JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

But Jutra’s confession has its exemplary stature all the same, and I’d like to theorize a little more around confession as I conclude this section on À tout prendre. I am thinking briefly of the concept of confession that Foucault developed in the 1980s as an action, an ethical, political and affective relationship with the other. As Tom Roach explains, Foucault was preoccupied with the difference between Catholic confession and parrhesia, its precurseur practiced by the ancients. According to Roach, parrhesia has a subjectifying, transformative performativity:

Foucault’s model is an ethos that

“privileges self-transformation over self-knowledge/decipherment. It takes as its objective neither self-exegesis/renunciation nor the recovery of a lost, whole identity, but rather the self-to-self relation. … Self-knowledge is of value only when it can produce an ethos, a change in the subject’s being…. Knowledge is measured only in its practicality, in its ability to move the body, to make decisions, or, to respond to various challenges. Self-knowledge should advance the subject toward a more autonomous relation to the self; it is truthful to the extent to which it becomes ethical action…. If the confession engenders dependence on another and requires the objectification of the self to speak its truth, parrhesia operates along more immanentist lines: The self is not objectified but subjectivated, the self becomes the subject of true discourse and is transformed in the truth`s enunciation…. friendship becomes not merely a relation but a practice: part of a regimen of self-care…. an ethics of friendship….” (Roach 2012, 25-26, 28, 34).

Stéphane Pujol adds:

“…if parrhesia is the speech of truth, it is not supposed to arise either from a strategy of demonstration, nor from an art of persuasion, nor from a pedagogy. But there is parrhesia when an act of truth-telling opens for him/her who utters it a space of risk.” (Pujol 2015, 118).

Claude, that is to say the fictional character in the film, does not assume this risk of self-transformation. In exchanging his confession with Johanne – a partial and truncated exchange as we have seen (“I don’t say yes any more than I say no”) – he distances himself from her, buys her out, betrays her, and flies off to Africa at the end, his final cowardice. (Was Arcand right on this general point of cowardice, even if his rendering of the details confuses the character with the artist and is offensive to the extreme?) Yet the cowardice of the autofictional character Claude was scripted, directed and performed by Jutra the artist, and I stand in awe of his courage in confessing to the contradictory and masochistic welter of affirmation and affect that that film articulates in the 1963 context of Canadian legal and international cinematic precarity. Jutra the artist also wrote a sardonic short text in 1967, “How not to make a Canadian film.” His first response to his own question synthesizes the reception he had got for À tout prendre: “Choose a non-commercial subject, so personal as to be indecent, banal, futile, immoral, sordid, etc.” (Pâquet 1967). This bitterness may have been due in large part to the hurt he felt after the public disguised queerbaiting he faced, not only from critics and Arcand, but also from his collaborators in the decade after coming out in À tout prendre, his only venture in explicit autobiography.

He continued to follow precisely his own bitter and ironic advice for the rest of his career, but never at the level and on the scale of À tout prendre.We can never know to what extent this bitterness was colored by his awareness of the monstrosity with which society would brand the erotic sensibility he expressed on celluloid, a closet within a closet, a closet that was not to be decriminalized by the Omnibus Bill the following year, 1969, with its emphasis on “adult” sexuality. Disappeared for the first time thirty years ago, Jutra the cowardly bisexual, the banal pedophile, the immoral artist, the inventive and brave man who confessed and still confesses, maintains this ethical relationship with us, the confessor spectator, in the wake of his second disappearance. We must take up this great responsibility toward his burden, his shame and his hope.

II

Before moving on to a direct focus on Jutra`s other films, let`s pause to reconnoiter in very general terms the other essential international context—and intertext—of À tout prendre. Jutra was plugged in transculturally better than any other Quebec filmmaker (alongside the film’s dedicatee and his mentor, the androphile gay animator McLaren). This most cosmopolitan of Quebec filmmakers belonged to two international tendencies that I would like to foreground.

A Chairy Tale, Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra, 1957       Opening Speech, Norman McLaren, 1969.

In the postwar period, the filming of oneself was a proliferating trope within art cinema on both sides of the Atlantic and even elsewhere. In the work of young filmmakers of the new waves here and there (as well as with some more established artists like another of Jutra’s mentors, the French filmmaker Jean Cocteau [1889–1963]), one often runs into more or less veiled confessionality, autobiography, self-portraiture, diaries and autofiction. À tout prendre is the only example that comes to mind, other than Cocteau’s 1960 Le Testament d’Orphée, released three years before his acolyte Jutra’s film, where the director is also the scriptwriter and the main actor (two decades after Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941] and almost five before J’ai tué ma mère [Xavier Dolan, 2009]). We cannot afford to forget that the discreet avowal to desire for other men in Jutra’s film, as with contemporary and friend Kenneth Anger, also amounted to self-criminalization (six years before the decriminalizing Omnibus bill in Canada, five decades before decriminalization in the U.S.!): Critics and commentators of the period for the most part avoided reference to the homo scandal of À tout prendre,all the more since the transgression of same-sex eroticism was adroitly camouflaged by extramarital and interracial heterosexuality, abortion and other micro-transgressions (like the adulterous groping of brave actress Monique Mercure’s breasts, for example).

