2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
The “Affaire Jutra” and the figure of the child
i. The Jutra Affair
On February 13, 2016, the advance publicity for Yves Lever’s biography of iconic Quebec filmmaker Claude Jutra dropped a bombshell: Several individuals interviewed for the book claimed to have been victims of Jutra’s sexual advances as children or teenagers. Lever’s allegation that the filmmaker had been a pedophile unleashed a highly mediated scandal in the Quebec arts scene. At first, several well-known commentators expressed indignation at this black mark on Jutra’s reputation on the basis of anonymous allegations thirty years after his tragic suicide. For instance Lise Payette, the legendary journalist and politician, vehemently rejected Jutra’s “execution at dawn.” Yet despite numerous passionate defenses by key cultural figures, the scandal that came to be known as the “Affaire Jutra” (the Jutra Affair) was not so easily dissipated. On February 17, Montréal daily La Presse published the anonymous testimony of a man given the pseudonym “Jean” describing his sexual abuse over a decade from the age of six at the hands of Jutra, a friend of the family (Pilon-Larose).
That same day, the Québec government and arts community made three extraordinary announcements: The Ministère de la culture et des communications and Québec Cinéma announced that Jutra’s name be stripped from the province’s annual film awards, and the Canadian Screen Awards withdrew Jutra’s name from its award for Best feature by a first-time director. Also, Further, the Cinémathèque québécoise announced its decision to change the name of its main screening room that had born Jutra’s name since he presided at its inauguration in 1963. Finally, all streets and squares named for Jutra across the province were renamed on the authority of the seven municipalities concerned, with the support of Québec’s Commission de toponymie. These decisions were taken solely on the basis of anonymous allegations, three days before screenwriter and director Bernard Dansereau was the first and only person to speak on the record of rebuffing a sexual advance by Jutra, his godfather, at the age of 12. On Feburary 23, news outlets announced the vandalism of the sculpture “Hommage à Claude Jutra” by renowned sculptor Charles Daudelin; the sculpture was later boxed up, removed from the park and put into storage. It is as if this filmmaker who had so vividly marked the cinema of the Quiet Revolution and the Quebec collective imagination was erased from public memory in the matter of a few days.
The rapid erasure of all official public references to Jutra as an iconic cultural figure profoundly destabilized the province’s cultural establishment and the broader Québec society. Why did this posthumous scandal surrounding a filmmaker who has been dead for over thirty years spark a national crisis? While this scandal is in some ways reminiscent of scandals surrounding Michael Jackson, Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, let me point to several salient aspects of the Jutra affair. First, no formal accusation has ever been made against Jutra, who has been dead since 1986. [open endnotes in new window] Also, the victims of the filmmaker’s alleged abuse were boys, and I can only speculate about how the factor of queer sexuality fanned the flames of a scandal that was significantly media-driven. Finally, Jutra is widely recognized as a founding figure of a “new wave” of Quebec national cinema closely linked to the incomplete project of forging a distinct Québécois cultural identity.
It is not a simple thing to tease out the delicate symbolic and ethical stakes of the Jutra affair. Many Quebec cultural figures and intellectuals have remained loyal to Jutra’s memory, helping to ensure that the scandal has not affected public access to his works, at least in the short term. In the medium to long term, however, the stigma of “pedophilia” may affect Jutra’s standing in Quebec and Canadian film canons. What is at stake with the Jutra affair for Quebec society, I argue, is more oblique and more profound than censorship. These allegations bring together on the one hand the visceral taboo concerning intergenerational sexual relations and on the other a cultural figure intimately linked with the Quiet Revolution as a point of origin for a modern, secular Quebec. In my broader argument, I analyze the myth surrounding the filmmaker in order to probe the resonance of the Jutra affair in Quebec. Drawing on theories of queer time and the queer child, I examine how the filmmaker’s ambiguous proximity to children across his life and works troubles developmental narratives of masculinity, sexuality, and the nation.
First, however, I want to take a considered position in relation to the ethical and political dilemmas of the Jutra affair. When Lever first went public with his allegations, I was inclined to read the scandal sceptically as a media stunt to boost book sales. Like many others, I felt that official responses to anonymous allegations were hasty and draconian, whereby government and cultural institutions distanced themselves from what Gayle Rubin calls “bad, abnormal, unnatural, or damned” sexuality. For instance, on February 15, Québec Cinéma had appointed a comité des sages (committee of the wise) to deliberate on Lever’s allegations, only to take a harsh decision on February 17 without awaiting the committee’s findings. In a letter to the editor of the daily Le Devoir published eight months later, these four intellectuals compared the rapid official responses to a spring cleaning: “With one great sweep of the broom, it became essential to make Jutra and his works disappear once and for all.” Not only were these decisions taken far too rapidly, they argued, but no action was taken by the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux (Ministry of Health and Social Services) to reinforce or make public contemporary public policies related to sexual abuse (Coupal, Binamé, Aubut and Villemure).
Let me return to the evidence contained in the 2016 biography. Lever mentions that many people in Jutra’s entourage refused to talk to him about the filmmaker’s sexuality, and that others insisted on a predominant attitude of “live and let live” in the 1960s and 1970s. However, Lever mentions that several interviewees attested to Jutra’s privileged relationships with boys younger than eighteen that were not merely platonic; the biographer also mentions rumours that teenaged boys involved in the shoot of Mon oncle Antoine had “special” relationships with the director, and that one handsome young actor became Jutra’s “official” lover for several years (153). This is the evidence published in the biography that leads Lever to label Jutra a “pedophile.” Lever excludes the ages of the boys as well as the circumstances of assumed sexual contact between Jutra and minors, perhaps to protect his sources. There are grey zones, I believe, when it comes to relationships between teenagers and adults, and my point of view is shared by several commentators. Film critic Monica Haim for instance counters what she calls the “lynching” of Jutra, with the key point that the age of consent in Canada from 1892 until 2008 was fourteen. Also, actor Marc Béland who had lived with Jutra for two years initially defended what he saw as consensual sexual relations between the filmmaker and young teenagers who would come to the door to seek out the filmmaker: “It was his life … And it’s no one else’s business until someone comes forward to make an accusation if he has been abused” (“Révélations”). [2a] Béland later retracted his defense in light of the subsequent testimonies by “Jean” and Bernard Dansereau.
For me and for many others, the most serious allegations came from “Jean” who presented a detailed anonymous account of a decade of sexual abuse from the age of six, and Bernard Dansereau’s brave decision to speak on the record. Queer or sexual libertarian perspectives, including the arguments put forward by Tom Waugh and John Greyson in this special section, offer important critiques of moral panics. Yet as a queer thinker who is also a feminist, I weigh the dangers of sexual intolerance against the very real spectre of harm and the difficulties of speaking out about sexual assault. In Québec and elsewhere the feminist movement has played a crucial role in challenging the silences surrounding sexual violence of all kinds and its banalization, and in bringing to light its lasting traumatic effect. In an account that aligns all too well with other cases of childhood sexual abuse, “Jean” also recounts how his schoolwork was affected at the time, and how he later suffered from alcoholism and depression as an adult. When asked by a journalist why he had not spoken to his family about the abuse, the witness’s response was more than plausible: “It was probably because of the name ‘Jutra’ and all that it represented. I didn’t feel able to break all that” (Pilon-Larose). Here, “Jean” evokes the veritable aura surrounding Jutra, a renown that could well have contributed to the filmmaker’s powers of persuasion. The day after “Jean’s” anonymous testimony, Lever stated on the radio that he knew of two other children who had similar experiences with Jutra over shorter time-frames, but that they had not suffered the same devastating long-term effects as “Jean” (“Affaire Jutra”).
As a queer and feminist mom, I am sensitive to children’s eroticism, their sensuality and sexual curiosity, and the importance of facilitating a confident and curious relation to sexuality. I am also attuned to the tremendous trust that children place in adults, a trust that along with their dependence on us leads to their incalculable vulnerability. Audre Lorde has influentially pointed out the power of eroticism as a “resource” for women, but also the damage that comes with the exploitation or misnaming of this “depth of feeling” that she sees as the crux of the life force. While of particular significance to women, Lorde’s account insists on the vital importance of an autonomous sexuality for each person. In this light, we can grasp something of the damage evoked by “Jean” when he states that that “Jutra was the first one to touch me, even before I discovered sexual pleasure for myself” (cited in Pilon-Larose). As with gender relations, intergenerational relationships are framed by social pressures and relations of power and desire. These dynamics place adults – parents, teachers, family friends and relatives, mentors and baby-sitters – in positions of authority and in privileged proximity to children. For me, with this proximity and authority comes an absolute ethical responsibility to respect each child’s emotional and physical integrity. Even as I am outraged for the many women who have suffered sexual violence, I am outraged for “Jean” among many young people who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Jutra and others.
This ethical position could lead me to join those who would erase, or at the very least challenge Jutra’s memory as a cherished symbol of the cultural effervescence of the Quiet Revolution. However, I am also wary of the horrors committed “in the name of the child.” I choose to contribute to a considered public debate in order to break the deadlock between a retrospective moral panic on the one hand and on the other the disavowal of any harm caused by Jutra founded on the sanctity of the artist or a sexual libertarian ethic. In the two-part analysis that follows, I first develop a queer reading of the potent myth surrounding Jutra in order to trace why this scandal so deeply disturbed cherished discourses of Quebec culture and nation. Next, I turn to the polysemic figure of the child at the heart of the Jutra affair, attending to the multiple discourses and framings of children and youth in several key films.
ii. The Jutra myth: failure and arrested development
A history of the present
In this section, I present a myth that developed throughout Jutra’s brilliant and uneven career, gaining momentum after the filmmaker’s tragic early death in 1986. Jutra is remembered as a multi-talented child prodigy who has been retrospectively constructed in journalistic and scholarly discourses as Québec’s first genuine auteur, a leading figure in a modern national cinema. Jutra’s career spanned the crucial historical period bridging the end of what is known as the Grande noirceur (the Great Darkness) and the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s. The Quiet Revolution was a period of tremendous cultural and political effervescence marking Québec’s belated entry into modernity. Jutra was the most visible of a group of talented filmmakers who founded a “new wave” of modern Québec cinema from the late 1950s. In order to grasp the resonance of the Jutra myth, it is important to understand that the development of an autonomous postcolonial Québécois cultural identity has been seen as the lifeblood crucial of Québec’s aspirations for sovereignty (Weinmann 1991, Poirier).
