“Do you like boys?”
Claude Jutra’s disappearances: confession, courage, cowardice
by Thomas Waugh
“Dedicated to all victims of intolerance.”  [open endnotes in new page]
“Moral Valuation: Centered on an adulterous relationship, this unhealthy film complacently showcases the disturbances of its heroes. To be banned.”
— Re: À tout prendre. Office catholique national des techniques de diffusion [National Catholic Office of Dissemination Techniques (Quebec)].1964 
“The Jutra affair” of 2016 is of interest to all Jump Cut readers concerned not only with archives and national cinemas but also with sexual representation and queer identities in film history and cultural theory. Moreover, in the wake of the roller-coaster peripeteias of the careers of Woody Allen and Nate Parker, not to mention D.W. Griffith and Leni Riefenstahl, it would be useful to reflect more deeply on the dynamics of blame, rectitude, canonization, and redemption in cultural historiography.
In the meantime, in this essay about Quebec founding filmmaker Claude Jutra (1930-1986) I would like first to update a paper on Jutra’s “new wave” autocinema masterpiece, À tout prendre (1963), which I had presented at the Cinémathèque québécoise in November 2015 (the 50th anniversary of the release of this groundbreaking film). This happened a few months prior to the appearance of Yves Lever’s incriminating biography of the director, a book that would unleash Jutra’s well known “disappearance” and the surrounding turbulence of 2016 that have sparked this Jump Cut special section on Jutra.
Thereafter I would like to skim and wander back and forth across Jutra’s prolific oeuvre like a detective, beguiled and bewitched, in search of the pedophile who burst into the spotlight three decades after his first disappearance (by suicide in 1986)—and now has been “disappeared” a second time through media, institutional and cultural symbolic violence thirty years later. I would like to briefly re-examine six of Jutra’s films that are most relevant to the issue of pedophilia, searching for the secret and the courage as well as the poetry and the erotics. In conclusion, prodded by these textual pleasures, challenges and dilemmas, I will ponder the ethical and political responsibility of the queer film historian—in 2006 and in 2017—in the exploration of the queer [film] archive, in the modulation or defense or subversion of the queer [or national] canon.
I have been writing about Claude Jutra for most of my career, and once heard through mutual friends that he had been happy that I had called him the E.M. Forster of Quebec cinema (because of his lifelong silence following his youthful confessional À tout prendre) in a piece I published about lesbian and gay images in Quebec cinema in 1981. I have continued to honor and respect him as one of the two “founding queens” of Canadian and Quebec cinema (along with his mentor-collaborator Norman McLaren, 1914-1987). In The Romance of Transgression in Canada, my 2006 monograph on Canadian queer cinema, I devoted 35 or so pages to the more than 30 films of this “ancestor, enigma, and martyr of queer cinema in Canada” and thought that I had finally got Jutra out of my system. I was wrong. Now, thanks to the scandal, Jutra has acquired even more symbolic importance as an unlikely protagonist in the resistance to a neo-liberal empire shored up in equal part by two “wars”—the war on terrorists and migrants, and the war on sex offenders. I will explain.
As I observed in my 2006 book in great detail but without once using forensic trigger labels (out of cowardice?), a singular sensibility that I will call pedophile is perceptible in almost all Jutra’s films, whether in a major way in a film like Mon oncle Antoine (1971) or in a minor way in À tout prendre. It is never explicit, it goes without saying, but rather is translated or channeled in glowing iconographies of boys’ bodies, faces and gestures, and in highly empathetic narrative themes of coming of age, pedagogy, suffering, ageing, discovery, corporeal pleasure, sociality, etc. This sensibility fuels a creative energy that has not lost its power over the generations. I respectfully explored the intergenerational discourses in Jutra’s oeuvre in 2006, and have not changed my mind in the last decade nor since the scandal, not one syllable. Who would or could disappear Jutra from the highest-echelon list of world filmmakers from Jean Vigo to Satyajit Ray to François Truffaut and Céline Sciamma who have bequeathed to us movies brilliantly capturing the subjectivity and agency of kids?
