As film academies and government officials scrambled to rename movie prizes and Quebec streets this week, I thought it might be time to reacquaint myself with the reason they had recognized Claude Jutra in the first place. So, I went to the National Film Board’s website and began streaming the Quebec director’s masterpiece, Mon oncle Antoine.
The film, told largely from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy who works in his uncle’s general store and funeral parlour in an asbestos mining town, is widely considered one of the best Canadian films ever made. Created in 1971 but set 25 years earlier, it offered a nostalgic yet ominous depiction of rural Quebec in the Duplessis era. It used a cast full of characters seeking escape and a dark tale of a boy’s corpse lost off the undertaker’s wagon to foreshadow both the asbestos miner’s strike of 1949 and the Quiet Revolution itself. It was both a love letter and a reproach sent from a new generation back to an old one.
But would we view it any differently now, after we have been presented with allegations that Jutra was well known in the film industry at the time for having sex with teenage boys, some of whom may have been under the age of consent, and had routinely molested a friend’s child from the age of six? How should we consider this film now that we know that the cultured, liberal Quebec of the 1970s was apparently just as good at protecting powerful predators and keeping dirty secrets as it had been back in the bad old days of Oncle Antoine?
Paradoxically, in this new context, the thing that emerges most powerfully from Mon oncle Antoine is how deeply sympathetic it is to children – not only to Benoît, the protagonist who encounters both sex and death in the course of a momentous Christmas Eve, but also to young Carmen, the pubescent shop girl forced to hand over her pay packet to an absent father, and to the children of the Poulin family, watching as their lonely mother grieves the death of their older brother. Jutra’s camera focuses on their faces as they follow the adult world with eyes both eager and wary, noting the old man in the coffin from the back of the room or spying on a half-naked woman from behind a door. There is nothing predatory about that camera, and viewing Mon oncle Antoine, I did not find myself reading in creepy motivations with hindsight (even though Jutra himself appears as the store clerk) but instead forgetting about this week’s revelations altogether.
How much nicer to reflect on an enduring classic than to think about what Jutra was doing on the set of a movie where, according to a new biography published Tuesday by journalist Yves Lever, one of those young cast members was his “official” lover. It’s not like we haven’t been here many times before – does Wagner’s anti-Semitism taint his music? Are the movies of Roman Polanski more important than his rape of a 13-year-old girl? – but rarely has a cultural hero been so swiftly pulled from his pedestal after a revelation of appalling behaviour.
Within a day of Lever’s allegations, and their bolstering by a victim interviewed by La Presse who claimed he had been molested repeatedly by the director when he was a young boy, Quebec Culture Minister Hélène David was getting officials to compile a list of streets in the province named for Jutra, while Québec Cinéma had announced it would rename both its annual awards gala and the prizes it hands out there before next month’s ceremony.
“You can’t defend the indefensible,” Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said as he announced that a city street and park would be renamed. It’s a refreshingly forthright approach in the kind of case that usually gets bogged down in unending social debate – and a decision made much easier by the absence of Jutra himself, who drowned in the St. Lawrence in 1986 after he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Because Jutra is dead, Lever and all media can be much less circumspect in discussing the accusations against him, and society can more rapidly reassure his victims they will be believed. There’s no reason great artists should get a free pass on bad behaviour, even if some – powerful people that they are – seem to behave as though the rules simply don’t apply to them. Still, one of the problems with a celebrity culture is that it tends to permanently confuse the art and the artist, elevating the person rather than celebrating the achievement and awarding fame that extends far beyond the public knowledge of the artist’s work. And so, when it emerges the hero has feet of clay and the statue tumbles, down comes the art, too.
As Quebec begins, quite rightly, to erase Jutra from public memorials, here’s hoping it won’t forget Mon oncle Antoine.Report Typo/Error