This heady historical period also corresponds with the sexual revolution in Québec associated with a refusal of the sexual and social norms imposed by the Catholic Church that had dominated Québec society from the colonial period. Alongside the sexual and Quiet revolutions, Québec second wave feminism and lesbian and gay liberation emerged at the end of the 1960s. The myth of Jutra is closely bound up with a widespread contemporary understanding of the Quiet Revolution as a founding decade for modern Québec society, a social democratic and sexually liberated society. If Jutra has in some ways come to embody the cultural dynamism and creativity of the Quiet Revolution, he has also been read by some as a courageous pioneer of gay liberation. Notably, Tom Waugh identifies the first fleeting glimpse of same-sex desire on Québec screens with Jutra’s 1963 À tout prendre [All Things Considered or Take It All] with Jutra’s confession “I love boys” (see the analysis of this pivotal sequence in the essays by Rodríguez-Arbolay Jr. and Waugh in this special section). On a queer reading, this early pre-liberation sequence is a remarkable exception that proves the rule in a cinema constrained by Catholic morality, censorship and homophobia. Despite the absence of explicit homosexuality in Jutra’s subsequent filmography, Waugh reclaims Jutra as an “ancestor, enigma and martyr of lesbian and gay cinema in Canada” (437).
Reading back from a present so indelibly marked by the Jutra affair, I develop a genealogical reading of the shifting myth of Jutra, who has been consistently framed as an allegory of the tremendous promise and failure Québec’s socio-political and cultural “coming of age.” Foucault’s concept of genealogy proposes a historiographical inquiry informed by the dilemmas and the emergencies of the present. Genealogy involves a refusal of origin, continuity and linear causality, proposing instead to
“follow the complex course of descent” that implies “maintain[ing] passing events in their proper dispersion; identify[ing] the accidents, the minute deviations … the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us” (Foucault 146).
This genealogical refusal of origins informs my choice to structure this essay as an encounter between several distinct yet complexly interrelated “courses of descent” that feed into the changing myth of Jutra’s life and works that coincide with multiple “origins”: a distinct postcolonial cultural identity and the unfinished emergence of a sovereign modern nation; a trajectory of feminist and gay and lesbian liberation often associated with the ideal of the modern progressive Québec; and finally, changing socio-historical discourses around children and youth.
I argue that in toppling this iconic figure of origins from his pedestal, the 2016 Jutra affair called into question several foundational myths associated with the emergence of modern, secular Québec society. I deploy genealogical inquiry and theories of queer time to probe how Jutra as a queer figure troubles a linear account of the unfinished emergence of Québec modernity from the Quiet Revolution. Let me now turn to the peculiarly cinematic figure of Jutra, who has been consistently framed as an allegory of the tremendous promise and failure Québec’s socio-political and cultural “coming of age.”
The Jutra myth
“Claude Jutra was cinema. He was at once 24 images per second and poetry (PIERROT DES BOIS), he was montage, the very essence of cinema (LES ENFANTS DU SILENCE), he was sensitivity and poetry, he was shot, frame and creativity, he was a dictionary of cinema (IMAGES EN BOÎTE), he was at once a man of science and a man of letters, he drew and painted like an artist, he wrote like a poet” (Brault, my translation).
This powerful statement by Michel Brault captures something of the romantic myth of Jutra as a cinematic genius and a Renaissance man. Brault’s account as only one of many homages to the filmmaker published in a commemorative issue of Copie zéro after Jutra’s death.
Born in 1930, Claude Jutra was a trained actor, screenwriter and director, and an accomplished visual artist. He completed his first film Le Dément du lac Jean-Jeunes (1948) at 18, and year later his experimental short Mouvement perpetuel [Perpetual Movement](1949) won the prize for Best Amateur Film at the Canadian Film Awards. The son of a well-known doctor, Jutra had a privileged childhood and studied to become a qualified doctor, but chose to turn to filmmaking instead. As a young man, Jutra was active in the first “Golden years” of Québec public television as a screenwriter, director and host of a series about cinema entitled “Images en boîte” (1954). A member of the National Film Board of Canada’s legendary équipe française (French unit), he participated in many documentaries including La lutte [Wrestling] (1961), Comment savoir [Knowing to Learn] (1966), and Wow (1969). In 1957, he starred in the short pixillated film Il était une chaise [A Fairy Tale], which he co-directed with animation legend Norman McLaren. In a career that coincided with direct cinema, the U.S. avant-garde, the French New Wave, and European art cinema, Jutra collaborated with legendary European cultural figures including Jean Cocteau, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean Rouch, and François Truffaut. Finally, Mon oncle Antoine, Jutra’s most critically and commercially successful feature won numerous awards and has become a classic of Canadian and Québec cinema.
Jutra’s early successes were offset by a series of personal and professional disappointments and failures. Partly self-financed, his first feature À tout prendre was a critical and box-office flop at the time of its release in 1963, and Jutra was left bitter and burdened with debt. If Mon oncle Antoine [My Uncle Antoine] (1971) marked the pinnacle of his career, Jutra’s next two films were also critical and commercial failures: the costly and much anticipated Kamouraska (1973) starring Geneviève Bujold and Pour le meilleur et pour le pire (1975). Unable to find funding for his films in Québec, this committed sovereignist was forced to work in English Canada from 1976. In his discussion of the Jutra myth, Mario Patry describes what came to be known in Québec as Jutra’s “exile” to English Canada:
“Unable to find work in 1975 after never having earned more than $9,000 during the 1970s (while a filmmaker employed at the NFB earned $12,000), his exile sounded the death knell for the Québec film industry” (17).
Jutra also faced personal difficulties that were woven into his ever-evolving myth, including a nearly fatal scooter accident on the Jacques-Cartier Bridge in 1967. In the last years of his life, Jutra returned to Montréal where he lived in relative poverty and had trouble working due to Alzheimer’s. A life and a career that had begun so brilliantly ended tragically. Jutra disappeared on November 5, 1986, and his body was only found the following spring on the banks of the St Lawrence River down river from Montréal. Leach argues that while Jutra’s suicide was most logically related to his struggle with Alzheimer’s,
“this explanation did not completely allay suspicions that he had been worn down by the constant struggle to make films in an unsupportive cultural climate” (5).
Crucial to the myth that crystallized after Jutra’s death is an extraordinary cross-fertilization between personal experience and cinematic images. Jutra’s suicide by drowning after jumping off the Jacques-Cartier Bridge was prefaced by a career-long fascination with water, including several cinematic rehearsals of men falling into water froma height (Le Dément du Lac Jean-Jeunes, Mouvement perpetuel). Most famously, in the dénouement of À tout prendre, Jutra, playing a version of himself, deliberately walks off the end of a dock into a river. In the film’s closing sequences, Claude’s friends search everywhere for their missing crony, asking each other: “Have you seen Claude?” The animated short Jutra, part of an extensive media archive surrounding the filmmaker, returns to this moment.
Jutra’s tragic later years and his death by suicide fuelled a posthumous myth surrounding the filmmaker. A revisionist return to À tout prendre, his most personal and ambitious auto-fiction, contributed to this process. With its scandalous references to adultery, interracial sexual relationships, abortion and homosexuality, À tout prendre was released to mixed reviews in a conservative Québec society in 1963. Most critics agreed on Jutra’s extraordinary potential, originality, innovative technique, and his “talent fou” (extraordinary talent). At the same time, the film was critiqued as being too personal, as narcissistic, and as privileging technique over substance. Interestingly, few reviewers directly address the film’s coming out sequence, evoking instead its “moral strip-tease” and its unfashionable focus on a bourgeois “bohemian” milieu. Finally, several critics described À tout prendre as a promising yet “immature” or “adolescent” work, keenly anticipating Jutra’s “mature” films to come (Basile).
Out of circulation for a number of years, À tout prendre was later reassessed by critics. For instance, in 2000 Jean Chabot heralds À tout prendre as “the first great film of personal expression produced in Québec”:
“In a society still dominated by the image of saint Joseph, who has become an emblematic figure for the nation Jutra made a resounding statement. He said: ‘I am a bastard.’ He said: ‘I am something other than what the discourse of national survival wishes me to be or remain. I am searching for a different ethic’” (Chabot 25-26).
Here, Chabot reclaims À tout prendre as a prescient masterpiece, a resounding “revendication of liberty” (26). Chabot’s articulation of sexual and creative liberty with sovereignty is eloquent but far from isolated. Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan has recently argued that À tout prendre carved out a cinematic space for a “politics of intimacy” that “foils all the social and political taboos that weigh on the intimate sphere” (20). As a crucial moment in the evolving Jutra myth, these critics celebrate the film’s bold, scandalous, and explicitly sexual qualities as marking a decisive break with the stifling sexual repression of the Grande noirceur. In these readings aligning the Quiet and sexual “revolutions” enable a retrospective reclaiming of Jutra the homosexual as a figure of national liberation. With the 2016 scandal, however, Jutra the pedophile has been summarily rejected, even “abjected,” from the progressive project of Québec national liberation.
The Jutra myth hovers on the cusp of stigma and affirmation that for Heather Love has indelibly marked queer experience and identity:
“On the one hand, it continues to be understood as a form of damaged or compromised activity; on the other hand, the characteristic forms of gay freedom are produced in response to this history. Pride and visibility offer antidotes to shame and the legacy of the closet … Queerness is structured by this central turn, it is both abject and exalted, a mixture of delicious and freak” (2-3).
This account succinctly encapsulates how affectively charged discourses of pride and shame have contributed to the profound contemporary resonance of the Jutra affair. The disgrace of a filmmaker who has been evoked as a mythic and founding figure in the forging of a distinct Québécois national identity and imaginary has led to a scandal of national proportions.
From romantic myth to arrested development
Continually rehearsed across an expansive media archive, Jutra’s professional disappointments and personal tragedies have continued to fuel the myth since his dramatic disappearance and death. The Jutra myth has often taken shape as a romantic tale of a brilliant artist misunderstood or down on his luck, a child prodigy whose tremendous potential remained unfulfilled. As a highly visible cinematic auteur, he fits the bill of a suffering (male) artistic genius. He has also been perceived by a Québec sovereignist genealogy as an incredibly talented Québécois artist forced into exile by a society that did not appreciate or finance autonomous Québécois cultural production. Finally, as mentioned above, Waugh celebrates Jutra through a gay liberationist genealogy as an ancestor and martyr of queer Canadian cinema. Paule Baillargeon’s biographical documentary Claude Jutra, portrait sur film (2002) takes up something of the pathos that is integral to Jutra’s shifting myth. Consider for instance the opening narration where the filmmaker voices her impressions of Jutra at the end of his life:
“I knew he was a kind of a genius who had been famous, that he had many admirers and friends and that [at the end of his life] he was poor and alone, that he had memory problems. Today, a few years later, I wonder who he was, this man full of shadows who was born in the light?”
