2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
Black bodies, queer desires:
Québécois national anxieties of race and sexuality in Claude Jutra’s À tout prendre (1963)
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). 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). [open notes in new page]
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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].
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?
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.
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