copyright 2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018

Foundational fictions

by Bill Marshall

Excerpt from chapter two of Marshall’s Quebec National Cinema
(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001). Note: 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 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]

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?

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.

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.

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.

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 [revenge of the cradles],[8] depends. 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 1994 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]

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.

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”?


1. While Marshall mentions a miscarriage, the film explicitly, and scandalously for the time, mentions abortion: Before his disappearance at the end of the film, “Claude” borrows a large sum of money and gives it to Johanne to use for an abortion or for the child’s education. [return to text]

1a. See Lever, 77. Lever himself shares this assessment of “the complete irrelevance [décrochage] to the Quebec collective real”, 78.

2. The Time-Image, 250. “Series are the expressions of forces through which the body transforms itself and through which I becomes other … the series takes up the body in an image where disparate spaces overlap without resolving into a totality or whole” (Rodowick, 168).

3. Arcand, “Cinéma et sexualité.”

4. Cinéastes du Québec 4: Claude Jutra, 17.

5. Tom Waugh underlines the fact that A tout prendre was made "six years before Stonewall": "Nègres blancs, tapettes et ‘butch’".

6. See my discussion of Les Nuits fauves in Alderson and Anderson.

7. [In Quebec the term voyageurs refers to the legendary French Canadians who transported furs by canoe during the fur trade of the 18th and early 19th centuries. There is a certain romanticism around the legend of the voyageurs who adopted a nomadic lifestyle. The tension between the voyageur and the sédentaire evokes a sharp (and gendered) contrast between the romantic nomadic figures and the sedentary settler population of Nouvelle France [New France] (the name given the French colony that would later become the Canadian province of Quebec).]

8. [According to popular lore, the “revenge of the cradles” refers to high birthrates among French Canadians encouraged by the Catholic Church and a francophone elite as a form of resistance to English colonization from the 1870s until 1941.]

9. Sartre’s play, however, evokes a situation in which the characters, being dead, are no longer able to make choices, to alter the choices they made, or, because of their interrelations, establish systems of denial.

10. In The Time-Image, 60-4, Deleuze, following Alain Masson’s work on the musical (La Comédie musicale), analyses the transition from narrative to the spectacular or “implied dream” with the possibility of return, but he also points out that such a transition can call into question the concreteness of the “normal” narrative world, so that we go from the “spectacular” to the “spectacle,” the “dream” element enveloping both or all worlds. This latter view is consistent with the strange temporal and narrative relations of Jutra’s film, but here, of course, the musical sequence is an extension of the misery containing it, not something giving life back to the everyday. 

11. This term evokes independent entrepreneurial French-Canadian woodsman who traveled in New France and the interior of North America, usually to trade European goods with First Nations people in exchange for furs. The coureur de bois [runner of the woods] was often a solitary figure, while the legendary voyageurs transported furs across great distances as part of the large-scale, licensed and organized fur trade.]

12. A series of 24 films for young people produced by Rock Demers between 1970 and 2014, including the 1984 hit La guerre des tuques [The Dog who Stopped the War]. See Marshall’s Quebec National Cinema, 115-119.

Works cited

Arcand, Denys. “Cinéma et sexualité.” Parti-pris nos. 9-11, summer 1964, pp. 90-7.

Bhabha, Homi. Nation and Narration. London, Routledge, 1990.

Brady, James. "A tout prendre: fragments du corps spéculaire." Copie zéro no. 37, 1988, pp. 23-26.

Cinéastes du Québec 4: Claude Jutra. Conseil québécois pour la diffusion du cinéma, 1970.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by H. Tomlinson and R. Galeta, Athlone Press, 1989.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. “1440: The Smooth and the Striated”, A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi, Athlone Press, 1988, pp. 475-500.

Hocquenghem, Guy. Homosexual Desire. Translated by Daniella Dangoor, Duke University Press, 1993.

Jean, Marcel. Le Cinéma québécois. Boréal, 1991.

Lever, Yves. Le Cinéma de la revolution tranquille de Panoramique à Valérie. Y. Lever, 1991.

Lockerbie, Ian. “Regarder la mort en face.” Ciné-Bulles 15, no. 2, summer 1996, pp. 44-9.

Marshall, Bill. "The nation-popular and comparative gay identities : Cyril Collard’s Les Nuits fauves." Territories of desire in queer culture: refiguring contemporary boundaries, edited by David Alderson and Linda R. Anderson, Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. 84-95.

Rodowick, David. Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine. Duke University Press, 1997.

Waugh, Tom. "Nègres blancs, tapettes et "butch"". Copie zéro no. 11, 1981, pp. 12-29.

Weinmann, Heinz. Cinéma de l’imaginaire Québécois. l’Hexagone, 1990.