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Black bodies, queer desires:
Québécois national anxieties of race and sexuality in Claude Jutra’s À tout prendre (1963)

by Gregorio Pablo Rodríguez-Arbolay Jr.

French and English promotional posters for Jutra’s
À tout prendre

As one of the most provocative and once widely respected filmmakers in Québécois cinema, the works of Claude Jutra have visualized the paradoxes and contradictions of narrating a new national identity in modern Québec. With his first solo feature, À tout prendre (1963), Jutra deployed the progressive cultural politics of modernity, secular nationalism, and anti-colonialism of the Quiet Revolution to illustrate the anxieties of modern Québécois (hetero)sexuality of the 1960s. Inventive in its form and in its provocative narrative, Jutra’s À tout prendre not only signaled a new discourse for the cinematic representation of the Quiet and Sexual Revolutions, but also presented one of the first filmic attempts to explore race in Québec.

During the proceeding Post-war period of the 1950s, Québec witnessed the birth of a national form of documentary filmmaking under the auspices of the National Film Board’s L'équipe française. Through documenting and visualizing the lives and experiences of francophone Québécois communities that had been historically absent from movie screens, these directors attempted to capture unfiltered voices of francophone identities in transition in the hopes of cinematically reimagining national identity. This assemblage of socio-cultural and historical filmic narratives engendered a modern, anti-colonial Québécois national subject (often white, male, anti-imperialist, heterosexual). And at the same time, these documentaries developed a cinematic national collectivity through the deployment of allegorical notions of tradition, community, and cultural memory. Yet, between 1953 and 1963, no feature fiction films were produced in Québec (Marshall 120). [open endnotes in new window] All films and cinemas were subject to the religious dictates of the parochial censorship board.  

As the first independently-produced feature fiction film in Québec, À tout prendre marked a monumental shift in Québec cinema both in terms of its edgy modern style and its provocative subject matter. To make it, Claude Jutra endured personal and economic burdens of self-financing the film, which re-imagined his former inter-racial love affair with Johanne Harrelle. Once the film was out, in Canada Jutra stood at the forefront of establishing new genre-bending modes of cinema (direct-cinema, New Wave, “auto-fiction”). In the course of this paper, I will explore the development of Québécois secular and post-colonial nationalist discourse in À tout prendre. Through investigating the power of these discursive developments in Jutra’s cinematic reflection upon modern Québec, we can begin to excavate the fault lines of race and sexuality during the Quiet Revolution.

As Thomas Waugh proclaimed in his 1998 Martin Walsh Lecture,

“We need to fundamentally rethink the discursive links between sexuality and national identity within our cinemas, for they often testify to the same contradictory mix of excess, disavowal, and mystification that sexuality faces in our culture as a whole” (13).

My aim here is to use À tout prendre to historicize and critique the development of the secular and anti-colonial discourses on modernity, race, and sexuality in the Québécois national project and cinemas. As Claude Jutra was keenly involved in the cultural politics of the era, he harnessed film as a vehicle to engage with sexual taboos of Quiet Revolution and Québec secular nationalism. Here, I will analyze the narrative and historical context of À tout prendre as a bridge to survey these shifting cultural and cinematic codes.

National modernity and
post-colonial discourses in Québec

The shifting political and cultural conditions of the Quiet Revolution manifested themselves heavily in the way modern national cinema developed in Québec. Public spheres and censorship boards were secularized, which resulted in the introduction of new themes, ideas, and identities to Québécois screens. As cinematic codes continued to modernize, Quebec film scholar, Scott Mackenzie suggests that cultural codes regulating depictions of race and sexuality in film also began to shift in line with secular Québec nationalism and decolonization (MacKenzie 51). In order for me to situate the semiotic manifestation of these shifting conditions in À tout prendre, I must emphasize the importance of remembering how Québec is a settler colony and postcolonial space. What is now known as the Canadian province of Québec was originally inhabited by ten First Peoples was colonized by the French in 1608, then in 1763 by the British, and later subjected to (Anglophone) Canadian federal clientelism until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.  For these reasons, the question of colonialism emerged once again during the 60s and 70s as part of a renewed, modern sovereigntist movement. Robert Schwartzwald addresses this legacy of colonialism and how it figured at that moment in his article on post-colonial criticism in Québec:

“‘Quebec’ was then figured as a voiceless, disempowered collectivity of francophones of French ancestry, one in which others sharing its territory were regarded either as invader-occupiers or, if immigrants of non-Anglo-American descent, their potential pawns in an aggressive campaign of assimilationist design. In the 1960s and 1970s, these views were condensed through an anti-imperialist lens that focused on Quebec as oppressed and overdue for decolonization” (Schwartzwald 116).  