In his well-researched but less-than-generous biography, Yves Lever explicitly sets out to debunk this romantic myth. The biographer insists on the filmmaker’s unrealized potential, on his failure to produce a “mature” oeuvre. With this severe assessment, the biographer transposes an established cultural narrative of tragic genius into a discourse of arrested development. Notably, in his closing assessment of Jutra’s legacy, Lever writes:
“The centrality of themes of childhood and adolescence in a number of Jutra’s films lead to this pointed question: how to become an adult? Even today, the quest for maturity persists in debates around national identity” (328).
Here, Lever echoes the discourses of immaturity that circulated around À tout prendre at the time of its release. One of the most in-depth and scathing critiques was written in 1964 by Denys Arcand, another well-known filmmaker of the Quiet Revolution: “À tout prendre, like the majority of our works of art is the story of failure and flight.” He situates Jutra among “educated and sensitive French Canadian man in his thirties” who are fascinated by “black, yellow, red or broadly ‘foreign” women’.” Arcand goes on to argue that these men are held back by their controlling mothers in a culture of absent or weak fathers (in À tout prendre, Jutra dramatizes his intense relationship with his domineering mother). In their unconscious refusal of white French Canadian women, men like Jutra, he argues, are unable to achieve an “everyday” virile (hetero)sexuality essential to national liberation (97).
Arcand’s homophobic, sexist and racist critique correlates closely with recurring tropes of immaturity that for Robert Schwartzwald have been insistently linked since the 1950s with the failure of Québécois heterosexual masculinity and the arrested development of the nation. For this author, in a context where “the burden of a collective shortcoming haunts the colonized consciousness,” the figure of the homosexual (who is unable to reproduce or parent) marks a “failure of filiation.” Schwartzwald goes on to argue that
“the heterosexual syntax in relation to which the homosexual is a failure is necessarily evocative of the Québécois’ own failure to achieve national ‘maturity’” (267-269).
Lever’s 2016 account is particularly problematic in its collapse of an allegorical account of collective failure or disappointment to a judgment of Jutra himself. In the biography’s early pages, Lever suggests that Jutra was more flash than substance, that he “wanted to be visible everywhere” (12), and that his mediated public persona outstripped his actual cinematic achievements. He also points out that by 1962 (the year before the release of À tout prendre) Jutra had only directed a handful of short films and the telefilm Les Mains nettes (1958). Even so, he had somehow become “a libertarian figure emblematic of creativity, of the auteur who made no concessions, of the cultivated dandy, of the explorer of all kinds of cinema, of the complete artist” (10). Lever insistently links this account of Jutra the narcissistic queer artist to a narrative of failure steeped in homophobia.
Queer theorist Judith Halberstam critiques the “schedule of normativity” that upholds the respectability associated with a middle-class logic of reproductive temporality. She argues that the time of reproduction and inheritance “connects the individual and the family to the historical past of the nation,” and to the “future of both familial and national stability” (5). Hegemonic Québec discourses of progress and modernity exemplify this “schedule of normativity” that consistently foregrounds the linear discourse of an emerging “modern” nation. Judged against normative accounts of individual sexual and social development, queer lives commonly confound the “schedule of normativity,” only to be understood through tropes of “failure,” immaturity, or “arrested development.” A case in point, Lever’s account of Jutra is premised on a problematic discursive alignment of different scales and registers of experience (gender, sexuality, cultural production, and nation). Profoundly flawed for its inability to offer a nuanced understanding of any of these distinct scales, this style of argument is particularly repugnant to a queer insistence on specificity. As Sedgwick argues,
“the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” that constitute anyone’s gender or sexuality “aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (1994 10).
I pursue this reflection in the next section, taking up Jutra’s self-avowed “childlike” qualities and his cinematic fascination with children in light of the 2016 Jutra affair. In the process, I continue to untangle the knotted genealogical strands that contribute to Jutra’s stigma and queerness: not only his problematic “queer” erotic fascination with children, but also his “failure” to conform to norms of masculine heterosexual development.
iii. Jutra and the figure of the child
The open secret
Part of the peculiarity of the Jutra affair is that the filmmaker’s erotic fascination with prepubescent boys and teenagers was an “open secret.” As early as 1970, critic and novelist Dominique Noguez refers indirectly to Jutra’s love of boys. This author does not directly mention pedophilia, but his article is prefaced with a pithy quote from André Gide: “They say that I run after my youth. That is true. And not only my own” (40). When the scandal broke in 2016, Paule Baillargeon commented succinctly: “Everyone in the cinema milieu knows that [Claude loved boys]. We know because it is expressed in Claude Jutra’s oeuvre.”She goes on to mention that in her biographical documentary about Jutra, “I made a point to find elements that could tell us that: ‘I love boys.’ I find [the scandal unleashed by Lever’s allegations] a bit hypocritical’” (cited in Lévesque). Presumably, this comment made prior to the testimonies of “Jean” and Bernard Dansereau refers to Jutra’s open sexual relations with teenagers.
Tom Waugh (1981) has convincingly documented the “queer-baiting” that followed Jutra’s audacious on-screen coming out as gay or bisexual in À tout prendre. This queer film scholar has gone on to argue that it was not strictly Jutra’s homosexuality that dogged the filmmaker for most of his adult life, but a far more visceral taboo. In 2006, Waugh argued (almost) explicitly that “intergenerational eroticism” was crucial to Jutra’s “artistic energy,” and that this erotic sensibility contributed to his “anomalous and contradictory position” in the Canadian/Québec film canon (438). Labelled and filed neatly under the category of “pedophilia” by Lever in 2016, this stigma converges around the potent and polysemic discursive figure of the child: the child as innocence, purity and vulnerability, or as potential incarnating the future of the family, of the race, of the nation.
As we return to Jutra’s films in light of the scandal, Jutra’s erotic sensibility was in plain view in Jutra’s work from Le Dément du lac Jean-Jeunes (1948) with its extended homoerotic sequences of boy scouts frolicking in their underpants in a lake. As I trawl through the expansive mediate archive surrounding Jutra, it seems as if the filmmaker consciously or unconsciously left a trail of breadcrumbs that were later retraced and scattered again by umpteen critics, commentators, and spectators. This phenomenon is reminiscent of what Eve Sedgwick calls the “ignorance effects” generated by the open sexual secret of homosexuality:
“Knowledge, after all, is not itself power, although it is the magnetic field of power. Ignorance and opacity collude or compete with knowledge in mobilizing the flows of energy, desire, goods, meanings, persons” (4).
In a queer deconstruction of fixed sexual identities (homosexual, pedophile), Sedgwick’s account facilitates an understanding of the unstable and generative meanings attached to stigmatized sexual practices. At the heart of the “magnetic field” of the Jutra affair is the potent and polysemic figure of the child.
In order to diffuse the retrospective moral panic unleashed by the Jutra affair, I find it helpful to establish the discursive figure of the child as a social construction, a potent signifier of potential or development that makes it available for all manner of adult projection. I take this tack not to deny the realness, vulnerability and singularity of actual flesh and blood children, but to highlight how our perceptions and relationships with “real” children are shrouded in instrumental projections. Claudia Castañeda argues that the figure of the child is grounded in a curious quality of “mutability itself”:
“It is not simply that ‘the child’ is a sign, a category, or representation that can be read in multiple ways. What is distinctive about the child is that it has the capacity for transformation. … This implies that the child is also never complete in itself. It is precisely this incompleteness and its accompanying instability that makes the child so apparently available: it is not yet fully formed and so open to re-formation” (2).
In the case of Jutra, the unstable signifier of the child is particularly volatile. While Jutra’s oeuvre has been celebrated for its sensitivity to children’s experience, his association with children and childhood extends to his highly mediated public image.
In 2011, an anonymous vlogger with the handle “tao8way” posted a video on YouTube entitled “Children of Claude Jutra.” This video is a montage of different elements, some of which are taken from Baillargeon’s biopic: interviews with Jutra intercut with home movies and photographs of the filmmaker as a child, as well as sequences featuring pubescent and pre-pubescent boys from Jeunesses musicales (1956), Mon oncle Antoine, and Dreamspeaker (1976). The video is prefaced by a dedication: “This is my small thanks to Claude Jutra (1930-1986), the Canadian film director who made the films 'My Oncle Antoine' and 'Dreamspeaker'.” The montage includes a subtitled interview with Jutra near the end of his life:
“I’m a perpetual child. I identify with childhood. I don’t know why. Probably because I had an extraordinary childhood, filled with happiness. … On the other hand, I had a lot of darkness that I kept to myself, that I hid. But the blackness came out later.”
Following the trails of breadcrumbs left behind by Jutra, Baillargeon, Waugh, and others, the video also incorporates an interview with Canadian actor Saul Rubinek, Jutra’s friend and collaborator in the latter part of his life.
“Claude protected his childlikeness to a great extent. He wanted to remain a child and his silliness is a result of that … His way of behaving, his way of directing … was to stay a child, to look at the world through childlike eyes, to have a naiveté, to be able to see a butterfly for the first time or an emotion … or a tragedy, without cynicism. […] That’s why he could see what other people couldn’t see.”
Rubinek highlights a way of seeing, a fresh, curious and unsentimental child’s gaze foregrounded in many of Jutra’s films. Returning to some of Jutra’s key works, I trace a mobile gaze associated with the figure of the child as subject of the films’ narration (Jeunesses musicales, Mon oncle Antoine, La Dame en couleurs [Our Lady of the Paints or The Lady of Colours]. This is a reversible gaze that persistently frames the child as an object of desire, identification and other affective projections that are difficult to pin down.
I read this post as a vivid example of queer “retrospectatorship” in the digital age, where “texts of the past, reordered and contextualized, are experienced anew in a different filmgoing culture” (White 197). Patricia White argues that this
“epistemological project of lesbian and gay readings of ‘dominant’ films is not simply a decoding process … Rather, it is an encoding process, a textual re-vision with the reader-critic as subject of its fantasy” (205).
“tao8way” clearly took a lot of time to splice together fragments of Jutra’s films and an expansive media archive surrounding him. The result is a video that distils and relays recognizable representations of the child and associated ways of looking with and at children. Home movie footage and photographs of Jutra as a small child are edited together with interview segments and lush homoerotic sequences featuring boys and teenagers in a manner that confounds the distinctions between “Claude” and young boys as subject and object of the camera. What emerges is a reversible homoerotic and autoerotic gaze that fixes and caresses the beauty of the smooth faces of prepubescent boys, their young bodies in motion, their close physical proximity to and homosocial interactions with other boys and men.
