The emergence of Claude Jutra

JOHN HOFSESS August 1 1973

The emergence of Claude Jutra

JOHN HOFSESS August 1 1973

The emergence of Claude Jutra


The film director as clenched fist against the heavens

At the Cannes Film Festival this spring, it was a Canadian film — Claude Jutra’s Kamouraska — that received what is probably the most distinguished honor. For the first time in 14 years, the Association Française de la Critique de Cinema, a group consisting of France’s most distinguished film critics, chose to sponsor the special showing of a film. Not since Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour the “new wave” sensation in 1959 had any film been so privileged.

By the time of this year’s Canadian Film Awards to be held in Montreal in the fall, Claude Jutra will be famous. He has followed a good film, Mon Oncle Antoine, with a great one (and judging from its long run in Montreal a popular one; the English version of Kamouraska will open shortly).

Jutra’s success looks easy, even inevitable, now that it has occurred, brushing aside the fact that he is 43 and this is the first time a film of his has received extensive regular distribution. (Mon Oncle Antoine sat shelved for nearly a year after it was completed.) Logically Kamouraska should not exist. By all that is reasonable Jutra should have given up years ago in the face of unremitting discouragement and public neglect. If he had, we would now be saying that Claude Jutra was an interesting, peripheral figure in Canadian cinema, one of many minor artists whose reach exceeded their grasp and whose promise was unfulfilled. Happily, Claude Jutra’s story is quite different.

There are people in our prisons who have committed crimes, including murder, for less reason, less frustration and despair than any artist knows in the struggle to earn a living. Why some individuals become antisocial punks and others creative rebels is, I suppose, the difference between lacking backbone and having it. The artist possesses some mysterious indomitability, which in the

long run counts for even more than talent. Criminals forgive themselves shamelessly, they can find an excuse for any excess; the artist is more of a moral being and he drives a harder bargain, from society and himself. He is a clenched fist held against the heavens.

I first met Jutra in 1963 at McMaster University. He was an unknown film maker, painfully shy and thoroughly drunk, trying hard to screw up enough courage to make a few, inarticulate remarks to the assembled group of students, glad to find even 100 people to see his first film A Tout Prendre. The same gifts of temperament and mind which are a necessary strength in creative work are often crippling weaknesses in everyday life; the high-pitched sensitivity can’t be turned off. So while Jutra stammered and sputtered with acute embarrassment before us looking like a man saying to himself, “Please God deliver me from this place, this hot, airless room, these staring faces, this terrible humiliating moment,” his film was clear and lucid. For most people present A Tout Prendre was a pleasant surprise, a good film out of the Canadian nowhere.

For me it was more than that; a lifechanging film that made me aware for the first time that there was, or could be, and someday would be, a Canadian film industry and that Jutra would head the ranks of our best directors.

Late in 1970, hearing that Jutra had completed a new feature I went to Montreal and saw Mon Oncle Antoine in the basement of the National Film Board offices. No one had seen the film, no one wanted to show it. It was five months before some people would discover it at Cannes, nine months before it finally surfaced at the 1971 Canadian Film Awards and became the runaway prizewinner. Jutra still had little more confidence than when I had last seen him. One of his most valued possessions was a note from Jean Cocteau praising him highly for A Tout Prendre. A few life-sustaining words of recognition, something to read over and over, when there was nothing else to sustain his confidence in himself. There was a disturbing hunger in his voice when he asked me if I liked Mon Oncle Antoine. I told him no one could fail to recognize the film’s merits. From his look of surprised relief it was clear he didn’t know the true worth of his work.

“There have been so many years of unproductive darkness,” he said, without finishing the sentence. He smoked frequently and nervously. Later, at his flat, the phone rang several times and the caller annoyed him. “There is this person,” he said after the second interruption, “who keeps calling me. Someone I once knew. . .” His voice trailed off. “And don’t want to see again. What do you do with such people?”

He looked vulnerably, openly, like a man who had had chaos nipping at his heels for a long time. Perhaps wanting to talk, perhaps just as strongly wanting to keep quiet and hidden. His voice quavered, his hands /continued on page 66

JUTRA from page 42 trembled. I noted the careful sexual neutrality of his words: “There is this person . . .” When the phone chimes sounded again he spoke sharply in French and hung up. There were two color photographs on one wall of the sparsely furnished apartment. One of a nude couple, standing, locked in an embrace, backlit with sunlight, taken I recognized in that very room or one identical to it. The other was grubbily realistic. The male en rut and the young woman sprawled wide apparently having just separated from making love. Apart from a wailful of books and records there wasn’t much else to look at in Jutra’s apartment.