The traces of pedophile desire in Jutra’s oeuvre have often been innocently inventoried by critics but without ever being pushed towards what are for me their obvious biographical meanings. In my book and elsewhere I explored these iconographies and themes with a neutral tone, with respect. I did so without blame, without moralization, without the attitude of the lyncher, inquisitor or morality squad, having grown up like Jutra in a society where my desires were criminal. My treatment of Jutra was I hope in the open, neutral spirit of my idols, from Hirschfeld to Kinsey to Gayle Rubin, from Pasolini to Foucault…
Accordingly, I treated this tendency as artistic sensibility rather than forensic proof. In doing so, I was knowingly following a widespread tradition within queer and proto-queer communities over the last centuries, that is to say a tolerance or rather an acceptance of a whole “benign” spectrum of orientations, fantasies and consensual behaviors, all the while denouncing all forms of non-consensual assault, sexual or otherwise. Otherwise, on a similar topic, I would co-write four years after Romance on another very beautiful Quebec film, in English this time, that asks the question of intergenerational relations somewhat more directly: Frank Vitale’s English-language Montreal Main (1974) that also falls under the radar it seems of Quebec film critics and scholars (Waugh and Garrison 2010).
Romance engages with Jutra the pedophile, discreetly but empathetically. I described in passing elements of his films as “calfcake… striptease… scopophilic fantasies… obliqueness… tentative and contradictory confessions and disavowals, steps back and forth on the cultural continuums that span from homosocial male bonding to same-sex genital exchange, from parental love through same-sex mentorship to intergenerational eros.” I concluded,
“Jutra the poet of youthful learning cannot be separated from the Jutra whose erotic fulfilment derives from engagement in that process. This is the essence of Jutra’s work. Here is the terror it has held for critics and film historians, here are the secret and the courage that his closest collaborators couldn’t face.”
This discussion of obliqueness and ambiguity was too oblique and ambiguous for the 2016 biographer Yves Lever and the journalists that buzzed around the scandal that his biography sparked. With regard to my phrase, “intergenerational eros,” Matthew Hays, my ex-student and ongoing collaborator, helpfully deciphered it publicly on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: “That's a film academic's way of suggesting Jutra's work had pedophilic overtones.” Journalists still did not understand such ambiguities, much less my empathy or my discretion. This podium is a chance to dot some i’s.
I have chosen a visual format, not only because Jutra was first and foremost a visual artist, but also because his images are all the more urgently important in the wake of his forced invisibility in 2016, his “disappearance” from the Canadian and Québécois public spheres. These images are important as well because of the blinkers of film scholars and critics in the face of what Jutra placed in front of them on the cinema screen over almost four decades (1948-1985). This format retains in any case the spirit of my audiovisual presentations both pre- and post-scandal, and reminds us of its work-in-progress status.
“[The cinema] makes things move fast and it makes the views that we have on life change and most certainly all the laws concerning sexuality have been reformed, in part due to film which was the strongest, most efficient vehicle of eroticism. So we have a sexual revolution; …I think probably film has been the strongest instrument in the sexual revolution, that’s one thing…. And sexually , people are much less driven than they used to be when it was forbidden…. I went to a psychiatrist and I found a lot of gratification in that and the great, great relief of talking about things that I didn’t even dare think about before and, consciously, it’s all related to guilt of sorts. A lot of guilt about sexual things and a lot of guilt about other people and all of a sudden being able to talk freely about something; that I was paying somebody to listen to me and knowing that it would not affect me directly. It was not threatening at all to speak about that. Nobody was going to punish me; it was not like confessing a crime that I could be punished for. Or in church, yes. And there was no guilt. I mean, there was, but I mean I was freeing myself of a lot of guilt and that was very relieving. But then, after a while I got bored listening to me saying all those horror stories…. [P]robably to be an actor and to step on the stage and be watched by a thousand people is a way, is probably one of the best ways of concealing what you really are to yourself and to the people closest to you. So these two different tendencies in me – secrecy and vanity….”
— Claude Jutra, 1979
My update on À tout prendre, hopefully among other things, is a challenge to the way international movie lovers somehow remain complicit in a canonization process, thanks to Netflix and the rest, that shoves minor cinemas to the peripheries and “disappears” their great treasures and artists. This opening section, taken from my original 2015 powerpoint, has been elaborated in the light of Jutra’s second disappearance.