When I came across this video online, I was struck by the way that it distils a certain quality of looking and being looked at recognizable with variations across Jutra’s oeuvre. With this recognition came the uncomfortable realization of my own pleasure and complicity as I investigate Jutra’s exploration of visual codes for representing and looking at children. While some of these codes are palpably rooted in homoerotic visual culture, they are also familiar as part of a visual iconography of childhood. In a comment posted online in response to the 2016 letter to the editor of Le Devoir by the “committee of the wise,” a reader named Pierre Lefebvre writes:
“Do you remember when [Jutra] pushes against the boy’s shoulder in one of the films? I will never see it in the same way again. [A gesture that] seemed to be perfectly banal is now tarnished by what we have learned” (Coupal et al).
While Jutra’s films have been celebrated for their sensitive depictions of children and teenagers, this reader is disturbed to perceive that an intergenerational erotic sensibility is part of a common cultural legacy.
Kathryn Bond Stockton argues that moral panics around homosexual “influence” or sexual predilection for children paradoxically cement recurring correlations between homosexuality and childhood (3). In the 20th “century of child” she suggests that a historically specific sentimental fixation on the innocence and purity of children conjures its opposite, violence and sexual depravation. Stockton’s attention to the persistent association between homosexuals, arrested development, queer masculinity, perverse sexuality and children is useful for understanding otherwise Jutra’s vexed public persona. Stockton draws on James Kincaid’s work on erotic innocence to argue that the child’s exquisite ‘vacancy’ enables multiple projections by adults. These projections include variations of identification (idealization) and (vilified and disavowed) desire associated with the cinematic gaze. Breaking down the insistent binary opposing the abject figure of the child molester and the idealized figure of the innocent child-victim, this analysis opens toward grey zones of power, consent, children’s sensuality and eroticism at the heart of the Jutra affair.
In the film analysis that follows, I explore the polysemic meanings and affects attached to the figure of the child in some of Jutra’s works. I begin with two early works from 1956, Jeunesses musicales and Pierrot des bois. Next, I turn to Comment savoir, and Rouli-roulant [The Devil’s Toy], two NFB productions from 1966. Finally, I look at two of Jutra’s later features featuring children, Mon oncle Antoine and La Dame en couleurs. Threaded through these readings are accounts of the films’ contexts of production, and an attention to their sociocultural anchorage in shifting historical discourses surrounding children and youth in Quebec.
Two works from 1956: Jeunesses musicales and Pierrot des bois.
One of Jutra’s first films produced at the NFB, Jeunesses musicales, helped to establish him as a professional filmmaker. This 43-minute NFB documentary was commissioned to publicize the programme of the same name designed to introduce young people to classical music. Like Comment savoir and Rouli-roulant produced a decade later, Jeunesses musicales has attracted only cursory critical attention. I return to these three documentaries here in order to explore Jutra’s treatment of themes of children and youth during the 1950s and 1960s. These NFB documentaries are also of interest for the socio-historical discourses surrounding youth embedded in them as “official” productions of the NFB as a Canadian federal government institution. The NFB had an educational mandate with a particular emphasis on youth in the postwar period, and Zoë Druick argues that its films of the 1950s project “narratives of ideal citizenship” (23).
Jeunesses musicales also corresponds with changing discourses of youth in Québec from the 1940s, where a rural communitarian society changed fundamentally through intensified urbanization and industrialization. Madeleine Gauthier argues that the 1950s marked the beginning of a modern discourse of “youth” as a distinct and idealized category. Alongside a widespread post-war Baby Boom, Québec saw a particular surge in its birth rate associated with the revanche des berceaux (revenge of the cradles), in a context where high birthrates were encouraged by the Catholic Church and a francophone elite as a form of resistance to English colonization. While this popular lore has been subsequently challenged, it encapsulates something of the symbolic importance of white Francophone children as a form of demographic resistance ensuring the future of a Québec sovereign nation.
With a nod to Berlin: symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Jutra prefaces Jeunesses musicales with a modernist montage that celebrates Montréal as a modern city of the mid-1950s. The film’s opening credit montage begins with aerial footage of the city of Montréal accompanied by a soundtrack that mixes the sounds of an orchestra warming up with the sounds of the city. At the end of the credit sequence, there is a close-up of a bellowing factory steam, then aerial footage of children screaming with joy and running pell mell out of a school, through the school yard, and into the street. This sound and image montage continues with footage of jet planes in formation racing against the sky, a tilted close-up on a record player, young people dancing, young men in a café, and a woman in a flashy convertible honking her horn. Next, a slightly longer sequence begins with an aerial shot of a young boy walking slowly along a canal, trailing his finger along the wall beside him. We hear a siren in the distance as the film cuts to a close-up of the boy who turns around to listen. With this stylish opening, we see Jutra the cinephile testing the possibilities of institutional documentary film language of the period.
In contrast with the opening city sequences and subsequent footage where established musicians perform for youthful audiences, the film’s second half unfolds in the idyllic setting of the Jeunesses musicales music camp at Mount Orford provincial park. The film language here is contemplative, with a pacing of image and sound that facilitates savouring the music and the scenery. A series of intimate vignettes frame youthful musicians performing against the mountainous and forested backdrop of the park. First, a string quartet of young musicians playing a Haydn number in a forest clearing against a backdrop of cedars. Another vignette features a woodwind trio performing a number by Mozart in an idyllic sun-dappled clearing by a stream that flows into a pond; two young men on bassoon and flute are placed on either side of a young woman playing the oboe seated on a rock beside the pond. They are dressed in light colours that stand out against the textured black and white environment of trees, rocks, and water. These sequences are intercut with group scenes where the young musicians exchange among themselves and with resident instructors in an environment of collaborative and spontaneous learning. The impressionistic canvas of Jeunesses musicales offers a romantic view of youth as a privileged period of sensitivity, vitality and purity.
As the title suggests, Jeunesses musicales features an ensemble cast, but Jutra singles out a gifted twelve-year-old pianist among the other young people with an attentive, rapturous camera. Jutra returns again and again to the small figure, face and hands of Michel Dussault, the handsome twelve-year-old boy featured in the opening montage. We see him daydreaming in school, in the audience of young people listening to a concert, and finally as a diminutive figure play a grand piano in the middle of a large field on the mountainside. Particularly interesting for my purposes here is a coy scene where an older boy leans against the piano, watching Dussault play a Bach fugue. Slightly nervous and awkward, the older boy pontificates about the fugue as a musical game of running away and pursuit. This banal exchange is filmed in a series of tight close-ups edited in a shot-reverse-shot sequence that brings out an intense and ambiguous exchange of looks. Finally, Dussault fixes the older boy for several seconds with a direct and meaningful gaze as he continues to play, and the other boy walks away, flustered. Here, I glimpse a direct, intent, lingering child’s gaze that runs like a fugue theme throughout Jutra’s oeuvre.
Later in the film, we see Dussault taking tickets for a concert at the music camp. As the adults are called into the concert hall, the boy listens from outside, then wanders off (this is the literal meaning of the French word “fugue”) into the summer night. In a romantic sequence of moonlight and shadows, camera and faint piano music follow the boy as he scuffs along a dirt path lost in thought. Dussault then reclines in the grass, hands behind his head, and a blurred close-up signal a fantasy montage sequence that builds to the film’s climax. The boy appears seated at a grand piano wearing a dark jacket and bowtie playing complex and passionate music in three consecutive and progressively grander venues: First in a community auditorium (again fixing the audience with that intent gaze) to standing ovation, and next in a larger venue where the camera pans over a rose placed on top of the grand piano. The music and the pace of the montage accelerate with each successive venue, and each performance is rewarded with enthusiastic clapping. In the final formal concert hall, the boy is dressed in a white jacket with a carnation at the lapel; his bow leads to montage of ecstatic clapping. Cut to a long shot of the diminutive pianist on a huge stage, and two little girls emerge from the wings to offer him huge baskets of flowers. Dussault turns toward each girl in turn, bowing slightly, and offers a rose to each girl. Once again, ecstatic clapping and voices cheering “Bravo!”
A talented child musician, Michel Dussault would grow up to become a well-known Québec pianist and composer. However, Jutra’s fascination with the child prodigy clearly exceeds an eye for talent. There is an erotic charge, but also very possibly a form of identification. After all, Jutra himself was a multi-talented prodigy, only twenty-six when this documentary was released in 1956. Energetic, playful, optimistic, with a compelling rhythm at once languorous and intense, Jeunesses musicales was very well received by audiences and critics of the period. A fine example of how “a filmmaker can use the confines of an official mandate to make evocative art” (Druick 99), Jeunesses musicales was broadcast on Radio-Canada, the sole French-language television public channel of the time. It was also distributed across the Jeunesses musicales movement in Canada, France and Belgium (Lever 61-64).
It is interesting to set this NFB film in dialogue with Pierrot des bois, a nine-minute independent short also completed in 1956. Pierrot des bois was the fruit of a legendary collaboration between Jutra and legendary director and cinematographer Michel Brault that is celebrated as part of the lore of Québec cinema of the Quiet Revolution. As the story goes, Jutra’s father offered him a Bolex camera on his sixteenth birthday, around the time that Jutra met Brault at a Boy Scout camp. The teenagers learned their art and trade together, and Brault collaborated on Le Dément du lac Jean-Jeunes, as well as Jutra’s most celebrated features including À tout prendre and Mon oncle Antoine. Like Dément, Pierrot des bois was filmed in the woods near the Jutras family cottage.
Captured brilliantly by Brault’s camera, Claude Jutra performs Pierrot against the forest backdrop of the Laurentian mountains. Lever notes that mime was Jutra’s favourite activity at theatre school, and his talents are documented in Pierrot des bois and Il était une chaise. In his performance of Pierrot, Jutra prances and skips through the woods, playing hide and seek with the camera among the trees; the short film is accompanied by a wonderful original soundtrack by NFB composer and sound designer Maurice Blackburn. Jutra’s Pierrot exudes a childlike wonder as he finds a rose and marvels at its beauty, falling in love. In his delight, he floats above ground and capers about with the rose in hand; after a time, Pierrot spins out of control in a tight and giddy close-up. In this simple narrative, the beauty of the rose and Pierrot’s childlike wonder are poignantly ephemeral: Pierrot inadvertently crushes the rose and is crestfallen for a time. He buries the rose, hesitates for a moment, then skips off into the forest, seemingly carefree.
Lever cites a passage from Jutra’s journal written during the shoot that captures something of the joyful exuberance of this moment.
“The weather was splendid, a radiant spring day. In this harsh and wild place, I evolved, I was leaping about, I was in ecstasy in my white satin suit, my face covered in flour, my eyes lined with black, while Michel adeptly manoeuvred the song of the camera. Harmonious friendship in spontaneous exchange, artistic creation in its greatest liberty, the studied contrast between a costume and a setting, nature in spring in its most intimate splendour, could we imagine a more exhilarating day?” (cited in Lever 65).
