension between power and evasion. Power articulates itself as a socially managed force that limits the body’s range of dynamic affects; becoming-other emerges from a countervailing desire to evade those limits, to find lines of flight wherein new potentialities for desire and identity can be expressed. This process is a double movement from both the side of I and the other” (155).

The ‘people’ in Quebec in 1963 are also in a process of ‘becoming’. À tout prendre suggests that that process must be one that never stops, that there is no fixity, no ‘sameness’ which they eventually ‘become’.

Founding cinematic fictions such as À tout prendre and Pour la suite du monde have been seen to inaugurate, not a wholeness, but founding problematics and ambivalences. But in fact any reference back to a founding moment, a golden age, a discovery, victory, or settlement, involves a highly paradoxical relationship between ‘then’ and ‘now’, the moment and its reenactment. It can only be a relationship of lack.

Excerpt from Chapter 6 of Bill Marshall’s Quebec National Cinema:
“Auteurism after 1970”

Auteurism, rather like “national cinema,” is a term that must be simultaneously deployed and resisted, because its practices and procedures do precisely the same. Auteur cinema in Quebec can be “popular”, even if we limit the word’s definition for now as attracting a wide audience. As a leading film intellectual in the 1960s, Denys Arcand offered an agenda that prophetically announced the film à fesses, beginning with Valérie in 1968, which effectively launched popular Quebec cinema:

“From the time filmmakers forget their mom in order to undress serenely their neighbor called Yvette Tremblay or Yolande Beauchemin, in the full light of day and with a well-focused wide-angle on the camera, from that time, we could envisage like Jean Renoir a cinema which is free and at the same time fiercely national. A cinema of joy and conquest.”

When Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine [My Uncle Antoine]was shown on Radio Canada in October 1973, it obtained half the francophone audience. In these circumstances, it is perhaps appropriate to talk of a cinéma de qualité, on (again) the French model, where Jean de Florette and Manon des sources (Berri 1986), with their high production values, were able to articulate the national in distinct ways for home or international audiences, and to be read more as “popular” or more as “art” cinema depending on that audience and the presence or absence of subtitles. The holy grail within the multiplicity of Quebec cinema is an auteur cinema which seeks a wide audience in the nonetheless exiguous home market but which, as a vehicle for cultural prestige, is able to attract investors. For Marcel Jean, that holy grail is represented by Le Déclin de l’empire américain [The Decline of the American Empire] (1986), the triumphant Quebec production which in a sense closes our period. On the other hand, that term, cinéma de qualité, is a highly contested one, not only because it was the “tradition de qualité," the studio-bound, script-led literary adaptation that was lambasted by Truffaut in 1954, but because that differentiation and articulation of international arthouse standards and national cultural discourses can fail, fall between the stools, and blandly conform to “the international aesthetic” (Jean 94).

As we shall see, Quebec has one trump card: a much more developed and, to an extent at least, culturally esteemed television culture, and much higher television audiences for indigenous fictional product than English Canada. Television has played an important role especially in Quebec popular cinema in terms of performers, but as it has become involved more centrally in the Quebec film industry, it has articulated centripetal “national” concerns against those other centrifugal forces which form the tensions of globalization.

In the relationship between auteurism and the national, it is possible to plot the fate of a director’s oeuvre in the vicissitudes of production described above, and also the particular take or takes a director may have or develop on the national-allegorical tension. How, for example, does the debate on identity initiated in À tout prendre develop in Jutra’s later works?

Explorations of adolescence in Rouli-roulant (1966).

Materially Jutra’s output is marked by the difficulty of production, to the point that he was forced to work in Toronto in the lean late 1970s and early 1980s. But a coherence can be grasped in the explorations of adolescence, and also of the national past, which characterize his most important films. Just as À tout prendre articulated the tension between forces of heterogeneity in the construction of identity, in terms of a prolonged adolescence which was in fact a source of creativity, so do Jutra’s documentaries Comment savoir… [How To  Know…] (1966) (on the innovative use of computers in teaching) and Rouli-roulant [The Devil’s Toy] (1966) on skateboarding, and especially Wow (1969). Of his four francophone feature films of the 1970s and 1980s, two place childhood and adolescence at the centre (Mon oncle Antoine, with a quasi-autobiographical script by Clément Perron, 1971; and La Dame en couleurs [The Dame in Color], with a script by Jutra and Louise Rinfret, 1984), while the adaptation of Anne Hébert’s novel Kamouraska (1973), co-scripted with Hébert herself, emphasizes the profoundly gendered nature of the relation between the fixed and unfixed identity construction. Moreover, all three films situate their debates across the “before” and “after” of the Quiet Revolution, a narration of national past from the national present which leads to further ambiguities. Only Pour le meilleur et pour le pire [For Better or For Worse] (1975) and the anglophone productions Surfacing (1980) and By Design (1981) are set in the contemporary period, and they set out radically to question normative sexual arrangements.