Johanne’s (de)colonial performance

The implication of a queer subtext in À tout prendre extends far beyond a moral provocation since it also destabilizes the discursive limits of white heteronormative national masculinity. Through the course of the film narrative, Claude’s identity becomes increasingly fragmented—beyond his gender identity alone. Through his interactions with Johanne’s racial difference, Claude’s quest for identity as a white bourgeois subject becomes re-articulated as a dialogue with Otherness, becoming symbolic of the crisis of identity politics during the Quiet Revolution.

“Your fingers are white.”

As Claude and Johanne explore their corporeal difference, the cultural normalization of Claude’s whiteness becomes exposed vis-à-vis Johanne’s racialized alterity. In his treatise on the spectacle of race and representation, Stuart Hall contends,

“We need ‘difference’ because we can only construct meaning through dialogue with the ‘Other” (235). ... “The representation of ‘difference’ through the body became the discursive site through which much of this ‘racialized knowledge’ was produced and circulated" (244).
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Johanne’s racialized otherness stabilizes Claude’s performance of masculinity and initially averts attention away from his implicit otherness. This elucidation of Claude’s whiteness exposes the nature of his quest to present himself as a normative heterosexual subject, especially after he learns of Johanne’s ontological charade of ‘passing’ as Haitian. Through Jutra’s gradual destabilization of Johanne’s race and origin, he effectively also implodes pure laine nationalist logics of citizenship. Before the debut of À tout prendre, Black subjects were virtually absent from Québec cinema and rarely presented as a member of the national body politic (Austin 23). In this manner, À tout prendre presented one of the first tentative filmic attempts to explore race in Québec through Jutra’s inclusion of a Black woman as Québécoise (Marshall 129). As Mary Green puts it,

“Jutra [gave] Johanne a voice while representing the conditions of her oppression in a situation of colonial domination” (97).

Even though she is a main character in the film, the realization of Johanne’s identity is quite elusive. Claude’s role as narrator of the filmmeans the storyline prioritizes the exploration of his identity. For the audience, Johanne’s identity appears even more fragmented than Claude’s by way of the construction of her difference. From her foreign origins to her estranged husband, Johanne’s history is largely obfuscated. The film’s narrative relies on the spectacle of Johanne’s otherness as a conduit to Claude’s search for subjectivity. Interestingly, a similar sense of female objectification and scopophilia is also associated with French New Wave films of the period. In fact, Jutra’s connection to the French New Wave extends beyond À tout prendre to the late 1950s, with his literary and cinematic collaborations with acclaimed director, François Truffaut (who made a cameo in the film). As exhibited through À tout prendre’s auteurist narration via a narcissistic bourgeois male perspective, this film also reflects Geneviève Sellier’s claim about French New Waves films, that they were typified by a “cinephilic gaze [that] is necessarily male, heterosexual, and directed toward icons, fetishes, and female sexual objects,” (23). Here, the same kind of  “cinephilic gaze” structures the discourses of objectification that present Johanne’s racialized difference.

"Look at me." Claude attempts to gain Johanne's attention while she is being adored by fans.

Through her profession as a model, Johanne’s subjectivity in the film remains one-dimensional, transfixed largely in the realm of the visual, adapting her portrayal of self to suit the context and narration of her spectator. In a ‘testimony’ by Johanne with co-star Victor Désy, she exclaims: “I don’t really play a character in À tout prendre:Victor, that’s me” (Daudelin 13). In this vein, I propose that Johanne’s elusive performance of self is quite tactical. Through the presentation of a fragmented subjectivity, Johanne can to some degree control the masquerade of her identity and capitalize upon her evasive social location(s). The improvisational nature of the script—inherited from direct cinema methods of unfiltered and spontaneous dialogue—matched with the film’s basis in the couple’s collective memory, provided Johanne with an increased level of agency to influence her aspects of her own discourse (Harrelle, “Lettre de Johanne Harrelle à Claude Jutra” September 1963 [my translation]).

