Robert Fulford's column about Claude Jutra

(The National Post, January 4, 2000)

Claude Jutra, probably the most talented of all Canadian film directors, wasted much of his energy and spirit in a failed attempt to satisfy the demands of Quebec nationalism. Those who have always suspected that this was the case will find confirmation in Claude Jutra: Filmmaker (McGill-Queen's University Press), by Jim Leach of Brock University, the first book-length study of his work.

Leach has a melancholy story to tell, about the effect of rigid nationalism on subtle talent and the anxious conformity that can afflict even high-spirited individualists. Jutra, who committed suicide in 1986, was a separatist. He believed that Quebec artists were crippled by their status within Confederation and would flourish in the independent Quebec of the future. In Jutra's circle it was considered eccentric or craven to think otherwise, though holding this view required writing off the evidence of history. Culture in Jutra's generation was in fact developed by federal institutions, Radio-Canada and the National Film Board. Ottawa always showed far more interest in supporting Quebec culture than any Quebec government demonstrated. Separatist rhetoric simply brushes aside this uncomfortable reality.

Separatism may have been an occasional inspiration for Jutra, but it was mainly a trap. It distorted his career by placing demands on him that he couldn't fulfill. Jim Leach opens up this vexed subject by writing that though the media reported that Jutra had committed suicide when he realized that Alzheimer's disease was destroying him, "this explanation did not completely allay suspicions that he had been worn down by the constant struggle to make films in an unsupporting cultural climate."

For Leach, death was apparently caused by a cultural disorder as well as a medical condition. That's a dubious position. But if the tensions in Canadian culture didn't kill Jutra, they certainly helped wreck his career.

While people elsewhere saw his best work as a rich expression of Quebec life, separatists thought it wasn't separatist enough. Quebec critics saw flaws even in Mon oncle Antoine, his subtle and touching masterpiece about the asbestos-producing town of Thetford Mines. Mon oncle Antoine was nationalist (it caricatured the English mine owner, for instance) but it was also nostalgic for the narrow-minded 1940s Quebec that nationalists wanted to forget.

Separatists disliked his next movie, Kamouraska, even more. They considered it a Hollywood-style historical epic, alien to Quebec. That film failed, and so did a comedy, For Better or for Worse, that followed it. So Jutra, a commercial failure as well as a suspect character among nationalists, ran out of work in Montreal. He then did the unthinkable.

He sought directing assignments in Toronto. In English.

Soon he occupied (as Martin Knelman put it) "the embarrassing position of being English Canada's favourite Quebec filmmaker." Leach finds it hard to describe what followed, because he wants to admire every Jutra film. In truth, however, the Toronto work ranged from not-too-bad (Ada, a TV film based on a Margaret Gibson story) to painfully unwatchable (Surfacing, his misbegotten version of the Atwood novel). In English he made one feature that a few people admired, By Design, about two lesbians trying to conceive a child. It has delightful moments, despite a wretchedly uneven tone.

Leach has written a critical study rather than a life of Jutra, but he provides just enough biography to make us realize how inadequately he's handled it. He briefly describes Jutra's youth as a prodigy (he took a medical degree at age 21, just to please his parents, but never practiced), his National Film Board apprenticeship, and his homosexuality. But he seems not to have bothered interviewing anyone who could have testified to Jutra's life; this may be one reason why there's little about his sense of humour, a crucial aspect of his personality and his work. Even on printed sources, Leach hasn't been resourceful. He unaccountably ignores "What's Wrong with Claude?," Ann Charney's powerful Saturday Night article on Jutra's death and the events leading up to it, reprinted in her 1995 collection, Defiance in Their Eyes.

Leach is more interested in telling us that Jutra's films express "the crisis of masculinity" caused by "the emasculation of Quebec society." He cites a protagonist in For Better or for Worse whose work in an ad agency is subject to the whims of superiors in Toronto, Ottawa and New York.

People all over the world feel their work is mishandled by bosses, often distant bosses. Leach turns this universal complaint into an expression of Quebec's impotence in Confederation, an unconvincing argument.

In the late 1970s, Jutra discovered that his once-brilliant memory was deteriorating. As it grew worse over the next few years, he retreated from friends and work. In the summer of 1986 a doctor diagnosed Alzheimer's.

By then, as his journal shows, Jutra's inner life had become torture. On Nov. 5, after organizing his affairs (even to leaving notes about which of his cats liked which kind of cat food), he jumped into the St. Lawrence River -- precisely what his autobiographical hero, Claude, does at the end of À tout prendre (All Things Considered), the feature that made his name in 1963. Ann Charney wrote: "His final, dramatic act ... flouted fate and stayed its course. Unwilling to accept the ending life imposed, he created his own."

As long as people care about movies, Mon oncle Antoine will remain a major event in Canadian cultural history. On two occasions, critics have voted it the best Canadian movie ever made. But that wouldn't have pleased Jutra. In his eyes, it wasn't Canadian at all. "I am a Quebec director," he told a journalist in 1971. "It is a Quebec film." Well, no, actually.

It was made at the Film Board with the money of the Canadian taxpayers, by people who were all citizens of Canada. What could be clearer? But it is the habit of French-Canadian nationalism to obscure all that it touches, as Jutra's own story so sadly demonstrates.

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