Despite the rich citation from Jutra’s journal, the ever-sceptical biographer reads “Pierrot’s skipping that ends in a drama as an allegory for Claude’s [unhappy] love affairs” (65) with young women. By selectively reading Jutra’s personal life into the works, in this case failed heterosexual romance, Lever flattens the resonance of this remarkable little short.
As an antidote to Lever’s relentless mantra of immaturity and failure, I would argue that Jutra, like Pierrot, falls outside of a “normal” developmental logic. A rose is a rose is a rose …. What would Gertrude Stein make of the rose of Pierrot des bois? The rose may signify failed heterosexual romance, but it could also evoke the ephemeral beauty of this spring day, a desire so unspeakable that it must be cruelly crushed, the fleeting perfect conditions for artistic creation, or the homosocial harmony of friendship and collaboration. Is it too much of a stretch to connect Pierrot’s rose with the rose on Michel Dussault’s piano in Jeunesses musicales? Is Pierrot’s failed or unspeakable love, or more alarmingly the crushed and bruised object of this love, a young boy?
Pierrot is an androgynous, whimsical figure who like Jutra is childlike yet not a child. This figure is ethereal in his wonder with every encounter, every perfect and fleeting sketch. From his origins as a stock figure in the 17th century Commedia dell'Arte to nineteenth and twentieth century French stage and screen, Pierrot is suspended in time, neither young nor old. This sensitive and solitary figure stands apart from the fray of life and love in Enfants de paradis (Carné 1945) and in Watteau’s paintings. Delighted with every encounter, he is often melancholy, always unlucky in love. In Pierrot des bois, however, we see the mobile and reversible gaze that observes, desires, and identifies with the ambiguously androgynous and ageless Pierrot, the tragic clown often seen as the artist’s alter-ego. As a Romantic and melancholic figure who never enters the realm of “adult” heterosexual sexuality, Pierrot is appealing and unthreatening. When he becomes specifically sexual, however, this queer figure becomes perverse, sinister, uncanny.
For Castañeda, “the condition of childhood … finds its value in potentiality. At the same time, the form that the child’s potentiality takes is consistently framed as a normative one, in relation to which failure is always possible.” She goes on to argue: “Should a child either fail to possess or realize its potential (as in the notion of ‘stunted growth’), he or she remains a flawed child and an incomplete adult” (4). In her queer account, Stockton fleshes out these norms: children’s “supposed gradual growth, their suggested slow unfolding which, unhelpfully, has been relentlessly figured as vertical movement upward (hence, ‘growing up’) toward full stature, marriage, work, reproduction, and the loss of childishness” (4). Jutra’s “queerness,” then, emerges not only from his erotic attraction to children, but also from of his self-avowed childishness, his refusal or inability to grow up.
Pierrot des bois shares with Jeunesses musicales a romantic depiction of youth as a time of creativity, exploration, and learning. This romantic sensibility emerges with a particular intensity in Pierrot des bois and À tout prendre, where Jutra directs and performs for the camera. Marked by a stylistic exploration, these two films celebrate a virtuoso diegetic performance of artistic youthful masculinity on-screen. And yet, read across time in light of the 2016 revelations, there is a darkness and a cruelty in these works. Both films project a heady dramatization of falling in love, followed by hurt, disappointment and abandonment. Further, Jutra focalizes his own desire and subjectivity as subject of the film and of the gaze, in a dynamic that doubly “fixes” the object of desire (the rose, and much more problematically, Johanne Harrelle). The problematic result of this doubled gaze can be seen in À tout prendre, where Jutra tends to efface Harrelle’s subjectivity and desire, as some critics mentioned at the time. This complex and mobile gaze of desire and identification that projects empathy and cruelty alike is part of Jutra’s distinct auteurist stamp, a way of looking that emerges most vividly in these early autobiographical works. Once again, Jutra’s “erotic sensibilities” are in plain sight. And yet, as Tom Waugh argues in his piece in this special section, these works are intensely self-aware and confessional.
The perils of pedagogy: Comment savoir and Rouli-roulant
Several critics have commented on a recurring theme of “pedagogy” or “coming of age” in Jutra’s work. Consider, for instance, this commentary by Noguez in 1971:
“Despite its diversity, a certain unifying theme in Jutra’s oeuvre is his interest, both serious and complicit, in all that is young, both in Québec and elsewhere. … Youth is at once weakness and strength, incompletion and plenitude. Jutra is certainly aware of the fragility and the perfectibility of young people: from this awareness springs the pedagogical theme of his work” (41)
In turn, Waugh was the first to directly evoke the erotic charge in Jutra’s fascination with pedagogy. For this author, Jutra’s films foreground processes of growth, education, and socialization “channelled and deepened through the physicality of his pubescent heroes and through his eroticization of the pedagogic interactivity” (442).
The theme of pedagogy is relevant to Jeunesses musicales as well as Comment savoir and Rouli-roulant, two NBF documentaries released in 1966 that explore themes of youth and learning in very different ways. If Jeunesses musicales presents a romantic and idealized vision of youth, Comment savoir develops a much more normative “modern” vision of pedagogy and youth. Comment savoir was an ambitious project for the NFB in 1966 with an estimated budget of $50,000. The production involved extensive research and location shooting in several U.S. cities, with the goal of documenting new educational trends in North America. This documentary begins with a still image of a young boy’s face in close-up. As the opening credits roll, the camera zooms in closer and closer, to hold on an extreme close-up of one eye. Next, a slightly schizophrenic opening sequence features California surfers on the image track with a voice-over narration:
“A tide of youth is rising, a generation counting on us. They arrive at a decisive moment in human history. They must learn more, learn better, learn faster than ever before. They are faced with a sea of information that modern life demands. They must master it or drown. …”
The “voice of God” tone of the narration announces a no-nonsense account of education and progress, and yet it is possible to detect traces of Jutra’s signature humour in the water metaphors.
From this preface, cut to children in a primary school science class. The film language is contemplative, with lengthy sequences of young children bathed in natural light, framed in close up at their desks or in groups. The children are silent, busy with their magnifying glasses and rudimentary science experiments. Like some of the scenes in Jeunesses musicales, this footage captures something of an idealized discourse of learning described by Jutra in an interview:
“The process of the act of learning and understanding is something very intimate, always solitary, even when it’s happening with someone else close by” (cited in Delahaye 111).
The narrator argues authoritatively that traditional grade schools and rote learning are now a thing of the past, replaced by “ungraded schools,” television learning, “talking machines,” and computers. New advances in education including behaviourism and pedagogical technologies, argues the narrator, offer effective and necessary solutions to the “education problem caused by the population boom.” Aside from the subjective and contemplative sequences mentioned above, the narration and camerawork are for the most part omniscient, with sharp rhetorical separation between “us” the older generation and a rising “tide of youth.” Comment savoir delivers what in retrospect comes across as a painfully “straight” account of education, progress, and modernity. Lever (161-164) remarks that the film transmitted a series of messages that teachers in general and bureaucrats of the Canadian Ministry of Education in particular wanted to hear: a behaviourist approach and a fascination with new technologies corresponded well with the ideas that guided North American education reform in the 1960s.
Historian Louise Bienvenue links the “spectacular affirmation” of youth in the 1960s with the coming of age of the post-war baby-boomers and their inclusion into a formal education system, alongside “the new influence of mass media, as well as the [modernist] values of growth and progress” (254). Comment savoir, with its insistence on the virtues of modern education, foregrounds a process of normalization. And yet, this feature documentary’s exploration of 1960s youth evokes several disparate discourses. As mentioned above, there is a strikingly “intimate” quality, to use Jutra’s term, to the film’s discrete and extended contemplation of the primary school children. Also, the opening and closing sequences of Comment savoir feature tanned and buff California surfers and anti-war protestors in Washington and camped out by the gates of McGill University. Jutra begins to engage ambivalently with 1960s youth counter-culture, and themes of youth rebellion also emerge in the 1969 feature NFB documentary Wow.
Rouli-roulant (The Devil’s Toy), contrasts sharply with Comment savoir in tone, style and subject-matter. This playful film of 15 minutes begins to envision a much more anarchistic and anti-authoritarian youth associated with the late 1960s. The film’s dedication to “all victims of intolerance” is widely understood as a response to the homophobic and conservative responses to À tout prendre. And yet, while centrally concerned with questions of power and desire, Rouli-roulant like Jutra’s other films is not explicitly “political.” The 15-minute film begins with a travelling shot overlooking down the city of Montréal from Mount Royal. An ironic apocalyptic narration introduces the skateboard in a tone of a moral panic:
“These are the remains of what was once a beautiful city. But the mind of man is as rich in evil as it is in good, and the same inventiveness which blessed us with insulin, electricity, the arts and engineering miracles of all sorts has also cursed us with the sword, the gun, the bomb, and …”
Here, a dissonant sound cues a close-up of a skateboard decorated with a skull and crossbones. Cut to a montage of pastoral park scenes punctuated with a tolling church bell: families push their babies in prams and play with their children, a family of ducks paddles peaceably in a pond, and a woman walks her little dog. Again, the ominous narration comes in: “It was like a plague that spread from city to city, an epidemic from which no one was secure, a dread disease which needed only pavement to multiply and proliferate.” Next, the sound of skateboard wheels on pavement and a loud siren accompany a low angle shot framing the rapid approach of teenagers skateboarding down a hill toward the camera.
These opening sequences set up an explicit dissonance between an oppressive voice-over narration and an image track steeped in the movement and grace of the skateboarders. Marked with Jutra’s signature humour, this dissonance projects a mockery of the NFB’s didactic documentary tone. The narrator goes on to inform the viewer that skateboards have been banned from the city streets because of the threat that they pose. Meanwhile, skateboarders are pictured careening precariously through parks and streets, disrupting everyday city space with their unpredictable trajectories that play havoc with fixed paths and traffic rules.
The film continues with a game of cat and mouse between skateboarders and police, where the skateboards are confiscated and later returned to their rightful owners. The film narrative closes with the montage of the peaceable citizens and the ducks in a pond punctuated by the tolling of the church bells. Cut to a low angle shot of a group of skateboarders silhouetted in shadow against a darkening sky. The voice-over intones: “The battle was won. For the moment we are safe, but beware! The youth of the world is on the move and their aim is to take over.”
Here the voice-over gives way to an extended two-minute montage contemplating the graceful and fluid movement of teenagers and children (almost all boys). In contrast with the ominous music and voice-over that dominate the film’s first thirteen minutes, the soundtrack accompanying this dénouement is slow and melodic featuring the song “rouli-roulant” sung by Geneviève Bujold. In these sublime sequences, the teenagers seem to be floating.