I began my presentation with this beautiful erotic self-portrait taken around the time of the À tout prendre shoot – rather bold, it goes without saying, for 1963. This tender and open gaze into the still camera reinforces a theme dear to my heart, confession and confessionality (Waugh and Arroyo, 2018). Recent ongoing research on first person and autobiographical queer cinemas and their sexual utterances has dramatically emphasized for me Jutra’s unrecognized historical role in pioneering in À tout prendre the transcultural current over the last several generations of what Alisa Lebow has termed “the cinema of me.” (Lebow 2012) (I will come back to Jutra’s role on the international stage in Part II. For now, as an aside, I was deeply moved when that November a man from the audience, whose name I’ve forgotten, came up to me after my presentation and confided in me that the small star tattoo on Jutra’s bicep had as if through an epidermal confessional utterance enabled the identification of his body, recovered from the St. Lawrence River the following spring, several months after his first disappearance in November 1986.)
Not only the best portrait of Jutra that I know, this image reminds us that the thirtysomething filmmaker was very comfortable with his body and with representations of that body, erotic as well as undraped. (As the leading man in his own film À tout prendre, he reveals himself naked in the opening bathing scene before meeting Johanne, as well as brazenly in the sex scenes with her–and that’s without counting several other films where he had cast himself [e.g. Pour le Meilleur et pour le pire] or performed for his director friends) It is not surprising that the cinematographer Jean-Claude Labrecque had characterized his friend’s movie as a “toilet film” (Houle and Julien 1978, 2-3).
|À tout prendre: 3 frames, bathing before the party|
It is important to situate this portrait historically in the mid-60s when the Quiet Revolution brushed up against the sexual revolution, a period when Montreal film culture gravitated increasingly around images of the body (especially the male body but sometimes the female body). Native son Leonard Cohen acknowledged as much in the documentary about him that was released the year after Jutra`s film: “a man has allowed a number of strangers into his bathroom… Here in 1964 a man has invited a group of strangers to observe him cleaning his body.” But Jutra went even further, even if for his two main onscreen corporeal performances of the 1950s, Pierrot des bois (1956) and A Chairy Tale (1957), his agile and supple body is clothed in stylized costumes and makeup, not nude….
Before continuing, let me comment on my title’s ambiguities, taken from the famous question that Johanne had posed to “my love” in À tout prendre. The question “Do you like boys (“Aimes-tu les garçons?”) made the character Claude “confess the unconfessable.” But it must be stressed that in the context of the idiomatic French spoken in Montreal’s lively early 1960s bohemia frequented by the characters of the film as well as the real-life Jutra and Harrelle, “boys” obviously meant “men,” and not children or even adolescents. All the more so since Claude is seen immediately after this bedroom scene on his film set, busy flirting with his adult male leading man (played by an actor then 25 years old), exchanging intense and steady looks. But what shivers this question and my title would have sparked at the height of the scandal in 2016 only a few months after my original presentation, what rich irony! All the more so since this feature is scattered, like almost all Jutra’s films, with visual and dramatic traces, more or less discreet, of pedophile desire! How else, for example, are we to interpret the character’s (and the director’s?) masochist fantasy in one scene where a boy playing cowboy fires on Jutra through his street-level apartment’s open window during his most intimate embrace with Johanne?
|Two frames from cowboy intrusion|
Let me return to À tout prendre, one of Jutra’s least pedophile films but perhaps, paradoxically, his most confessional (please see attached synopsis and description). This low-budget indie is indeed chock full of confessions: Claude to his mother; Claude to a priest confidant; Johanne to Claude. But above all Claude to the spectator, and not to Johanne with whom he has a strikingly non-confessional relationship, even to the extent of eventually dumping her without any warning by telephone!
|Four confessions from À tout prendre: Claude to his mother, Claude to the priest, Johanne to Claude, Claude not to Johanne but voice-over to the spectator.|
In Claude’s big confessional moment, Johanne caresses his forehead, eyebrows and hair and whispers in his ear: “My love, do you like boys?” Claude seems surprised by the question and asks Johanne to repeat it. She does so, but in an offscreen voice, with amplified resonance, punctuated by the sound of breaking glass.
