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COLLOQUE REPRENDRE À TOUT PRENDRE > ►Decolonizing race, sexuality, and nation in À tout prendre (par Gregorio Pablo Rodríguez-Arbolay Jr., Université Concordia)

As one the most provocative and once widely respected filmmakers in Québécois cinema, the works of Claude Jutra have visualized the paradoxes and contradictions of narrating a new national identity in modern Québec. With the debut of his first solo feature, À tout prendre (1964), Jutra deployed the progressive cultural politics of modernity, secular nationalism, and anti-colonialism of the Quiet Revolution to illustrate the anxieties of modern Québécois (hetero)sexuality. Through capitalizing upon the nascent secularized shifts in cultural and cinematic codes of the period, Jutra’s À tout prendre not only signaled a new discourse for the cinematic representation of the Quiet and Sexual Revolutions, but also presented one of the first filmic attempts to explore race in Québec.
In the course of this paper, I explore the development of Québécois secular and post-colonial nationalist discourse in Claude Jutra’s À tout prendre. Through investigating the power of these discursive developments in Jutra’s cinematic reflection on modern Québec, we can begin to excavate the fault lines of race and sexuality during the Quiet Revolution. As Thomas Waugh proclaimed in his 1998 Martin Walsh Lecture, “We need to fundamentally rethink the discursive links between sexuality and national identity within our cinemas, for they often testify to the same contradictory mix of excess, disavowal, and mystification that sexuality faces in our culture as a whole” (Waugh 1999: 13). This paper will historicize and critique the development of the secular and anti-colonial discourses on modernity, race, and sexuality in the Québécois national project and cinemas. As a director keenly involved in the cultural politics of the era, Jutra harnessed film as a vehicle to engage with sexual taboos of Quiet Revolution and Québec secular nationalism. In this paper, I will present the diagesis and context of À tout prendre as a bridge to survey these shifting cultural and cinematic codes in sexual (and racial) representation and subjectivity.

National Modernity and Post-Colonial Discourses in Québec

The shifting political and cultural conditions of the Quiet Revolution manifested heavily on the development of modern national cinema in Québec. The secularization of public spheres and censorship boards resulted in the introduction of new themes, ideas, and identities to Québécois screens. As cinematic codes continued to modernize, cultural codes regulating race and sexuality also began to shift in line with secular Québec nationalism and decolonization (Mackenzie 2004: 51). In order to situate the semiotic manifestation of these shifting conditions in À tout prendre, it is imperative to recognize Québec as a settler colony and (post)colonial space. First colonized by French, then by the British, and later suggestively colonized by Anglophone Canada, the question of colonialism emerged once again during the Quiet Revolution.
From early conversations on Négritude and the work of Césaire and Fanon in Parti Pris (1963-1968) to Albert Memmi’s Portrait du colonise (1963) and Pierre Vallière’s Nègres blancs d’Amérique (1968), political and intellectual affinities were formed with (francophone) post-colonial movements in Africa and the Americas as well as US Black Power movements (Mills 2010: 54). Such Québécois nationalist re-articulations of decolonization and civil rights sought to conceptualize the Anglophone economic and cultural control of Québecers as systematic of federalist colonial domination.
This anti-colonial discourse was at the core of the formation of a collective Québécois (national) identity through the propagation of cultural autonomy and pure laine nationalist racial politics (Austin 2010: 25). Considering these re-articulations stemmed from intellectual engagement with decolonizing nations and racialized subjects, Québécois de-colonial nationalism rarely acknowledged it’s own historical and often problematic identification with Black Québecers (Mills 2010: 44). In fact, Québécois nationalism during the sixties often engaged the racialized marginality of Third-World and American Black peoples vis-à-vis colonial and state power as a metaphoric equivalent for Québécois marginality vis-à-vis Canada.
During this period, Québec was also marked by the development of its own nascent feminist, gay, and Black liberation movements. These movements were by and large isolated from one another, but all had to contend with similar questions of marginalization and systematic exclusion from cultural discourses of Québec nationalism. The 1960s in Québec were also marked by the legislation of an autonomous immigration ministry, the first province to afforded this right. This shift allowed for Québec to determine its future citizenry, characterized by the migration of francophone peoples from across the world—setting the framework for the racialization of Johanne’s identity in À tout prendre.