As the film sheds the framing device of narration that typically stabilizes the educational message of NFB documentaries of the period, this dénouement opens the space for a celebration the rhythm, speed, and grace of the skateboarders. A stable and separate positioning of subject and object, “us” and “them,” adults and youth, gives way to a rapt filmic contemplation of boys in full flow.
This is undoubtedly a gaze of desire and possibly of identification, but these terms do not quite grasp the film’s hypnotic effect. Noguez comments on Jutra’s core fascination with a certain quality of youth:
“This mix of strength and grace, of passion and reverie … Rarely has a filmmaker so passionately and so modestly sought to get under the skin of young people” (43).
And yet, even with the hindsight provided by the 2016 Jutra affair, these images remain stubbornly polysemic. These sequences could be seen to unveil imposed frames and discourses of youth to give way to a direct gaze that could either be seen as more “free” or more perversely scopophilic. Alternately, these scenes could celebrate youth as a liminal period of grace and potential.
I would propose that these lyrical sequences project a mobile and ontological quality of “skating with” that aligns my retrospectatorship with Jutra’s gaze in a way that confounds notions of subject/object or desire/identification. Dudley Andrew draws on Deleuze to argue that the auteur
“marks the presence of temporality and creativity in the text, including the creativity of emergent thought contributed by the spectator. … For Deleuze, one exists within the duration and flow of a film, carried by it, but not carried to any given destination” (83).
Deleuze’s time-image sets in relation filmmaker and spectator in a durational flow of time that is characterized by movement, change and meaning that are always indeterminate, never linear, never fixed. And what of the skateboarders themselves? Is there not also something of the embodied subjectivities of Jutra’s teenaged and boy subjects that is carried along in the cinematic flow of time? In a recent interview Marc Harvey, one of the skateboarders featured in Rouli-roulant, notes that the teenagers were unaware of the film’s framing narrative of police harassment: “We were proud to do our turns for the camera and that was all. And the surprise was a good one when we saw the film because it was touching, it was well done” (Verreault).
One of Jutra’s lesser known NFB works, Rouli-roulant has had a parallel distribution as a cult favourite among skateboarders worldwide. In 2015, Myriam Verreault compiled a short video featuring interviews with Jutra’s collaborators on this film in association with the NFB project Devil’s Toy Remix (2014). Editor Werner Nold recalls that Rouli-roulant was an informal side project made for fun on the weekends while he and Jutra were editing Comment savoir. Nold and Brault (who is credited as cinematographer) recall that they were seen as a crazy and unreliable gang by their English bosses. Comment savoir and Rouli-roulant contrast like work and play, and the spontaneous latter film recalls Pierrot des bois. The tension between institutional normalization and the unhindered youthful possibilities of creativity is almost as suggestive as the figure of youth itself. Verreau’s interviews with Nold and cinematographer Brault reveal a frustration among a group of talented young Francophones working at the Anglophone-dominated NFB. Projecting a youthful disrespect for the norms and rules of a conservative society, Rouli-roulant presents not only the first Canadian documentary about skateboarding, but also a sovereignist allegory of the emerging power of youth challenging the status quo in the thick of the Quiet Revolution.
Children in cinematic “worlds”: Mon oncle Antoine and La Dame en couleurs.
For Castañeda, “the insistent figuration [of the child] plays a unique and constitutive role in the (adult) making of worlds, particularly the worlds of human nature and human culture” (1). I adapt this account to explore the capacity of film to construct stylized and meaningful fictional worlds (or what Deleuze calls a “milieu”) around the figure of the child. Most audio-visual productions produce meaningful worlds, as we see in Jutra’s shorter works from the romantic artistic freedom of the woods in Pierrot des bois to the structured institutional learning environments of Comment savoir. In this final section of film analysis, I trace the changing figure of the child in Jutra’s works in the cinematic “worlds” of features Mon oncle Antoine and La Dame en couleurs. These worlds and the subjects and objects enmeshed in them are poetic and allegorical; they also contain traces of material built worlds and of subjective historical experience.
The most famous child figure in Jutra’s oeuvre is undoubtedly the 15-year-old Benoît in Jutra’s most explicitly “political” film, Mon oncle Antoine. Financed by the NFB, the film is set in the town of Black Lake in the Eastern Townships where French Canadian asbestos miners are exploited by an English mine owner. Based on the childhood memories of Clément Perron (who co-wrote the script with Jutra), the film bears the imprint of direct cinema with its casting of local people (including Jacques Gagnon who plays Benôit) alongside seasoned actors. The opening shots of the asbestos mines are anchored by an intertitle: “In the country of Québec in the asbestos region not so long ago.” This subtitle and the opening scene depicting Jos Poulin’s disgruntlement with the English mine bosses reference the bitter Asbestos strike of 1949; this strike is widely seen as a turning point of Québec history and a precursor to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. The economic power relations of the mining town are crystallized in the scene where the English mine owner announces that there will be no wage increase in the new year just before he drives through town in a horse and carriage throwing candies to the children.
The opening shots of Mon oncle Antoine efficiently establish a cinematic world through a series of establishing shots of the mines as well as recurring emphatic long shots that zoom into the Catholic Church, an imposing building that looms over the town’s other modest buildings. To the sound of tolling church bells, Jutra transports the viewer into rural Québec society of the Grande noirceur, still dominated by the English economic interests and repressive Catholic social and sexual norms. The narrative centered on Benoît unfolds over twenty-four hours from the morning of Christmas Eve. The film recounts a series of vignettes that unfold in and around the General Store, the town’s commercial and social hub. Owned by middle-aged couple Antoine and Cécile, the General Store houses an informal gathering of the townspeople on Christmas Eve after the miners return from work: a young couple announces their engagement; the glamorous notary’s wife causes a stir as she arrives at the store to try on a custom-made corset; Cécile leads a traditional song and all of the townspeople join in. And later that evening, the store that also offers an undertaker service receives a call announcing the death of Marcel Poulin, a fifteen-year old who lives in a remote village
We are introduced to Benoît, the film’s lead character, who acts as altar boy at a funeral for an asbestos worker who has succumbed to the effects of twenty-five years in the mine. This scene establishes a pattern where Benoît is frequently both participant and witness. Under Benoît’s watchful gaze, his uncle Antoine and Fernand (a sleazy middle-aged clerk at the store played by Jutra) act as undertakers. The men prepare the body for burial, forcefully disentangling a rosary from the stiff fingers of a corpse, and removing a false shirtfront from the body before closing the coffin. All the while, Fernand whistles cheerfully until Antoine asks him to stop. Here, Jutra cuts back and forth between the undertakers and long takes of Benoît who watches them intently from across the room. Situated in small-town Québec during the Grande noirceur, this is a cinematic world of sly sidelong glances, irreverence, feigned piety, false appearances, and sexual innuendo.
Benoît, an orphan, lives with and works for his uncle Antoine who owns the General Store. If Benôit’s point of view is often privileged, the boy is also frequently framed in close-up or medium shots. With Mon oncle Antoine, Jutra develops a layered and complex play of the mobile cinematic gaze. While Benoît’s intent and impassive gaze is often foregrounded in close up and medium shots, the boy’s point of view is intercut with the gaze of the sleazy bachelor Fernand played by Jutra himself. Like the eponymous hero of Léolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon 1992) and Manon of Les bons débarras [Good Riddance] (Francis Mankiewicz 1980), Benoît is one of what Bill Marshall describes as the “perverse children” of Québec cinema (116). In this coming of age tale, the teenaged hero is at once naïve, rebellious, and in a process of sexual and social awakening. I now turn to three key scenes that flesh out different dimensions of this mobile gaze in the allegorical cinematic world of À tout prendre.
The pedagogy of Mon oncle Antoine is one where teenagers fend for themselves in a colonized society where the adults are unable to show a good example. Benoît is repeatedly framed observing his uncle’s steady consumption of hard liquor and his aunt flirting both with her husband Antoine and with Fernand. In one classic sequence, Benoît and another teenaged boy peer through a crack in the door to watch a beautiful and inaccessible young woman trying on a corset in a makeshift changing room on the second floor. This scene marks one of several “peeping Tom” moments that culminate in the scene where Benoît stumbles across Fernand in bed with his aunt. These scenes of flirting and illicit sexuality recur in a filmic world where the omnipresent and repressive power of the Catholic Church watches all-powerful over all manner of transgressions and guilty secrets.
Just prior to a second more troubling scene, we learn that the teenaged Carmen has been left by her family with the childless couple Antoine and Cécile to work in the store. In a sequence framed through Fernand’s point of view Carmen’s father makes an annual visit to collect the girl’s wages for the year. Amidst the merriment at the General Store on Christmas Eve, it is Fernand who witnesses the girl’s grief and dejection and who prompts Antoine and Cécile to adopt the girl. Always watching the teenagers, Fernand also witnesses an ongoing flirtation between Benoît and Carmen. In the scene that interests me here, Benoît chases Carmen among the coffins that are stored upstairs in the General store. Benoît catches her and they fall down on the floor together, the boy on top. The two teenagers are framed in a medium shot as Benôit clumsily puts his hand on Carmen’s breast, then we cut to a close-up of the girl’s face, weeping. A playful scene of flirtation shifts rapidly to the girl’s deep distress in a powerful moment of conflicting emotions.
Carmen stands up abruptly and Benoît is startled by a creaking sound, and a shot from his point of view reveals Fernand on the stairs, watching them. By insisting on Fernand’s creepy gaze, Jutra transposes an innocuous moment of flirtation and sexual exploration between teenagers into a complex intersubjective dynamic of voyeurism. Fernand’s motivation for watching the teenagers is unclear. If Jeunesses musicales privileges a young boy’s direct and almost provocative gaze, Mon oncle Antoine pulls back to reveal a middle-aged man watching. And eight years after À tout prendre, Jutra once again casts himself as a “bastard” whose erotic sensibility confounds the norms of the Grande noirceur, and also very possibly the comfort zone of period of the film’s production in the early 1970s.
I now turn to the film’s powerful final scene. The story of the Pilon family unfolds in parallel with the action at the General Store, where Jos Pilon who expressed his dissatisfaction with the mine in the opening scene leaves his family to work in the woods; as he bids goodbye to the children, the father promises his oldest son Marcel that he will send him to school the following year. It is the fifteen-year-old Marcel Pilon who dies on Christmas Eve, and Benoît accompanies his uncle on a horse-drawn sleigh through the snowy countryside on Christmas Eve to pick up the body. During the return trip, the coffin containing the boy’s body falls off the carriage, but Antoine is too drunk to help the boy load the coffin back onto the carriage. On Christmas morning, Benoît and Fernand retrace the journey of the previous night but are unable to locate the missing coffin. The film concludes on a long take framing Benoît’s intent gaze in close-up that holds on a freeze frame as the credits roll. The boy looks through a frosted window into the Pilon family farmhouse, only to discover that the coffin containing Marcel’s body has been found abandoned in the snow by the boy’s father, Jos. Ian Lockerbie describes the Pilon family scene as a biblical scene that reverses the symbolism of Christmas, “a pietà rather than a birth and a cradle” where the “coffin replaces the crib, and death [takes the place of] life” (49).