This ethnic and ontological association with whiteness and francophone heritage during this period of decolonization foregrounds the visual language of Québécois racial (and sexual) politics that emerges in À tout prendre. Jutra’s exploration of race and sexuality crystallizes in his exploration of the colonial racialization and black identity of Johanne Harrelle, who starred with Jutra in the film. Harrelle plays a version of herself, a Black model and actress while Jutra plays “Claude,” a film director.

Claude and Johanne re-enacting their contentious love affair.

From early conversations on Négritude and the work of Césaire and Fanon in Parti Pris (1963-1968) to Albert Memmi’s Portrait du colonisé (1963), the Québec nationalist project formed political affinities with Franco-African post-colonial and U.S. Black Power movements. However, as Schwartzwald indicates,

“the discourse of decolonization’s Manichean construction of reality (colonizer vs. colonized) and a totalizing view of social phenomena created the unifying effects necessary to make ‘internal’ differences secondary” (Schwartzwald 138).

Ironically, considering that their national re-articulations stemmed from their intellectual engagement with decolonizing nations and racialized subjects, advocates of Québécois de-colonial nationalism rarely acknowledged their country’s own historical colonization of First Nations territories. Of particular interest here is their often problematic identification with Black Québecers (Mills 44). In fact, Québécois nationalism during the sixties often cited the racialized marginality of Third-World and American Black peoples by colonial and state apparatuses as a metaphoric equivalent for Québécois marginality vis-à-vis English Canada. This anti-colonial discourse was also at the core of the formation of a new collective national identity through the propagation of pure laine racial politics (Austin 25). In that sense, the terms pure laine (pure wool) and Québécois de souche (of French European stock) refer to a white ethno-nationalist identity politics that grounds authentic Québécois identity within French colonial bloodlines. Obviously the two forms of racial identification within Québécois identity politics were at odds.

At the height of the Quiet Revolution, as film became a visualizing project of nation building, it introduced a modern cinematic sensibility to Québécois audiences. Throughout the late 1950s, Jutra’s career paralleled the development of the Québec film industry, from his documentary work with National Film Board to his experimental film production with Norman McLaren. He visited France in 1958 to meet Jean Rouch, the ethnologist and direct-cinema documentarian, and Rouch’s work radically transformed Jutra’s understanding of documentary film (Leach 54). Rouch’s deep seated criticism of colonial anthropological methods in cinema ignited a newly found consciousness in Jutra about his own connection to the post-colonial world, made evident through his feature-length documentary work in Le Niger, jeune république (1961).

Queering Claude’s Québec

À tout prendre was the first Québécois auto-fictional feature film to integrate direct cinema and avant-garde techniques. Itdestabilized the traditional demarcations between history and story-telling. At the intersection between memoir and fiction, the filmrecasts the past through Claude Jutra and Johanne Harrelle’s performative reproduction of their former sexual relationship. As he employed a documentary film aesthetic to fictionalize the past, Jutra challenged audiences to reconsider relations between ‘truth’ and fiction during the Quiet Revolution (Leach 67). Moreover, to present an interracial sexual relationship was a novel sight on Québécois screens, and the film served as an important vehicle to engage with the moral sexual taboos of the Quiet Revolution and Québec secular nationalism. Furthermore, in its very depiction of sexuality, Scott Mackenzie has identified À tout prendre as the first time in North America that a bed scene was filmed between a white man and a black woman (MacKenzie 51).

Claude and Johanne embracing in bed.

During this period, the sovereigntist project of Québecité was envisaged as a pure laine androcentric heteronormative project, through re-configuring national sexual hegemony from a former colonial and parochial emasculation to a new virile francophone white male subject. Jeffrey Vacante suggests during the Quiet Revolution “whether sex was promoted as a function of "racial" duty or the source of non-reproductive pleasure, heterosexuality has remained stubbornly at the centre of nationalist discourse, as well as of the historical narrative” (Vacante 34). This compulsory ethno-heterocentrism narrates Claude’s clumsy quest to be ‘straight.’ To portray the emblematic figure of the new (urban) nationalist man through the performance of hetero-normalcy, even in spite of his transgressive sexuality. This performance stands in stark opposition to the film’s contemporaries such as Pour la suite du monde (1963) and Le chat dans le sac (1964), which lauded the (white) hetero-virility of working class and rural masculinities (Marshall 49). As the main protagonist and narrator of À tout prendre, Claude illustrates the paradoxes of modern Québécois masculinity. From his subscription to Life Magazine to his habitual dalliances with various women, Claude keenly performs his role as the urbane bourgeois intellectual. This social positionality within the period was often associated with the de-virilising federalist and colonialist hegemony and petty-bourgeois pederasty. Schwartzwald terms this development as ‘The fear of federasty,’ which he describes as a “reactionary response to political oppression that attempts to turn the tables on these national traitors by figuring them as effeminate and penetrable, hence weak” (Schwartzwald, “Fear of Federasty: Quebec’s Inverted Fictions” 179-81). Claude’s character development throughout the film chronicles his struggles to contend with the audacity of such normative masculine scripts. The performance of this ideal unravels throughout the course of the film as Claude’s identity becomes increasingly fragmented.