Introducing Johanne singing Ti-zoizeau

Throughout the film, Johanne is framed as this exotic other, the Haitian chanteuse and model. From her introduction at the party where she sings a song in Creole, we are directed to not attempt understanding or translation, as if she was an ethnographic ‘native’ spectacle. This scene indoctrinates the audience into conceptualizing Johanne as an exotic Haitian other. As Stuart Hall would suggest in general terms,

“this [scene] both shows an event (denotation) and carries a ‘message’ or meaning (connotation)—[what] Barthes would call a ‘meta-message’ or myth about race, color and ‘otherness” (229).

Such a meta-message of Johanne’s alterity is couched in the erotic spectacle of her Haitian origins, which both reproduces a mythical colonial identity while mobilizing the possibilities for a re-inscription of Johanne’s sexuality. In ciphering these colonial scripts of race and sexuality, Johanne constructs her alterity. It is one that we will later come to understand as tactical. In her seminal text, Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins insists,

“Just as harnessing the power of the erotic is important for domination, reclaiming andself-defining that same eroticism may constitute one path toward Black women’sempowerment” (128).

In this assemblage of her alterity, Johanne’s exotic sexuality becomes a tool to capitalize upon colonial and imperialist erotic conceptualizations of her racialized difference. 

Photoshoot on Park Mont-Royal.

Jutra's white colonial gaze.

While it is far from explicit whether her presentation of difference is what attracts Claude’s attention, it is certain that her otherness is central to their romance. As their relationship develops, Claude decides one afternoon to photograph Johanne in Parc Mont-Royal. The scene is accompanied by non-diegetic music of ‘African’ drums synchronized to Johanne promenading across the screen. This background music arises repeatedly throughout the film, providing soundtrack to Johanne’s performance of her alterity. This sonic leitmotif shadows Johanne, from her exuberant jive in the Black Jazz club to Claude’s fantasies of Johanne’s Haitian youth. Despite her modern attire and choreography, this symbolic musical accompaniment authenticates Johanne’s blackness through evoking cinematic tropes of minstrelsy. In impersonating such a colonial racialized pastiche, Johanne demonstrates the systematic nature by which “[black] women [have] construct[ed] sexual meanings and practices within this overarching structure of heterosexual power relations” (Collins 131). Performing her blackness as she sashays across the field, I believe that Johanne understands her subaltern agency in this masquerade. During this sequence, Johanne asserts her abilities as a model to manifest her own representation. This performance is one is which is conscious of Claude as the spectator as Johanne adapts herself to suit his direction and imagining of her difference.

Johanne confessing her fabricated performance as Haitian.

This particular figuring of Johanne’s difference is one that is fixed within her blackness as Haitian. During their precarious game of disclosure, Johanne breaks her silence and reveals her own closely guarded secret about her origins. This scene serves as the crux to destabilizing the Québécois colonial logics of authenticating Blackness as exotic/foreign. And it is a scene that was filmed with much emotional labor. In the process of drafting the dramatic re-enactment of Johanne’s confession, she and Jutra worked closely to capture the ‘honesty’ of the event (Leach 87). In a handwritten letter from Johanne to Jutra, she shares an epiphany regarding the confessional dialogue, which eventually became directly integrated into the film.

“I have found the secret for ‘Johanne’s confession’. Rather than saying, ‘My love, I’m not Haitian, etc.’ what if I were to say this: ‘My love, you think that I’m from a rich family, don’t you? But no, that’s not it at all. I didn’t know my parents, I am an orphan, brought up in an orphanage and then in a convent. They couldn’t find me adoptive parents, because I was Black, etc., etc.’ (this phrasing, more or less). I think that this is much better from all points of view, and more comprehensible for an international audience” (Harrelle, “Lettre de Johanne Harrelle à Claude Jutra” September 1963) [my translation].