Benoît’s coming of age story in Mon oncle Antoine is widely read as incarnating the emergence of the modern nation. In a film that returns to the Grande noirceur from the only just “modern” vantage point of the Quiet Revolution in 1971, the youthful figure of Benoît embodies the possibility of change to come. Christian Poirier offers a classic reading of the film where the film’s ineffectual adults represent a people unable to effect change in an oppressive colonial context; examples include Antoine’s inability to help Benoît retrieve the fallen coffin, or the hesitation by Antoine and Cécile to adopt Carmen.
“Through the development of Benoît (an orphan), the filmmaker shows that Québec society can free itself of its past (religion, the English boss, and parental authority are all toppled from their pedestals). … Not identifying with the available models of identity, Benôit must create his own identity in a space emptied of intersubjectivity” (Poirier 131).
Lockerbie reads the film’s closing image in this way:
“Each spectator knows from the power of the Benoît’s last look – prolonged into a still image – that he has triumphed over the general lack of awareness that he shared at the beginning of the film” (49).
And yet, these readings do not fully capture the complex mise en scène of the gaze, of responsibility and death of this final scene. Standing behind the coffin like the Virgin Mary beside the crèche, Madame Poulin is the only member of the bereaved family to see Benoît at the window and to return his gaze. This character embodies the suffering and the endurance of French Canadian women who historically bore and lost many children in poverty, and her returned gaze is stoic, unreadable. She may see Benoît, the undertaker’s assistant, as partly responsible for the loss of her son’s body in the snow. And yet, as many critics have argued, Benoît is the same age as the deceased Marcel, and the two boys can be seen as doubles with two very different fates. This is a world of hardship and hard labour of a people under the thumb of the English boss and the Catholic Church. In this world, children die young without education (Marcel Pilon), or they make their own way in the world as orphans (Benoît) or abandoned by their parents (Carmen).
Fernand, played by Jutra himself, is present in this final scene yet absent from the evocative freeze-frame that concludes the film. Here, Jutra positions himself as part of an ineffectual adult generation, a lascivious and sleazy bachelor who seduces his boss’s wife and spies on the sexual explorations of teenagers. The small town life of the late 1940s depicted so brilliantly by Jutra in Mon oncle Antoine may well invite an allegory of the emerging nation, but this “perverse” coming of age tale also depicts an intimate world brimming with secrets, guilt, and non-normative desires and sexuality. Benôit and occasionally Fernand are the key bearers of the look in this film, but they take part in a relay of ambiguous gazes – desire, voyeurism, identification, sympathy, empathy, antipathy – among an ensemble cast of characters, professional actors and locals of Black Lake.
La Dame en couleurs (Our Lady of the Paints)
The first film that Jutra directed in Québec since Pour le meilleur et pour le pire (1975), La Dame en couleurs marked the filmmaker’s return to Québec after almost a decade of “exile” in English Canada. It was also Jutra’s last film. By all accounts, the film shoot was difficult as Jutra’s memory was failing at the time. Following on from the cinematic “worlds” of Comment savoir, Rouli-roulant and especially the 1976 telefilm Dreamspeaker, La Dame en couelurs develops a much more pessimistic and unconventional exploration of children enmeshed in normative institutional settings. Based on a dream of Louise Rinfret who co-wrote the script with Jutra, the historical setting of La Dame en couleurs is indeterminate, and many critics comment that the film reworks recurring themes in Jutra’s oeuvre including children, the figure of the artist, madness, and institutions as micro-systems of power and normalization (Leach 230-244; Dorland).
In the opening sequence of La Dame en couleurs, a truckload of children is delivered like so many potatoes to a large and unspecified institutional building. In this film framed from the point of view of an ensemble cast of children, we learn from their exchanges that there was no room for them in the orphanage. As the children are ushered into the building by nuns, a mentally disturbed man dressed in a house coat appears from the side of the building, pursued by orderlies who forcibly bring him back inside. Here, we understand at the same time as the children that this is a mental institution, a place of confinement. Next, the newcomers meet the resident children who perform menial tasks: laundry, transporting and serving food, and caring for the patients. In this gloomy environment, Jutra deftly directs the ensemble child cast to bring out the loneliness of the orphans who long for families and their desire to learn in a sparse setting where no education is offered. Fragile yet equipped with a certain collective resilience, the children are mostly left to their own devices to play together, roaming the long corridors and dodging the mentally ill and the hurried nuns.
Like Comment savoir, Jutra’s last film foregrounds children in an institutional cinematic “world,” but with La Dame en couleurs we are legions away from the earlier documentary’s confident discourse of modernity and progress. As in Mon oncle Antoine and Dreamspeaker, the orphans must rely on their wits rather than on the adults around them to survive. In contrast with the solitary heroes Benôit and Peter (Dreamspeaker) however, the children develop a certain solidarity. The cinematic world of the asylum in La Dame en couleurs is a place of barely contained chaos, where the provisional order maintained by nuns, security guards and doctors is always about to fall apart, leaving the mental patients and the children running pell mell for the door. This is a place of neglect, where a young boy named Sébastien dies due to lack of medical care and the medical personnel try to cover up their error.
Yet this repressive institutional world connects, here and there, to a parallel world of underground tunnels. A small group of children discovers this mysterious and magical realm, which initially seems to offer a utopic alternative to the above ground asylum. The children recover the body of the boy who died due to medical neglect, and devise their own pagan rituals of mourning for an orphan whose death was to be hidden and left unmourned in the adult world. The children express their desire to learn about the outside world from snippets of magazine read aloud by Agnès, the only literate one of the group. The tunnels also offer a space removed from the sexual repression of the Catholic Church, where the children can spontaneously explore their sexuality. Meanwhile, an epilectic painter named Barbouilleux (translating roughly as “smudger”) follows the children into their underworld, using the blank concrete walls as canvases. This mad visionary paints a series of frescoes, including “the Lady of Colours” of the film’s title, “a symbolic Ur-Mother for the orphans, a goddess/idol for this underground kingdom” (Dorland 27).
At first, the children imitate the painter, drawing and painting in the tunnels, but they come to resent the adult intruder, and give him a strong dose of poison. We do not learn of Barbouilleux’s ultimate fate due to the film’s sketchy continuity and narrative development, but the children’s malevolent intent is clear. Barbouilleux the disturbed visionary, an adult who fits neither in the asylum nor in the outside world, is sacrificed as retribution for the dead boy. It is with the attack on the visionary painter that the underground world is revealed as a terrifying double of the violent and repressive above ground asylum. Jutra co-wrote the role of Barbouilleux with the firm intention of playing the part, but the film’s producer Pierre Lamy categorically refused because of the filmmaker’s declining memory. In Mon oncle Antoine, Jutra cast himself as a lascivious “queer” voyeur, while in La Dame en couleurs he projects himself into the role of a visionary artist, the children’s ally, who falls victim to their violence.
To this point I have explored the mobility of the gaze, desire and identification in some of Jutra’s earlier films. Produced much later than the other works, La Dame en couleurs explores the mobile subject positions of abuser and victim, rather than the reversible viewing positions of subject and object. Returning to the film in light of the recent Jutra affair, it is troubling to see Jutra dramatizing his own fictive death at the hands of children who have been neglected and abused. La Dame en couleurs stages a strange reversal of the positions of aggressor and victim; the film’s generalized violence seems almost to be the inevitable outcome in a doubled cinematic world of sexual repression, neglect and abuse. Near the end of the film Barbouilleux, who suffers from epilepsy, makes a statement that seems to encapsulate Jutra’s frame of mind at the time: “I am sick. Sometimes, everything stops around me and all of a sudden I find myself covered with blood in a place that I don’t know, all alone. There is no one on my side, neither up above nor here. All that I want is a little peace.”
La Dame en couleurs also stands out as the only film by Jutra to directly dramatize a relationship of desire between an adult and a teenager, but interestingly this dynamic is explored through a relationship between the teenaged Agnès and a nun, Sister Gertrude (played by Paule Baillargeon). It is Agnès who pursues Sister Gertrude, but the attraction seems to be reciprocal. In her private lessons with the nun, the girl gazes longingly at Sister Gertrude and reads her love poetry aloud. Under the watchful eyes of the other nuns, Agnès pursues Gertrude, insisting that “there is nothing wrong” with their feelings for one another. The nun struggles to keep her composure, continually rejecting Agnès’s advances. Finally, Agnès explores her sexuality with another orphan, Denis, in the children’s parallel underground world.
The film’s concluding sequences are extraordinarily dark. Several of the orphans who have found the underground world escape from the institution to the resounding and desolate cry of “Where are we going?” Agnès, however, is afraid to leave, terrified at the prospect of life outside the institution. Meanwhile, Sister Gertrude, believing that Agnès has escaped, removes her religious garb to don her secular clothes and leaves the institution with a determined step, presumably in search of her young love. The film’s devastating dénouement depicts Agnés as a middle-aged woman still confined in the asylum but now one of the mentally ill. In this thoroughly dystopic cinematic world, we only catch a brief glimpse of the “lady of colours,” and it seems that not even the vivid colours of Barbouilleux’s frescoes can offer a glimmer of hope.
Jutra was losing his memory during the shoot of La Dame en couleurs, and the film’s vague historical anchorage and dreamlike, even surrealistic qualities resist a clear historical anchorage. The cinematic world of La Dame en couleurs has been read as a metaphor for Québec society four years after the defeat of the first referendum for sovereignty. Nathalie Petrowski writes in 1985 that
“the psychiatric institution inhabited by orphans and the mentally ill … is a Québec that has not yet been liberated from the Church. It is the convent of a collective childhood stuck between a desire for liberty and a great fear of the unknown” (82).
More recently, the film has been read in reference to the tragic episode of les orphelins de Duplessis (the Duplessis orphans) during the Grande noirceur. Between 1930 and 1964, several thousands of illegitimate or orphaned children left to the care of the state were brought up under terrible conditions in institutions controlled by Catholic religious orders. This scandal of the Duplessis orphans was first brought to light in the 1960s when the practice of interning orphans was ended. With its sensitive account of children’s experience and its evocative cinematic world, Jutra’s final film smudges (or “barbouille”) clean lines between socio-historical events, biography and fiction, between children and adults.