Claude fragmented in mirror.

From one of the first scenes, Claude dresses in various costumes in front of a mirror, playfully shifting through various masculine stereotypes: a gangster, a detective, a Pierrot figure reminiscent of an earlier experimental work, Pierrot des bois (1956). This multiple performance of masculinity literally fractures as Claude shoots at his reflection in the mirror with a revolver. This fragmentation of self is semiotically representative of Jutra’s personal quest for identity, encompassing the concurrent national crisis of identity politics during the Quiet Revolution (Vacante 33). As discourses of modernity and national sovereignty took hold, re-articulations of Québec national identity were in constant shift since at the same time urban culture faced the disruption of traditional notions of masculinity and heterosexuality associated with the Sexual Revolution.

As Claude and Johanne’s amorous exchanges shift from gifts to confessions, the pair begin a precarious game of disclosure. From the Catholic Church to the Victorian medical clinic, the act of confession has been historically linked to the moral regulation of sex and sexuality (Waugh 60). In a À tout prendre, the bed assumes the confessional space where Claude and Johanne divulge their closely guarded secrets. Their game of disclosure eventually leads Johanne to inquire about Claude’s possible homosexuality.

“Est-ce que tu aimes les garçons?"

Claude offers no response to Johanne’s inquiry, neither confirming nor denying such an accusation. The affirmation of his homosexual desire remains beyond the level of verbal discourse for Claude, as Jutra’s later allusion to a sexual encounter with another man suggests.  Alongside the status of À tout prendre as the first North American cinematic portrayal of an inter-racial bed scene, Jutra also presented one of the first illusions to ‘coming-out’ as well as the first explicit account of same-sex desire in Québec (Waugh, The Fruit Machine 201). In a later scene following a rehearsal during a film within a film, Claude invites his male lead to his apartment for cigarettes and libations. As laughter turns into seductive stares, the screen shifts to black as Claude breathes a sigh of relief: “en fin.” (finally). The audience is provided with little more than a suggestion of homosexual sex, but such an insinuation spoke volumes during the 1960s.

Claude Post-Coitus: ‘en fin.’

This queer subtext was quite novel for the period. Waugh suggests.

“this shocking [statement] is permissible in 1963 only in the social and artistic context established by the film. The social context—bohemian and artistic— were one of the few in which lesbians and gays could be relatively open before Stonewall” (Waugh, The Fruit Machine 203).

Prior to the federal Omnibus Bill of 1969 that decriminalized homosexuality and abortion, the Canadian government actively intruded into their citizens’ bedrooms (and cinemas)—policing moral sexual taboos ranging from inter-racial sex and adultery to abortion and homosexuality. These subjects explicitly presented in À tout prendre were illegal or immoral during the period, directly challenging various Canadian civil and censorship laws. After the film’s release, this homosexual implication (and inter-racial relationship) was panned by Québec film critics ranging from Gilles Marsolais to Denys Arcand, who saw these plotlines as avant-gardisttropes rather than a political statement of identity politics (Marshall 120). This often racist and homophobic reception resulted with

“[the] problematical questions of sexuality and class [being] postponed or papered over by the nationalist consensus of the intelligentsia [as] cinema was assumed to be a privileged medium of national expression in the sixties and pre-Parti Québécois seventies nationalist responses to divulge from the ‘undefined’ but sentimentally monolithic fantasy of the young pure laine heterosexual couple” (Waugh 88).

I contend that the inter-racial sex and queer subtext of À tout prendre presents us an archive of the discursive tensions of racial and sexual alterity during the 1960s. As heteronormative sovereigntist standards crystallized in Québec, Claude and Johanne’s queer and racialized performances transgressed the cultural and cinematic codes of the white normative visual milieu, made clearly evident by the film’s initial poor box office sales. In re-examining the context and performance of these transgressions through a queer and de-colonial lens, I aim to complicate and destabilize historical mythologies of the white heterocentrism of modern Québécois masculinity as well as the colonial and sovereigntist dynamics of Johanne’s racialization as a black woman during the Quiet Revolution.