Claude Jutra (born Jutras), director, writer, actor, editor, cinematographer (born 11 March 1930 in Montréal, QC; died 5 November 1986 in Montréal). One of Canada’s most revered filmmakers, Claude Jutra was a central figure in the development of direct cinema in Québec and directed two films of tremendous significance: the autobiographical À tout prendre (1963); and Mon oncle Antoine (1970), which is widely regarded as the greatest Canadian film ever made. He won numerous Canadian and international awards, the Prix Victor-Morin and the Prix Albert-Tessier. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of the Quiet Revolution by the Government of Québec for his contributions to Québec culture during the 1960s. He took his own life in 1986 after living for several years with Alzheimer’s disease.

Early Years

The son of a radiologist and a well-known patron of the arts, Jutra grew up in an upper middle class family in Montréal and first became entranced by cinema at age eight. He graduated from high school at 16, and for his birthday that year his father gave him a 16mm film camera. At a summer camp in 1947 he met Michel Brault, who helped Jutra make his first short film, Dément du lac Jean-Jeunes (1948). Together they also produced an experimental short directed by Jutra, Mouvement perpétuel… (1949), which earned a Canadian Film Award for Best Amateur Film in 1950 and attracted the attention of one of the jurors of the award, National Film Board (NFB) animator Norman McLaren.

Early Career

Jutra graduated with a degree in medicine from the Université de Montréal in 1952, but never practiced as a doctor. At McLaren’s invitation, he began working as a freelancer at the NFB’s predominately anglophone head office in Ottawa, a climate he later described as one of “colonialist incomprehension.” His first film made there, an experimental animated short called Trio-Brio (1953), was reportedly lost when the NFB moved from Ottawa to Montréal in 1956.

In 1953, Jutra studied at the school of the Theatre du Nouveau Monde and acted in Radio-Canada television programs. He wrote L’école de la peur (1953), the first television play broadcast on Radio-Canada, and wrote and hosted Images en boîte (1954), a series of 13 half-hour episodes about film history. After working as an assistant director on Stanley Jackson’s To Serve the Mind (1955), he directed two NFB short documentaries about music in Québec: Jeunesses musicales (1956), about the Jeunesses musicales du Canada; and Chantons maintenant (1956), which profiled such contemporary French Canadian musicians as Félix Leclerc, Lionel Daunais, Anna Malenfant, Dominique Michel and Pierre Beaudet. He then collaborated with McLaren on the endearing and influential short A Chairy Tale (1957), an allegory of cooperation, compassion and respect that received numerous international awards, including a special BAFTA Award and an Academy Award nomination.

Jutra’s first feature-length fiction film, written and produced by Fernand Dansereau and shot by Brault, was Les Mains nettes (1958), a drama about white-collar workers attempting to form a union. Originally presented as four 30-minute episodes in the Panoramique television series, it was later edited into a 75-minute feature. He then directed two half-hour documentaries in the Profils et paysages series on significant figures in Québec culture: Felix Leclerc, troubadour (1958) and Fred Barry, comédien (1958). In both films, Jutra demonstrated an affinity for the work of French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch, challenging and subverting the conventional documentary approach of the day by self-consciously addressing the “lie” — as Leclerc refers to it in his film — of documentary filmmaking.

Rouch and Truffaut

In 1959, with the aid of a Canada Council grant, Jutra left for Europe, where he struck up friendships with Rouch and director François Truffaut, who produced Jutra’s short film Anna la bonne (1959), a mix of documentary and fiction that was based on a poem by Jean Cocteau. Jutra then travelled through Central Africa with Rouch and shot a documentary about the people of Niger, an experience he chronicled in a lengthy three-part article, “En courant derrière Rouch,” published in the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma in 1960. The documentary, Le Niger, jeune république, Jutra’s first full foray into direct cinema, was completed at the NFB and released in 1961.