There was a tangible loneliness in the place. The kind of feeling one has after seeing A Tout Prendre in which Jutra portrayed himself unflinchingly and unflatteringly in a tense love affair with a black model named Johane. It was not

the kind of loneliness that one pities; it wasn’t some crippling, neurotic block. It seemed more like the hard, ambitious and necessary loneliness of someone who puts introspection to work, at least occasionally. At the time of completing Mon Oncle Antoine, Claude Jutra was an unmarried, unmortgaged, 41-yearold film director who had spent most of his life in down-and-out flats in Montreal. Where other men took wives, had children and accepted a daily round of responsibilities, he did not. Where other men mapped their futures prudently, calculatingly, and tried to make life conform to their ambitions, Jutra unaggressively accepted the future as openended and uncertain; where other men have forsaken many of their youthful enthusiasms and grown to think more like their peers in herded security, Jutra kept alive a perilous, childlike wonder and impressionability. He is, in all

probability, an average man, but step by step he chose a different path, forsaking his family’s three-generation involvement in medicine, and gambling that someday he would make a major film. In most homes if a husband didn’t achieve economic solvency in his career until 41 years of age, and didn’t even know for certain that his career was a justified investment, it would be an intolerable situation. He would be thought of as a moody, eccentric malingerer with pipe dreams and no visible means of support. If Jutra is literally a “bachelor of art” he has to be; choosing solitude over companionship more often than not; choosing purposely short-lived relationships that will leave him free. Choosing — at times — melodramatic liaisons that will give his emotions a thorough workout and keep the artist primed and trained in acute observations about human behavior. To live an continued on page 68

experimental life governed by the motto “I am human, to me nothing human seems strange” is to travel down a road that can lead anywhere. To Nobel Prizes or the madhouse.

There are many people who remain unknown, who didn’t have the artistic gifts they thought they had, or couldn’t organize themselves ánd therefore produced nothing, who lived with similar hopes that someday all their mistakes and weaknesses (the moments in their lives that make their souls cringe) would add up, pay off, be redeemed by something important and beautiful — a play, a novel, film or painting — and who sank into embittered silence and drugged oblivion. Jutra knows that there is a fine line between those who succeed and fail as artists.

“I went into analysis for several years,” he says, “because I needed an intelligent friendship. A place where I could unburden myself of everything, and oh what a load of crap that was. To have someone there who would listen, where I could be understood, and clarify and distill myself. It was a time, you see, when no films were possible, no self-expression. I needed a substitute, a means of release, to replace the films I couldn’t make. A Tout Prendre was a critical success, but not a financial success, no Canadian film was in those days, and no one wanted to back the projects I invented. Besides I was wracked with problems. I was getting old, I hadn’t produced much, I stewed in my juices, getting nowhere. I didn’t feel part of any of the fashionable movements of the Sixties.”

The release of Mon Oncle Antoine was as low-keyed and unpretentious as the film itself; in fact, without constant pressure from critics and National Film Board officials, the film would never have been entered in the festivals where it received awards and public attention. With each recognition — a commendation at Cannes, eight Canadian Film Awards, two first prizes at the Chicago Film Festival, showings in Belgrade, Bergamo, Italy, Teheran, Melbourne, Mexico and other international film festivals — Jutra gained a new confidence and creative vigor. More than a good film Mon Oncle Antoine was a film that many people loved. It became the most popular dramatic feature to be made in Canada, and its success, which earned nothing for Jutra materially, gave him something he needed more than money: the will to create, renewed and refreshed, the discovery of the peak of his powers.

“If you had a choice,” I ask him a few hours before the premiere of Kamouraska (all 2,400 seats at the St.-Denis cinema are already reserved — the phone rings constantly with requests for tickets) “between having a glorious love

affair and making a new film, which isn’t such an odd equation considering the way that passionate love can obliterate discipline, which would you take?” “The film,” he replies unhesitantly. “Love can be sublime but the satisfaction of making an original work of art is incomparable. It involves and challenges more of one’s being. Love is pleasure, work is growth, I would give the greater allegiance to developing myself to the fullest. I think I’ve seen all that love has to offer, but I haven’t yet met the limits of my imagination.” “You seem happy now,” I comment. “I’ve always been happy,” he replies, beaming, “I’m a happy man. Even as an adolescent, I was the happiest person I knew.”

“What happened to the intervening years, the eclipse . . .”

“Oh that,” he says, “well, that was real, and terrible, but even then under-

neath it all I had a strong will to be happy. I had a magnetic north, you might say. What I feel now is a kind of serenity, the knowledge that I can cope. But I will never rule out the possibility that my work will become unfashionable again, I may have trouble finding work, and the walls will close in again. It could happen. After all I’ve chosen to work in a very unstable business.”