Letter from Johanne to Jutra discussing "Johanne's confession"

As an actress she was conscious about her reception, and this letter documents one of Johanne’s strategic attempts to influence the direction of her character development. Moreover, Johanne would have been aware that this confession would extend far beyond the film into Johanne’s personal life, rendering the fallacy of her performance public (Rudel-Tessier, "Johanne n'était pas haïtienne mais elle avait ses raisons" 1964).

Despite the fact that Johanne’s confession proclaims her status as Québécoise and not Haitian, Jim Leach suggests,

“as a member of a visible minority, Johanne appears foreign even though she was born in Québec. Johanne’s gender and race do not make her into the exotic other but rather render visible the colonial mechanism that govern cultural life in Québec” (86).

These colonial mechanisms reveal the conditions that led Johanne to construct her identity outside of the realm of Afro-Québecité. In the film, Johanne explains that as an orphan, she was advised by social workers to present herself as Haitian to increase her chances of adoption. In an interview with Photo-Journal shortly before the debut of À tout prendre, Johanne elucidated some of the francophone nationalist dynamics involved in her decision to present herself as Haitian:

"RT: At one time, you believed that if you presented yourself as Haitian then French-Canadians would accept you, but if you presented as Canadian they would reject you?
JH: Yes…
RT: And since then, did you ever tell yourself that maybe you could be wrong?
JH: [Vigorously shaking her head] As a Haitian, I was welcomed everywhere. I was ‘exotic’!" (Rudel-Tessier, "Johanne n'était pas haïtienne mais elle avait ses raisons" 1964 [my translation]).  

Within this short dialogue, Johanne exposes the colonial racial dynamics that she would later come to display and subvert in her ‘exotic’ black performance. She acts this way to secure a legible and accepted positionality within a white francophone nationalist matrix.    

In her work on adoption in the Americas, Karen Dubinsky argues that Black children in Montréal during the 1950s and 1960s were often advised to engage in similar performances (40). Such an adoption program capitalized upon the increased focus on the Francophonie during the Quiet Revolution, coupled with an increased desire for the exotic other. It must be noted that Black communities have lived in Montréal for centuries, but increased migration from Haiti in the 1960s began to refigure the parameters of Black identity in the city (Austin 55). Within the Québec national project, English and French black subjects assumed very different roles in francophone nationalism; Afro-Caribbean subjects were only ambivalently included in the Québécois nationalist project. 

We can come to a more nuanced understanding of Johanne’s tactical performance of her identity in turning to José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of disidentification. Muñoz argues,

“disidentification is meant to be descriptive of the survival strategies of the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship” (9).

Johanne assembles her fiction of identity through her disidentificatory performance as Haitian. Her experience of marginalization as a black woman provides her with an epistemic advantage to perform her identity through the codes of the oppressor. This presents an example of the strategies marginalized subjects employ to situate themselves in history and seize social agency. Johanne’s performance of blackness capitalized upon colonial articulation of race, gender, sexuality, and difference to maneuver the survival strategies available to her as a subaltern subject. This ontological tactic renders Johanne’s difference legible, while sanitizing it to secure inclusion within the national body politic.


As an intertextual assemblage of fiction and memoir, À tout prendre presents the foundation for Jutra’s poignant exploration of the crisis of sex and identity politics during the early Quiet Revolution. The film’s unprecedented portrayal of an interracial relationship and queer sexual subtext presented a palpable destabilization of Québécois nationalist sexual discourse. Through the rearticulation of Claude’s (white) national and sexual identity vis-à-vis Johanne’s racial difference, the filmhighlights the anti-colonial and nationalist tensions around sexuality, whiteness and alterity in a modernizing Québec. Its juxtaposition of racialized sexual difference and queerness makes À tout prendre an archive of these discursive tensions and the strategies that marginalized subjects employed to situate themselves in history during the Quiet Revolution. Beyond cinematic analysis, in deconstructing standard histories of this period, I hope we can develop new ground to confront the contemporary challenges of ensuring that racial and sexual difference are not simply relegated to the position of endnotes.