Direct Cinema and the Quiet Revolution

Following his return to Montréal, Jutra became part of a group of young Québécois filmmakers at the NFB — which also included Michel Brault, Pierre Perrault, Gilles Carle, Marcel Carrier, Claude Fournier and Gilles Groulx — that revolutionized the practical, ethical and artistic approach to documentary filmmaking while capturing the burgeoning identity of Québec’s Quiet Revolution. He contributed cinematography and editing to one of the central films in the direct cinema movement in Quebec, La Lutte (1961), an amusing film about wrestling that he co-directed with Brault, Carrière and Fournier. He was also a co-cinematographer on Gilles Groulx’s Golden Gloves (1961) and Hubert Aquin’s À Saint-Henri le cinq septembre (1962). He co-directed Québec U.S.A. ou l'invasion pacifique (1962) with Brault, and wrote and edited Brault’s Les Enfants du silence (1962), a touching documentary about deaf children.

À tout prendre and the 1960s

Jutra then directed his first full-length feature outside the NFB, À tout prendre (1963), which was financed independently on a $60,000 budget. An attempt to apply the approach and aesthetics of direct cinema to a fiction film, À tout prendre was described by Jutra as a “re-happening” of events from his life, made “in the manner of Rouch.” A New Wave-style autobiography in fictional guise, À tout prendre broached such subjects as interracial love, homosexuality and bohemian life, and along with Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac (1964), launched the new Québec cinema. The film earned critical praise in the US and Europe, and was admired by such filmmakers as John Cassavetes, Jean Renoir and Bernardo Bertolucci. (The film’s ending, in which Jutra’s character walks off a pier into a river and presumably drowns, eerily foreshadowed his death.)

Saddled with debt following the release of À tout prendre, Jutra meandered from one project to the next for much of the 1960s. He directed a number of films for the NFB, most notably Rouli-roulant/The Devil’s Toy (1966), a delightfully cheeky mock documentary about the evils of skateboarding that functions as a treatise on the adult world’s intolerance of youth; and Comment savoir (1966), an award-winning documentary about education.

After teaching screenwriting for a year at UCLA, he returned to Québec and contributed, along with Denys Arcand, Gérald Godin and Marcel Dubé, to the screenplay for Brault’s debut dramatic feature, Entre la mer et l’eau douce (1967), and acted in Gilles Carle’s Le viol d'une jeune fille douce (1968). In 1969 he directed Wow, an experimental documentary about the lives and dreams of nine teenagers.

Mon oncle Antoine and the early 1970s

Jutra then directed Mon oncle Antoine (1971), based on Clément Perron’s autobiographical script about a young man approaching adulthood in a small mining town in pre-Quiet Revolution Québec. The film won acclaim in the US, the UK and France, and was a box-office success in English Canada, although it was met with mixed reviews in Québec, where it was criticized by some for lacking an overt political message so soon after the October Crisis. It went on to win over 20 international prizes and eight Canadian Film Awards, including Best Feature Film and Best Direction.

Jutra’s next film, Kamouraska (1973), was a Canada-France co-production and, at the time, the most expensive Canadian film ever made. Based on the novel by Anne Hébert, the lavish period piece starring Geneviève Bujold was re-cut by its French producers, and was a commercial and critical failure. Jutra followed this disappointment with Pour le meilleur et pour le pire (1975), a comedy about marriage that was also poorly received. Jutra then retreated from the spotlight, and taught theatre and acting for a year at Cégep Lionel-Groulx in Ste-Thérèse, QC.

Career in English Canada

A self-avowed separatist, Jutra refused an offer to be named to the Order of Canada in 1972, stating that he did not believe in a bilingual or united Canada and expressing his concern for “the survival of Québec.” He was also among a group of Québec filmmakers that boycotted the 1973 Canadian Film Awards, claiming that French and English culture in Canada did not belong “under one roof.”

