Claude Jutra (1930-1986) — Pioneer: Cineaste directed masterpiece

Director Claude Jutra is best known for Mon oncle Antoine (1971), considered by many critics as the greatest Canadian film ever made.

The career of this gifted cineaste – as a writer, editor, cinematographer, actor and director – virtually mirrors the growth of Quebec cinema over some four decades, until his premature death at 56 years of age in 1986.

Jutra began filmmaking when Quebec cinema was in its seminal stage in the ’50s. He was one of the leaders in major cinematic developments, from the emergence of docudramas at the National Film Board through a period of filmmaking known as ‘direct cinema.’

In the early ’60s, he was instrumental in the movement toward independent feature production, influencing NFB executives such as fellow Hall inductee Michael Spencer to break with tradition and create a fund for independently produced pictures. Jutra was also one of the trendsetters toward industrialization and larger-budget features, including Ka­mouraska (1973).

Having first trained as a physician, Jutra started at the NFB, where he acted in A Chairy Tale (1957), which he codirected with animation legend Norman McLaren. (This delightful short film is part of the NFB’s recent DVD compilation of McLaren’s body of work.)

In 1958, he ventured to France, where he was taken under the wing of cinema legends François Truffaut and Jean Rouch.

Having returned to Quebec, Jutra first gained recognition as a director with his feature debut, ¿ tout prendre (1963), the tale of a young man (played by Jutra himself) who is coming of age and ends his relationship with a beautiful Haitian model, revealing that he’s gay. The free-spirited, fluid style of this deeply autobiographical film led many to compare it to films of the French New Wave.

Yet it was his 1971 coming-of-age film Mon oncle Antoine for which he is best remembered. It is a poignant period film about a 15-year-old boy in a Quebec mining town in the ’40s, revealing what life was like for pre-Quiet Revolution Quebeckers.

Jutra’s own life had a very dramatic ending. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he simply disappeared in 1986, his body washing up on the shore of the St. Laurence Seaway. Yet his cinematic influence lives on.

Montreal film scholar and author Thomas Waugh writes in his 2006 book The Romance of Transgression in Canada: ‘Jutra film stills grace the covers of no less than four major textbooks on Canadian film, and Mon oncle Antoine remains firmly entrenched as number one on the all-time Canadian 10-best list.’

In 1993, the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television launched the Claude Jutra Award at the Genies (for best director of a first feature), and 1999 saw the launch of Les Prix Jutra, Quebec’s own awards for the province’s best films.