“If for some reason you couldn’t make more films, could you accept that?” I ask him. “Could you say, ‘I’ve made some fine films’ and accept silence, and judgment of your work as it stands now?”

“I would die if that happened,” he replies seriously. “Silence is my enemy, my undoing. It isn’t even that I think my best films are ahead of me, because actually I think A Tout Prendre is my best film, the film in which I said it all. It’s just that without films to express myself and communicate with others, I would shrivel up in pain, in a desolate solitude. I don’t need fame or adulation, but I want to belong to others, to be part of something larger than myself. To a large extent I live apart from people so my films are a bridge back to them again.”

Kamouraska is a period film set in 1839. It is apolitical but it couldn’t be made anywhere in Canada except Que-

bec. As much as the success of Mon Oncle Antoine was a restorative to Jutra’s spirits, the vitality and camaraderie of Quebec nationalism is yet another component in his creative character. As with Walt Whitman’s celebration of early American democracy or Sergei Eisenstein’s films about the Russian revolution, Jutra’s political feelings are a sublimated form of eroticism.

Kamouraska is steeped in the night, poetry and music of Quebec, and to see it is to realize what an enviable thing it is to have a passionate identity and be part of a unique society. It’s a film with psychic roots. Its significance is that it will alter the images that Canadians have of themselves — a story of passion, murder, betrayal and cunning — and the image that others have of us. The story is true. Prior to its transformation into a novel by Anne Hébert, it survived as a folk legend in the district of Kamouraska, embellished as it was handed down by each generation of storytellers.

Elisabeth d'Aulniéres, raised in a genteel household of women, her mother and three maiden aunts dressed in corsets of pieties; Elisabeth d’Aulniéres, going mad with normal passion. The new Quebec wresting herself free from the ancient priest-ridden one. She is little more than a child when she marries Antoine Tassy, squire of Kamouraska, a coarse backwoodsman who wouldn’t know poetry from cabbages, a brooding dyspeptic given to long silences and sudden rages, and who insists without a single word of affection or tenderness on his conjugal rights, anytime, anywhere, even when Elisabeth is ill or in advanced pregnancy. Her enslavement is intolerable, she can’t adjust as other women have, stoically bearing a curse. She can’t live with less than the fulfillment of her dream of freedom.

Her husband, with a preordained sense of self-destruction, introduces her to George Nelson, a young doctor in Kamouraska, an American raised in Quebec, a man of compassion and learning, and his visits to Elisabeth become increasingly bold and reckless assignations as they become enthralled with more than love — the thrill of defying society and convention, the excitement of destroying and being destroyed. It becomes their obsession — the test of their love — to kill Antoine, and after a first attempt fails, by a servant girl they have drawn into their conspiracy, Dr. Nelson completes the act, shooting Antoine in the brain and beating his body into a bloodied pulp in the snow.

Elisabeth is free to be her truest self, a monster with velvet gloves. For what she enjoys when the doctor returns from the grim business of taking Antoine’s life is the power she has over him, as brutalizing and demoralizing in its own way as Antoine’s tyranny over her had been.

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She is cold and remote when he reaches for her. She refuses to take flight with him. He departs, bitterly feeling like a fool, a fugitive, having lost everything, cursing, in the English he resorts to when enraged, “this damn woman who has been the ruin of me.”

Elisabeth marries again (after a twomonth light sentence for the suspected complicity in the death of her first husband), an even more prominent man, Jerome Rolland. And in a well-to-do world of rare furs and hand-cut crystal, numerous servants and social prestige, she raises the children of Antoine, the child of George Nelson, and several more by Monsieur Rolland. She is the spirit, the soul of Quebec, "unvanquishable, insatiable, radically innocent and yet treacherous to all who love her. The novel is set in Elisabeth’s mind and written in short, feverish, staccato sentences, weaving all points in her life into a swift current of the stream-of-consciousness technique; the most successful use of the style since James Joyce’s Ulysses. The film is more restrained and

takes an outside, objective view. It is a cold and ironic look at passion, at the price of love. Though the film has virtually no emotions (and has none of the tenderness of Mon Oncle Antoine) it takes hold of one’s mind and heart in other ways.