“Claude (voice off): I don’t say yes any more than I say no. In this way has escaped the secret that I’ve kept inside me even longer than I can remember. Johanne has done that. With her woman’s hands, she has lifted up the heaviest part of my burdens. She has made me confess the unconfessable and I was not ashamed and I had no hurt. And now everything is changed, for that driving desire that was never satisfied, that torment, has taken took the form of a ray of hope.”
It is essential that Claude`s secret is unconfessable: his torment is so traumatic that he does not confess his secret to Johanne in the diegetic world of the film, but as an autofictive character – and as filmmaker-actor-scriptwriter – only to the spectator ensconced in the darkened cinema, and this thanks to postproduction in the closed and isolated sound editing studio. (It is also significant that the sequence was shot with a spring-wound Bolex, and thus by a negligible or minimal crew).
Claude says he is not ashamed, but he lies: in fact he is ashamed, compounding his shame with his dishonesty to both himself and his confessor. But it’s the shame that unleashes the personal and artistic transformation visible both in the film and especially around the film, a shame that Eve Sedgwick, founder of queer theory, often evokes. (Sedgwick, 2003, 35-65). It matters little if Claude the autofictive character and Jutra the author, if we have to categorize them, are confessing a bisexual orientation, literally speaking: the criminal code and Catholic culture did not and do not condemn orientations but rather acts, and 1960s bohemia was coolly in step. (Something to think about in the twenty-first century!)
In the special section published on the fiftieth anniversary of À tout prendre and of its equally pioneering companion film of the following year Le Chat dans le sac (Gilles Groulx, NFB, 2014) in Montreal film magazine 24 Images, lesbian filmmaker Jeanne Crépeau was the only contributor to get into detail on this sequence of confession and shame despite its centrality to the film:
“This story of the capricious petty seducer, sympathetic but a bit cowardly, Claude himself without being wholly himself, moves me because, beyond his affectedness, Jutra offers us, at the height of the Quiet Revolution, a tragic epic of the intimate instead of a political pamphlet. In 1964, you can drive around on a Vespa without a helmet, but homosexuality is a criminal offense. As for Johanne she sings and dances, then as if it’s nothing delicately comes to liberate Claude: “My love, do you like boys?” These characters, one a mirror of the other, touch me in their desire to invent stories that they try to believe: himself hetero, herself a Haitian princess; when the real is too painful, the fiction of the self confronts the fiction of the other” (Crépeau 2014).
Nathalie Saint-Pierre is also perceptive:
“Claude oscillating between love and hate of self (and of others), through his programmed [self-] destruction of different characters living in him (the punk, the killer, [whiteface harlequin] Pierrot), right up to the insatiable lover, flitting like a butterfly among three women but all the while ignoring his deeper desires…” (Saint-Pierre 2014).
But she doesn’t unpack a certain confession that calls into question those flittings….
Next, after the truncated conversation between Claude and Johanne, come heavily histrionic lines about the delusions of romantic love recited by an actor and actress to each other on the set of Claude’s shoot, then the same-sex seduction already mentioned, and finally we hear off screen Claude’s exclamation “Finally!”
What a commotion around the film’s single extra-diegetic confession! Not only zooms and noisy sound effects offscreen, not only a histrionic and conventional heteroromantic foil, but also, according to Martin Knelman, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation cut this extraordinary moment from its broadcast of the English version of the film, this censorship provoked an “atrocious tribulation” for the filmmaker (Knelman 1977, 60).
Confession requires a voice. It is meaningful that Claude’s is offscreen, and that his voice, accompanied by frenetic, even perturbed, visual and sound effects, is foregrounded. Sophie Deraspe comments:
“Looking recently at the two films, one of their major characteristics became apparent: enunciation. The look at the camera. Speech addressed directly to the spectator. This is no longer about identification, but about exchange. We participate… [the film] creates the desire to act… By dismantling the fourth wall, the author engages in a relationship with the spectator who can no longer be a simple voyeur since his/her presence is recognized. The cinema machine, which ordinarily operates through identification, calls this time for sharing and communication. Jutra confesses….” (Deraspe 2014).
I will come back later to relationships and sharing.