This essay pieces together diverse episodes from Jutra’s life and works from the vantage-point of the present, in light of the revelation of the filmmaker’s “open secret” of intergenerational desire. I found it important from the outset to articulate a clear and coherent ethical position in relation to existing evidence of Jutra’s non-consensual sexual relations with a small number of pre-pubescent boys. In the body of the essay, however, I set out neither to condemn nor to defend Jutra, but rather to delve into what it was about the Jutra affair that so profoundly destabilized Québec society. Part of the response to this question, I argue, lies in the ways that Jutra has been perceived as a foundational figure of Quebec society. In my genealogical analysis of the evolving Jutra myth, I demonstrate how the filmmaker has often been understood as a potent figure of origin for (homo)sexual liberation and expression, and for Québec modern cinema of the Quiet revolution. Deploying theories of queer time, I bring into relief how the “arrested development” of Jutra as a foundational figure confounds teleological discourses of development and progress used to measure individual lives and careers as well as nations.
Alongside the evolving myth surrounding the compelling figure of Jutra, I explore the changing meanings and discourses surrounding the “figure of the child” in a number of Jutra’s films and in his highly mediated public persona. Following trails of breadcrumbs left by scholars, critics and those close to Jutra, as well as Jutra himself, I seek clues to Jutra’s troubling proximity to children. With this essay, I don’t seek to discover the truth or the core identity of Jutra, but rather to trace the discursive construction of the filmmaker in relation to the potent but inherently mutable symbol of the child. The discourse that male homosexuality is associated with “arrested development” measured against a norm of heterosexual masculine virility has particular resonance in Québec (Schwartzwald). In the case of Jutra, an avowed “childlike” quality performed so brilliantly in the 1956 short Pierrot des bois, reinforces a perception of Jutra’s queerness, of a suspect or perverse masculinity. Here, once again, I find that queer theory offers powerful insights into the Jutra affair. Stockton reminds us how moral panics have frequently fixated on homosexual “influence” or sexual predilection for children. Referring to a powerful and historically specific romantic discourse around the sentimental fixation on the innocence of children, this author argues that the child as figure of purity conjures its opposite, violence and sexual depravation. What is so troubling about the Jutra affair, I suggest, is the “revelation” or the suggestion of an erotic proximity between the mythic queer auteur and the figure of the child, both the ideal projection of the child and actual flesh and blood children.
At the beginning of the essay, I allude to other sexual scandals surrounding important cultural figures such as Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Michael Jackson. In Québec, a parallel example includes the revelation that Guy Cloutier, manager of 1970s and 1980s child stars Nathalie and René Simard, had sexually abused Nathalie Simard as a child. This essay may offer certain insights into how we might begin to understand the production of cultural meanings around these highly public cases. Notably, I explore the possibilities of sexuality studies for understanding how “cultural constructed formations of nation and sexuality are defined and understood in relation to one another” (31). The insights of sexuality studies facilitate my conjunctural reading of the Jutra affair framed in relation to specific and changing discourses of sexuality, gender and nation. However, I hope to have demonstrated some of the dangers of aligning different scales of discourse and experience (the individual and the nation) through my critique of Lever and other veiled homophobic commentaries surrounding Jutra’s immaturity.
Bill Marshal notes that frameworks of “the national” and “national identity” as a (master) reading of film texts are “ever provisional, historically contingent, ceaselessly elaborated constructions, and yet at some level they are inescapable” (1-2). Further, I would argue, these constructions of nation and national identity also tend to be projected onto filmmakers, particularly those associated with “minor” cinemas. Part of the interest of an ethical queer thought here is an insistence on specificity. Notably, it is essential to untangle what we know of Jutra’s recriminatory and unconsensual sexual contact with boys and teenagers from normative sovereignist projections onto Jutra the individual, whether they amount to a tragic romantic over-valuation or an unrelenting account of failure. Queer thought is useful here once again for tracing the profound affective ambivalence surrounding Jutra as a historical queer figure.
Recent queer interest in negativity dredges up negative, unattractive, ambivalent and unappealing “queer” affective and corporeal sensations commonly pushed to the sidelines of normative collective and individual identities, intimacies, and desires. Shadowed by the stigma of perverse sexuality and “failed” queer masculinity, the figure of Jutra profoundly disturbs an insistence on a teleological movement of progress or liberation shared by the Québec sovereignty movement and gay liberation. As noted above, in Québec these modern movements share a common “origin” in the Quiet Revolution. Pre-liberation queer sexuality and subjectivity, according to Love, summons up profound feelings of shame, backwardness, pain and loss that are firmly relegated to the past in the name of a progressive movement of gay liberation. Jutra as a queer figure summons up the shame and taboo of non-normative, “damned” sexuality that haunts the newfound legitimacy of Québec lesbians and gay men as full sexual citizens. Could it be that the Grande noirceur, widely seen as a period of backwardness and shame, evokes a related structure of feeling in a “modern” Québec?
In this light, it is fitting to finish with La Dame en couleurs and the shameful historical phenomenon of the Duplessis orphans. Widely dismissed by many critics in Québec at the time of its release as being too “dark,” La Dame en couleurs referred indirectly to the shameful episode of the orphelins de Duplessis that only became the subject of broader public debate in the early 1990s. In this practice that encapsulates the corruption and false piety of the Grande noirceur, the administration of Maurice Duplessis skimmed off Canadian federal money designated for care of children who were wards of the state; in the process, these children were abandoned without additional resources to the less than tender mercies of existing Catholic institutions, including mental asylums. La Dame en couleurs points to the tragic ongoing effects on the orphans, who were exploited as child labour in these institutions, who received no formal education, and some of whom like the fictional Agnès ended up being interned, in turn, in mental institutions.
Returning to the 2016 scandal, journalist André Gagnon points out the tremendous hypocrisy of the “Jutra affair.” Prefacing his commentary with an account of his experience of sexual abuse as a child at the hands of his uncle, Gagnon notes how Jutra as a visible and queer individual is singled out for a public disgrace. Meanwhile, he argues, many other heterosexual male politicians or clergy who routinely abused children and adults have kept their pride of place in public space. By way of example, Gagnon points to the statue of Québec premier Maurice Duplessis that remains in front of Québec’s Assemblée nationale, despite his proven responsibility for the horrific treatment of thousands of orphans. And yet, in another very recent example, the Montréal municipal government announced that it would change the name of Amherst Street named for a British officer and colonial administrator; the reason for this change of street name is that Amherst advocated the genocide of First Nations people by distributing blankets infected with smallpox after the British conquest of New France.
This commentary broadens out the discussion, while bringing me full circle to the profound ethical dilemmas raised by the Jutra affair. How can we measure and judge the respective “harm” caused by different oppressive, violent or damaging acts across time? In my mind, the affective resonance of the Jutra affair is clearly connected to the potent charge attributed to sexuality, particularly “perverse” sexuality in Western culture. And yet, the important queer critique of a retrospective moral panic put forward by several authors in this special section could reasonably be countered by the argument that the rapid official response demonstrates the impact of feminism in bringing to light the seriousness and lasting harm of sexual violence. To conclude, I can’t affirm with full conviction that Jutra’s name should or should not have been dislodged from its place of pride in Québec. As a feminist and a queer thinker dubious of cultural canons and of how myths tend to cohere around “great white men,” I am convinced of the importance of recent public debates that are taking place in Québec around Jutra and other controversial historical figures.
1. After the story of “Jean” was made public, the Sûreté du Québec (the province’s provincial police) announced that they would be interested in hearing the alleged victim’s story in order to explore the possibility of laying civil charges seeking compensation from the filmmaker’s estate. To date, “Jean” has chosen not to come forward (Larouche).
2. This committe included retired judge Suzanne Coupal, psychiatrist Jocelyn Aubut, ethicist René Villemure, and filmmaker Charles Binamé.
2a. Unless indicated otherwise, all translations of French-language sources are by the author.
3. It is interesting to note that Noguez explores a man’s love for a young boy with his 2013 novel Une année qui commence bien. It is more than possible that the writer’s perceptive early commentaries about Jutra were informed by his shared erotic sensibilities.
4. This comment refers to Jutra’s famous “confession” to loving “boys” in À tout prendre, a point taken up in detail in the essays by Waugh and Rodríguez-Arbolez Jr.
5. I would like to thank Frédéric Moffet for directing my attention to this fascinating sequence.
6. As an aside, it is interesting to note that Marcel Carné’s 1945 masterpiece Enfants du paradis was banned from Québec theatres as part of a routine film censorship during the 1940s and 1950s. Carné’s film features the brilliant Arletty, an unmarried woman who has affairs with three men in the course of the film. Comments by a priest who also acted as a censor indicate the repressive sexual mores of the period: “In the first half of the film, there is the beginning of a liaison. If they are not severely punished in the second half, the film won’t pass” (Siroka). As a confirmed cinephile from his teenage years, Jutra was undoubtedly aware of this ban, which caused an international incident.
7. Initiated by Hugues Sweeney, the interactive documentary Devil’s Toy Remix features skateboarders from all around the world.
8. The care provided was rudimentary in these institutions run by the Catholic Church, the discipline very severe, and the children were often victims of neglect, violence, or sexual abuse. Deprived of a proper education, some of these children were labelled as insane or mentally retarded, and placed in asylums where they grew up alongside the mentally ill, adults with severe cognitive disabilities, and other interned populations. Under the direction of medical personnel, a number of children received barbarous treatments normally reserved for the mentally ill: electroshock, isolation, excessive medication. Some of the children were retained in these institutions as adults (Van de Sande and Boudreau 121-122).
9. The orphans mounted a class action suit in 1992 against the Québec government on the basis that they had been legal wards of the state and their treatment had been sanctioned by Duplessis, the Québec premier of the period. They did not receive any compensation until the early 2000s.
“Affaire Jutra : ‘Il y plus qu’un Jean’ affirme Yves Lever.” La Presse 18 February 2016, Puisqu'il faut se lever 18 February 2016, lapresse.ca/cinema/cinema-quebecois/201602/18/01-4951936-affaire-jutra-il-y-a-plus-quun-jean-affirme-yves-lever.php
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Arcand, Denys. “Cinéma et sexualité.” Parti-pris nos. 9-10-11, summer 1964, pp. 90-97.
Basile, Jean. “‘À tout prendre’, de Jutra, au Festival.” Le Devoir, 12 August 1963. Cinémathèque québécoise, collections.cinematheque.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/46p_660_01_13_1.pdf
Bienvenue, Louise. Quand la jeunesse entre en scène. L’Action catholique avant la Réolution tranquille. Éditions du Boréal, 2003.
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