To prepare for the role of Elisabeth d’Aulnières, Geneviève Bujold listened repeatedly to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps to help set the mood of smothered frenzy that is characteristic of the role. There is no easy way of separating the qualities of her performance here from the way that Michel Brault has photographed her, for it has been many years, perhaps as far back as Garbo in her prime, that any actress has received such loving visual treatment. So tightly fused are the elements in Kamouraska — its script, cinematography, acting and direction are all of award-winning calibre — that it becomes impossible to isolate any one person’s contribution to it. The film leaves one in a state of reverie; shimmering images, the crunch of snow, a bullet in the brain,

the rustle of crisp cotton skirts, the remembrance of things past without nostalgia, a fierce story about love. There is a fullness of life and weight to Kamouraska that no previous Canadian film has possessed.

“I have no idea what I think of the film,” Jutra says, “It’s too close in time. I’m saturated with its working details. We shot at least another hour’s worth of material that had to be cut. Some people said, when they’d seen two hours of it, that they loved it and could watch it forever, but it wasn’t true. Everybody got restless during the longer version.

“I’ve actually reached the point where I’m sick of talking about films, thinking about films, I want a holiday, the first real holiday in over eight years. Just to get away, and unwind, and in a way, become someone new. By the time a film is finished, I’m always tired of the self that made it. It seems like an old skin, to be shed.

“How do artists survive in English Canada?” he asks me.

“It’s only lately I’ve begun to wonder,” I reply. “Being here the last few days makes me feel that something vital is missing from my life. There is something set loose in Quebec. None of us know where it will lead. It is both exhilarating and frightening. If,you take the intensity with which life is lived in English Canada, and then double or triple it, you have Quebec.”

Later that evening at Geneviève Bujold’s home, listening to Offenbach, a Quebec rock group that didn’t sound nearly so good the next day without the assistance of either her charm or the cumulative effects of Dom Perignon, I asked her to comment on why she and Jutra recently refused the Order of Canada offered by the Governor General’s office.

“We didn’t know what it was,” she replies lightly. “Have you ever heard of it? But it sounded ominous. The Order of Canada. We certainly didn’t expect all the fuss that was made about it in newspapers. Let’s skip that subject.”

“What sense does it make to you to be a Quebecker?” I ask, adding, referring to a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing in the room, “I’m asking that as a restive English Canadian who feels deficient in the role of political victim, tired of reading books and seeing films that depict us always as losers and cripples.”

“The word that throws me is ‘sense,’ ” she replies. “I live and work here because Quebec for me, right now, is the centre of the universe. But I’m talking about how it feels. I’m not an economist, I can’t tell you if it makes economic sense for Quebec to be independent. In order to be psychologically well, and in order to feel fully creative, I think people need a strong political identity, a

sense of territory. I don’t even think it’s a question that can be debated, it’s a biological imperative. Quebec would not appear so disruptive to the, shall I say, order of Canada, if the rest of Canada were equally strong and concerned with its future. Really, though, I must beg off from the question because I’m not the person who could do it justice.

“But one thing I disliked recently, very strongly, and I suppose it is a comment on my political position, is the film Sounder. The only person I liked was Taj Mahal, he moves so fantastically. But the story was repulsive to me. ‘No, no I’m not buying this,’ I said to myself, about suffering being ennobling and poverty being beautiful. It was too clear to me that someone could make a film about the Québécois in much the same patronizing way.

“I’ve known Claude for years now, and I’m enormously fond of him, but he still has some growing to do. Kamouraska is a much stronger film than Mon Oncle Antoine. We’ve long wanted to make a film together, and now we’re planning to make another if the financing can be arranged. It’s a very good experience for us to work together, we’ve both had periods of uncertainty and failure in recent years. I feel very close to the character of Elisabeth, I know everything she feels, trapped in a narrow set of choices, none of which are completely right. It is much more of a personal film for Claude to make than it appears to be. You have to know a lot about the lower depths of people, the dark mad side of human nature, to make a film like Kamouraska.”

“People wait for this movie in Quebec as if it were the Messiah,” says Jutra, minutes before the premiere, “I’m afraid there is excessive expectation.” There has been a huge crowd lining two sides of a city block outside the theatre for more than an hour. Radio and television crews conduct interviews in the lobby. The St. Denis is one of the largest theatres left in Canada, yet no theatre would be large enough for this particular film event. It is a rare and invigorating ceremony for a Canadian movie to be born with such enthusiasm. When the film is over, the applause is thunderous, sustained for 15 minutes as Anne Hébert, Michel Brault, Olivette Thibault, Richard Jordan, Suzie Baillargeon, Geneviève Bujold and others from the cast make their appearance. Finally Claude Jutra dashes on stage, embracing and kissing each in turn, uncontainably happy, carried along on a natural high, making his customary few remarks in public. Then he stands back and beams as the auditorium resounds with “Bravos!” However long and circuitous a course it took to be the man that stood there, it was a life which in that moment was redeemed. ■