However, due to the difficulty of securing funding for his projects in Québec (he once asked an interviewer, “If I’m so great, why am I having problems financing my next film?”), in subsequent years he worked extensively in English Canada. His various English dramas for the CBC — the TV movie Dreamspeaker (1977), starring a young Ian Tracey; Ada (1977) and Seer Was Here (1978), two hour-long dramas produced as part of CBC’s For the Record series; and The Wordsmith (1979), from a script by Mordecai Richler — rank among the best Canadian films made for television.

He returned to feature filmmaking with Surfacing (1980), an adaptation of the novel by Margaret Atwood, which was a critical and commercial failure. However, Jutra’s enthusiasm, sensitivity and irony showed through in his next film, the Vancouver-shot By Design (1981), a humorous portrayal of a lesbian couple attempting to become parents.

Later Career and Alzheimer’s Disease

In the early 1980s, Jutra was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. He continued to work steadily, releasing a 173-minute director’s cut of Kamouraska in 1983 and returning to Québec to direct the nightmarish La Dame en couleurs (1984), about a group of orphans that constructs a secret society while living in a mental hospital in the 1940s. He also appeared in several small supporting roles — his last was as a doctor delivering an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to a patient in Paule Baillargeon’s Sonia (1986).

Death

In one of his last interviews, Jutra said, “I’m a perpetual child. But more and more I see something black in my life.” After suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s for several years, he disappeared on 5 November 1986. At his home were several notes that referred to a “decision” and a “departure.” On 19 April 1987, after months of mystery and public speculation, his body was found in the St Lawrence River at Cap-Santé, near Québec City. In a compartment on his belt was a piece of paper, on which he had written, “Je m’appelle Claude Jutra.”

Legacy

Jutra occupies a major place in Québec cinema, as much for the originality of his work as for his fate. After Jutra’s death, Michel Brault remarked, “I learned everything from Claude. It was Claude who was the genius. I was just following.” Globe and Mail film critic Jay Scott called Jutra “one of the enduring monuments of Canadian film history.”

Several locations in Québec and Canada, as well as prizes and scholarships, have been named in Jutra’s honour. In 1987, a theatre at the Cinémathèque Québécoise was named in after him, as was a park on Rue Prince-Arthur in Montréal in 1997.

In 1993, the Directors Guild of Canada created the Claude Jutra Award, which is presented at the Genie Awards (now the Canadian Screen Awards) in recognition of outstanding achievement by a first-time feature filmmaker. In 1999, a group of Québec producers led by Roger Frappier created the Prix Jutra to celebrate the best of Québec cinema and protest what they saw as the English Canadian emphasis of the Genies.

In 2000, Mon oncle Antoine was named a Masterwork by the AV Preservation Trust. It consistently tops lists of the top Canadian films of all time. In 2002, the NFB released Paule Baillargeon’s Gemini Award-winning documentary Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story, which recounts Jutra’s life and career, and features interviews with such friends and colleagues as Bernardo Bertolucci, Michel Brault, Geneviève Bujold and Saul Rubinek.

See also: The Cinema of Québec.

Awards

Amateur (Movement perpétual), Canadian Film Awards (1950)

Special Award (A Chairy Tale), BAFTA Awards (1958)

Arts and Experimental (A Chairy Tale), Canadian Film Awards (1958)

Best Canadian Film (À tout prendre), Montréal Film Festival (1963)

Feature Film (À tout prendre), Canadian Film Awards (1964)

Best Cultural and Educational Film (Comment savoir), Venice Film Festival (1966)

Direction – Feature (Mon oncle Antoine), Canadian Film Awards (1971)

Feature Film (Mon oncle Antoine), Canadian Film Awards (1971)

Best Feature (Mon oncle Antoine), Chicago International Film Festival (1971)

Prix Victor-Morin, Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste (1972)

Direction – Non-Feature (Dreamspeaker), Canadian Film Awards (1977)

Prix Albert-Tessier, Government of Québec (1984)

Medal of the Quiet Revolution, Government of Québec (2011)