Is there such a thing as geographical confession? À tout prendre is one of a dozen or so great films on the Montreal metropolitan geography. Can we see its treatment of urban space, its way of living urban space, of moving about urban space, also as a kind of confession? The city is Jutra’s set, celebrating modernity, diversity, and the turbulence of sexual, cultural and political alterities, identities, relationships and discourses. Like Denys Arcand twenty years later in The Decline of the American Empire (1986), Jutra recognizes Parc Mont-Royal (“the Mountain”) as a high-altitude sexual underground, bustling with furtive eroticism… even in winter. This recognition is surely personal for Jutra who resided at the time barely ten minutes on foot from the upper Peel Street entrance to the park, its snowy stairway represented in the film. In contrast, Arcand was, as we shall see shortly, very perturbed at the time by the spectrum of identitary and sexual difference.
Jutra’s evocation of the legendary Afro-Canadian jazz club Rockhead’s Paradise is not very different, stamped like the Mountain with histories of sexual subcultures and transgressive desire (this time heteronormative). And this is not to speak of urban walls covered with nationalist graffiti that subversively signal both a suppressed history and an uncertain future.
Let’s back up a bit to the historical and cultural context of À tout prendre, in order to see how Jutra went against the grain of certain tendencies, above all with regard both to the direct cinema movement with which he is often tied, and to the sexual revolution in full effervescence at the same moment. in the context of the documentary and documentary fiction hybrids of the first half of the 1960s, as Crépeau observes, this film is almost unique for its claims to a politics of sexuality, its resistance to censorship. Looking at Canadian direct cinema of the 1960s (francophone, anglophone and cross-pollinated), we can acknowledge several general binaries in the 1960s, corresponding roughly to Quebec and English Canada respectively: on one side the preoccupation with public space, on the other with intimacy; on one side the collective subject and on the other the individual; one was expressing itself through irony and the other through intensity; one derives from the state studio the National Film Board of Canada, the other from precarious indie infrastructures (this last formulation is admittedly slightly more complicated than my rhetorically heightened opposition implies…).
|Gilles Groulx, Golden Gloves, 1961: collective, public.||Allan King, A Married Couple, 1969: individual, private.|
Nevertheless, for the two linguistic/cinematic cultures, sexuality was a battlefield, most obviously in respect to the decade-long resistance to censorship. But between Hiroshima mon amour (slashed in Quebec in 1960, with 17 cuts adding up to 13 minutes) and Après-Ski (a soft core sexploitation pic convicted of criminal “obscenity” in 1973), a whole generation of Quebec documentarists from cineaste laureate Pierre Perrault to Denys Arcand evinced hardly any interest in the sexual revolution that was battering down the doors. Jutra was the exception to this chaste, sober and collective cinema: he took risks that the others did not dare and this exception took primarily the form of hybridity (fiction and direct cinema) and autofiction (confession). Arcand wanted to reproach his colleague for his abstention from the day’s collective ethos but instead expressed rather his own upset towards difference (which would increasingly feel like racism and homophobia looking back in the decades to come):
“Why can Claude have a valid relationship only with this foreign Johanne whom he wants to make even stranger? There are after all “everyday” Québécois women all around him… both on-screen and psychologically. À tout prendre doesn’t succeed in getting close in tenderness and satisfaction to real everyday women. And in that, the hero is like lots of 30-year-old French Canadians, sensitive and cultivated, who have to have women who are black, yellow or red, in any case “foreign,” in order to have their intoxicating affairs. There is here, it seems, an unconscious refusal to coincide with his collective self, at the same time as an unquenchable thirst to perfect oneself in a mythic exteriority that arises from the global situation of our people…”
“… Nothing very surprising that at that point the film seems to claim the right to homosexuality… Nothing very new or very immoral in that. The only question is to know to what extent homosexuality is a solid form of sexual activity and in what manner it has a special state of self-affirmation, given our global context of existence in relation to artistic expression.” (Arcand 1964, 35-37)
Nothing very surprising that few documentarists addressed issues of sexuality in an intellectual atmosphere that allowed such attacks! In this charged context, the singularity of the author of so many films resonating with sensuous hybridities, censorship and autocensorship, corporeal performances and claims to sexual liberation, underground spaces, subtexts and obliquities, is all the more remarkable.