Queering Claude’s Québec

By way of a cultural commentary on Québec, À tout prendre presents a critical entrance into the conversation of race and (post)colonialism within the context of Québec nationalism. At the height of the Quiet Revolution, as cinema became a visualizing project of nation building, Jutra brought Québec directly into modernity. Jutra was conscious of his connection with the post-colonial word, and particularly the newly-decolonized nations of Africa in the 1960s, made evident through his work in the documentary Le Niger (1961) and À l’heure de la decolonisation (1963).
As one of the first Québécois semi-autobiographical feature films to use direct cinema methods, À tout prendre destabilized the traditional demarcations between documentary and fiction. The cultural ethnographic style of direct cinema is predicated upon the production of a self-reflexive engagement between filmmaker and subject in the aim of objective truthfulness (Marshall 2011: 35). At the intersection between memoir and fiction, À tout prendre recasts the past through the actors’ improvised reflection upon their personal experience together. In the employment of this documentary aesthetic in fictionalizing the past, Jutra challenged audiences to reconsider the relationship between ‘truth’ and fiction during the Quiet Revolution (Leach 1999: 67). The recasting of the past through the Claude and Johanne’s performative reproduction of their former sexual relationship presented new modes of disrupting social taboos of race and sexuality in Québec.
Québec film scholar, Scott MacKenzie has identified À tout prendre as the first time in North America that a bed scene was filmed with a white man and a black woman (Mackenzie 2004: 51). The presentation of an interracial sexual relationship was a novel sight on Québécois screens, and served as a vehicle to engage with moral sexual taboos of Quiet Revolution and Québec secular nationalism.

Claude and Johanne in bed, 13:36

During this period, Québecité was envisaged as an androcentric heteronormative project, through re-configuring national sexual hegemony from colonial and parochial emasculation to a new virile francophone white male heterosexuality. Jeffrey Vacante suggests during the Quiet Revolution “whether sex was promoted as a function of « racial » duty or the source of non-reproductive pleasure, heterosexuality has remained stubbornly at the centre of nationalist discourse, as well as of the historical narrative” (Vacante 2005: 34). This compulsory (white) heterocentrism narrates Claude’s presentation as an emblematic figure of the new nationalist man, even despite his racially transgressive (hetero)sexuality.
As the main protagonist and narrator of À tout prendre, Claude is presented as a study of the modern Québécois man. From his subscription to Life Magazine to his habitual dalliances with various women, Claude keenly performs his role as the urban(e) bourgeois intellectual. This ideal persona unravels throughout the course of the film as Claude’s identity becomes increasingly fragmented.

Claude Fragmented in Mirror, 2:59
Claude Fragmented in Mirror, 3:25

From one of the first scenes, Claude dresses in various costumes in front of a mirror, playfully shifting through various masculine stereotypes. This fragmented performance of masculinity literally fractures as Claude shoots his reflection in the mirror with a revolver. This fragmentation of self is semiotically representative of the crisis of identity politics during the Quiet Revolution (Vacante 2005: 33). As discourses of modernity and national sovereignty took hold during the Sixties, re-articulations of Québec national identity were in constant shift with the Sexual Revolution’s disruption of traditional notions of masculinity and heterosexuality.
As Claude and Johanne’s amorous exchanges shifts from gifts to confessions, the pair begin a precarious game of disclosure. From the Catholic Church to the Victorian medical clinic, the act of confession has been historically linked to the moral regulation of sex and sexuality (Waugh 2006: 60). In a À tout prendre, the bed assumes the confessional space in which Claude and Johanne divulge their closely guarded secrets of desire. Their game of disclosure eventually leads Johanne to inquire about Claude’s possible homosexuality.