The series of surrogate suicide fantasies that punctuates the À tout prendre reminds us also that this kind of self-referential cinema is often also a cinema not only of shame but also of alienation and despair. It reminds us that Jutra’s self-reflexive tropes of sublimated desire and self-inflicted violence are common throughout his entire generation of thirty-something male filmmakers – and occasionally female filmmakers – who were doggedly struggling to make work within the various national new waves emerging within several cultures around the planet at this time.

Autobiographical art features contemporary to À tout prendre, three shorts and five features.

These dogged artistic struggles were inextricable from the context of the sexual revolution and the contribution of the international new waves to the dismantling of the U.S.-based Production Code, as I argued in 2006. Like Schlesinger, Anderson, Godard, Pasolini, Makavejev, Rocha, Oshima, and others, Jutra hiply and self-consciously deployed the familiar sexual tropes that expressed a range of affects from celebration to revolt to alienation. In tropes identifiable with male-authored art cinema of the sexual revolution, Jutra riffed on nudity, sexual gestures and behaviors and language, even sacrilege. Like his peers within the embryonic Canadian art cinema graphically caught up, in the “anti-repressive struggle” of the sexual revolution, Jutra welcomed the extension of cinematic language and the reinvention of audience and social implication that the sexual revolution implied. Jutra’s generation articulated a fierce attraction to the risks of sexual freedom, couching them as much in the safe exoticism of American iconography as in the stakes of domestic struggle, and yet figured them politically in terms of radical oppositionality and youth revolt.

At the same time Jutra and the others seemed to recognize the failures of traditional patriarchal masculinity, albeit with great tenderness and complicity for the wounded phallus, and to implicitly critique the inherited sex-gender system, offering an incipient problematization of women’s relation to the sexual revolution, and even posing the question of women’s sexual enfranchisement, autonomy and pleasure. Dehistoricized and allegorized, the heterosexual couple is indulged but ultimately bypassed by Jutra.[12] [open endnotes in new window]

At the same time Jutra and some others offered explicit flashes or subtextual hints of the sexual diversity then assuming increasing visibility in the public and cinematic spheres. Yet, instead of the defensive hyperbole of pornography, the euphoria of the avant-garde, or the blinkered opportunism and hesitation stampede of the commercial popular cinema, we find in this art cinema a cautious ambivalence. Historically positioned as young middle class male intelligentsia in the West of the sixties, ambivalent about the promise of sexual liberation, art cinema directors were often surprisingly restrained, just as concerned about the altered regulatory regimes as about the accompanying sexual shifts.

Their work vacillated between utopian and dystopian visions, between the normalization and destabilization of the hegemonic heterosexual couple, between a self-critical awareness of the cinema’s centrality in the deployment of sexuality within modernity and a blinkered complicity in it. Collectively, their works exude a cinematic confidence that the sexual revolution is an ongoing, perhaps asymptotic process rather than a static fait accompli, an incomplete perverse implantation, a curve with inflection still being formed, a process where power and the body will continue to answer each other back.[13] As with his proto-queer contemporaries like Anderson, Pasolini and Schlesinger, Jutra’s discreet queer subjectivity is much more direct in probing that trouble and in envisioning the space or spaces it opens for alternatives, a slate as open as these directors’ enigmatic art film endings.

This leads me to the second international tendency that bears brief mention, the already gestating proto-queer cinema – even in the provincial backwaters of Montreal and Toronto!

From this point of view, Jutra is not so cowardly at all, taking risks in step with this international intertext of proto-queer experimental and art cinemas emerging at the start of the 1960s, pre-Stonewall prophetic articulations of forbidden cinematic fantasy and everyday life. Claude’s confession, his moment of truth, echoes those of dozens of tortured young protagonists from these years, evoked by the film posters that I cite. The “coming out” ritual must be seen not only as a well-known narrative trope but also of course as a performative political ritual in the real world, always according to Sedgwick, having an “immense potency,” the trigger of a “flow of power.” (1990, 76-77) Except that we must clarify that Claude is not so much a “flaming creature,” a biker, a prisoner, a queen, a hustler or an Orpheus, as a nervous young man, a “slightly cowardly” cisgendered middle-class bohemian, a real or pretend bisexual, garbed in a neat suit and a narrow tie, just like Guy (Farley Granger) in Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1950)… which Jutra in fact cites!

Guy and Claude climbing the oedipal stairs in respectively Strangers on a Train and À tout prendre.

Jutra transforms Hitchcock’s sequence where Guy climbs the stairs in the dark towards the bedroom of the “father” into the sequence, which Arcand rightly considers oedipal, where Claude climbs towards his castrating mother’s bedroom to confess; Jutra also borrows also from Strangers on a Train the frightening incident where the protagonist is fired upon by a child cowboy. No more than Guy, Claude would not exactly become a retroactive positive role model for queer activist cinephiles of the turn of the century!