“Est-ce que tu aimes les garçons?,” 51:00

Claude offers no response to Johanne inquiry, neither confirming nor denying such an accusation. The affirmation of his homosexual desire remains beyond the level of verbal discourse for Claude, as Jutra’s later allusion to a sexual encounter with another man suggests. The audience is provided with little more than an insinuation of homosexual sex, but such an implication spoke volumes during the 1960s. This queer subtext was also quite novel for the period, and pushed against various Canadian civil and censorship laws. After the film’s release, this homosexual implication was critically recognized as an avant-gardist trope rather than a political statement of identity politics (Marshall 2011: 120). The queer subtext of À tout prendre in fact functioned to further unveil and destabilize the heterocentrism of the modern Québécois man.

Johanne’s (De)Colonial Performance

The implication of a queer subtext in À tout prendre extends far beyond a moral provocation, as it serves to allegorically re-articulate Claude’s identity beyond the discursive limits of heterosexist national masculinity. Through the course of the film narrative, Claude’s identity becomes increasingly fragmented beyond his sexual difference alone. Through his sexual interactions with Johanne’s racial difference, Claude’s identity as a white bourgeois subject becomes re-articulated as a dialogue with otherness, also symbolic of the crisis of identity politics during the Quiet Revolution.

“Your fingers are white,” 14:17

As Claude and Johanne explore their corporeal difference, the normalization of Claude’s whiteness becomes exposed vis-à-vis Johanne’s racialized alterity. This elucidation of Claude’s whiteness exposes the implicit nature of his identity as a normative national subject, while also implodes pure laine nationalist logics of citizenship. Before the debut of À tout prendre, Black subjects were virtually absent from Québec cinema, and rarely presented as a member of the national body politic (Austin 2010: 23). In this manner, À tout prendre not only signaled the arrival of a new discourse for the cinematic representation of the nascent Sexual Revolution, it also presented one of the first tentative filmic attempts to explore race in Québec through Jutra’s inclusion of a Black woman as Québécoise.

As a main character in the film, the realization of Johanne’s identity is quite elusive. Claude’s role as narrator of À tout prendre prioritizes the exploration of his identity. For the audience, Johanne’s identity appears even more fragmented than Claude’s by way of the construction of her difference. From her foreign origins to her estranged husband, Johanne’s history is largely obscured. Through her profession as a model, Johanne’s subjectivity remains transfixed in the realm of the visual, adapting her portrayal of self to suit the context and narration of her spectator. In this manner, I propose that Johanne’s elusive performance of self is quite tactical. Through the presentation of a fragmented subjectivity, Johanne can control the masquerade of her identity and capitalize upon her evasive position as the ‘exotic other.’

Johanne singing in Creole, 5:25 – 7:20

Throughout the film, Johanne is framed as this exotic other, the Haitian chanteuse-cum-model. From her introduction at the party where she sings the Creole song, Choucoune, we are directed to not attempt understanding. While it is far from explicit whether her presentation of difference is what attracts Claude’s attention, it is certain that her otherness is central to their romance. As their relationship develops, Claude decides to photograph Johanne on Parc Mont-Royal. The scene is accompanied by non-diegetic music of “African” drums synchronized to Johanne’s movement across the screen. This background music arises repeatedly throughout the film, allowing Johanne to perform her alterity.

Photos on Parc Mont-Royal, 15:40 – 16:45

During this sequence at Parc Mont-Royal, Johanne asserts her abilities as a model to manifest her own representation. This performance is one is which is conscious of Claude as the spectator as Johanne adapts her self to suit his direction and image of her difference.
This particular figuring of Johanne’s difference is one that is fixed within her blackness as Haitian. During their precarious game of disclosure, Johanne breaks her silence and reveals her own closely guarded secret about her origins. Despite the fact that Johanne’s confession proclaims her status as Québécoise, Jim Leach suggests that “as a member of a visible minority, Johanne appears foreign even though she was born in Québec. Johanne’s gender and race do not make her into the exotic other but rather render visible the colonial mechanism that govern cultural life in Québec” (Leach 1999: 86). These colonial mechanisms reveal the conditions which led Johanne to construct her identity outside of the realm of Afro-Québecité. Johanne explains that as an orphan, she was advised by adoption agencies to present herself as Haitian to increase her chances of adoption.
In her work on adoption in the Americas, Karen Dubinsky argues that Black children in Montréal during the 1950s and 1960s were often advised to engage in similar performances (Dubinsky 2010: 40). This program capitalized upon the increased focus on the francophonie during the Quiet Revolution, coupled with an increased desire the exotic other. It must be noted that Black communities have lived in Montréal for centuries, but increased migration from Haiti in the 1960s began to refigure the parameters of Black identity in the city (Austin 2010: 55). Within the Québec national project, English and French black subjects assumed very different roles in francophone nationalism, with the latter’s linguistic and cultural inclusion within the nationalist project.
We can come to a more nuanced understanding of Johanne’s performance of her identity in turning to José Estaban Muñoz’s concept of disidentification. Muñoz argues “disidentification is meant to be descriptive of the survival strategies of the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship” (Munoz 1999: 9). The fiction of identity is re-articulated through Johanne’s disidentificatory performance as Haitian. This presents an example of the strategies marginalized subjects employ to situate themselves in history and seize social agency. Johanne’s performance of blackness capitalized upon colonial notions of race, gender, sexuality and difference to maneuver survival strategies as a subaltern subject. This ontological tactic renders Johanne’s difference as legible and sanitized to secure inclusion within the national body politic.


As an intertextual assemblage of fiction and (personal/national) memoir, À tout prendre reconfigured the past to depict the history of an interracial love affair between Jutra and Johanne Harrelle. This narrative presents the foundation for Jutra’s poignant exploration of the crisis of sex and identity politics during the early Quiet Revolution. The novel portrayal of an interracial relationship and queer sexual subtext in À tout prendre presented a palpable destabilization of Québécois nationalist sexual discourse. Through the rearticulation of Claude’s (white) national and sexual identity vis-à–vis Johanne’s racial difference, À tout prendre highlights the anti-colonial and nationalist tensions of alterity in a modernizing Québec. This juxtaposition of racialized sexual difference and queerness presents À tout prendre as an archive of these discursive tensions and the strategies marginalized subjects employed to situate themselves in history during the Quiet Revolution. As with traditional modes of identification in Québec, the cinematic scope of identity and difference rapidly expanded to afford spaces for discussion of gender and sexuality—yet race often remains outside the parameters of the cinematic imagination. In deconstructing standard histories of this period, I hope we can develop new ground to confront our contemporary challenges of racial and sexual difference from being simply relegated to the position of endnotes.


Austin, David. “Narratives of Power: Historical Mythologies in Contemporary Québec and Canada.” Race & Class 52, no. 1 (July 1, 2010): 19–32.

Leach, Jim. Claude Jutra: Filmmaker. McGill-Queen’s Press, 1999.

MacKenzie, Scott. Screening Québec: Québécois Moving Images, National Identity, and the Public Sphere. Manchester University Press, 2004.

Marshall, Bill. Québec National Cinema. McGill-Queen’s Press, 2001.

Mills, Sean. The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal. McGill-Queen’s Press, 2010.

Vacante, Jeffery. “Writing the History of Sexuality and &National History in Québec.” Journal of Canadian Studies, 39, no. 2 (2005): 31–55.

Waugh, Thomas. « Cinemas, Nations, Masculinities: The Martin Walsh Memorial Lecture, 1998 ». Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 8 (1) 1999. pp. 8-44.

Waugh, Thomas. Romance of Transgression in Canada: Queering Sexualities, Nations, Cinemas. McGill-Queen’s Press, 2006.

Dossier réalisé avec la collaboration de