TUESDAY: My Name is Claude Jutra


Copyright is held by the author.

THE FIRST moving image I ever saw: a white-sailed boat, was it?

An old villager finds my body in April, floating on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence. He tells the police and reporters that he saw my winter boots sticking above the surface of the water. When they pull me ashore and search me, they locate the piece of paper I’ve sealed in a plastic case.

I will try to remember how I got here: on the outskirts of Cap Santé (Cape of Good Health — I could have used your epithet earlier, my friend. Much earlier!) “Poor Claude and his failing memory,” I imagine they said — colleagues, friends, family.

Maybe it’s the cold of the river, or its black depths — all these months, pulled by the current . . . and now, a rising . . . a freedom in light — I’m able to float above it all, and go where I like. What day is it today? April 25th, 1986. How do I know that? To have known so little before, and now to know so much . . . like growing up from childhood, only in reverse. It’s strange.

Then again, so much of my life was bizarre, wasn’t it? Ha! A life in cinema, how could it be otherwise?

As my body floated past Portneuf — the irony of names . . . Newport . . . only an artist would notice these things, I suppose — my thoughts were of childhood. How appropriate that the last part of my long journey should be taken up with memories of Rivière Beaudette, itself along this great seaway? (Then again, I was born with this artistic sensibility, unlike my father, or my mother — who could have been a great artist, Mimi and I always agreed. Mimi is my sister. I’m glad I remember her name again.)

Every summer we stayed at our cottage in Rivière Beaudette, and there we explored the outdoors, put on plays, and learned what the world was about. Maman wanted Mimi to be an actress, but it was never in her blood — as my great friend Michel Brault said at my funeral: “Claude’s blood pumped at twenty-four frames per second.” Sweet Michel. Now, he was a handsome man.

There was an abandoned farmhouse beside our cottage, and we made it our theatre for our pantomimes, recitals, and even our films (when you have an imagination, you don’t need a camera; production costs run much higher when you are older — and a cinéaste — just imagine trying to find producers by telling them, “Not to worry about money, I’ve got my imagination.”) Malgré our filmmaking difficulties, Michel was there, all the way — such beauty, even when his dark hair receded (mine never did), he was so envious of my curly mane. Perhaps this was all for him; I always obsessed over . . . like in my first feature, which he shot, of course . . . I’ll remember its name in a moment . . . there was a black woman, and I played myself . . . something happens . . .

It will come back to me. Easy does it, Claude. I remember my given name. Build on that.

Funny that childhood memories are so strong, in spite of everything. I distinctly remember as I made my way in late March past Deschambault (always hugging the north shore of the Fleuve) where that impressive, new filmmaker comes from . . . now what is his name? Denis . . . something.

What was I saying? I’m sorry. I just get lost. Sometimes, I can’t stand myself.

Our townhouse on Sainte-Famille in Montreal’s Plateau district was always full of artists, because my parents were of the Montreal bourgeoisie . . . Jutras! That was my name. I took away the s. Papa didn’t mind, (“There is only one Claude Jutra,” I told the press.) He forced me to complete my medical studies. I always found them remarkably dull. There were many times where I would be sitting in the laboratory and would think to myself what fools these colleagues of mine are  to be so interested in something as dry and artless as science. But as I put it to Papa, after I had won my first film prize, (I’m not sure which one) “Of course, we all know who the fool was, Papa.” And he replied, “Yes. It was me — for paying your way through school.” And we laughed about it. 

But my parents were supportive. How could they not be, with the regular parade of sculptors, dancers, writers, musicians, and painters who visited us on Sainte-Famille? My father was a doctor, I recall, and privileged — but he loved culture, and he instilled it in me.

I always knew I was destined for greatness.

So then . . . how did I end up here? Wasn’t I cared for? Looked after by loved ones? There must have been an event of some sort.

Perhaps I was murdered . . . by radical Canadian federalists — or by even more radical Quebec nationalists. I don’t think I was that interesting a target. Then again, artists often are. Was my death somehow political?

No. It must have been an accident.

Distinctly, I remember passing Grondines, full of sunshine bouncing off the surface above, heralding spring. The glints of light made me think of my first film — not the one with the scouts I did with Michel when we were young, or the one about skateboards. No . . . something else. A man, myself (the character’s name was Claude, again.) Did I already speak of this? Am I repeating myself? There was a black woman, very lovely, and a love affair, and a revelation that he is gay, (not autobiographical, of course), but especially there was a scene at the end, with a pier, wide shot, sun on the waves, a man, leaping in.

There was an accident I had on my Vespa, on a bridge, (there is a correlation here, I’m sure of it), a truck was driving in front of me, carrying a great many stones, and one fell off. I swerved to avoid it. When I woke up in Hôtel Dieu hospital, (very close to where I grew up), there was the same feeling I had when floating: the world above moving on without me.

Still, I was young then, 30-something, not this 50 . . . something, old cadaver with the mind of a child. In a way, everything I have done in film has been to recapture my youth. I did one about wrestling and another about the young generation of Quebecers in the 1960s. Skateboards, or something.

As I drifted by, children were out to play in the February day snows of Batiscan and Gentilly, (where more impassioned filmmakers named Denis-something will spring from, surely).

My masterpiece, (so they say: the greatest film in Quebec and in Canada), was about a boy child (myself?); set in winter, there was a sled, and a corpse, and an asbestos mine. Why this film should have been honoured above my later works has always baffled me. Maybe it was just the times we lived in. The politicians wanted my work to be more overtly political — more nationalist, for the sovereignty of Quebec. I would have done, but the artist’s inspiration is all. And the artist’s work, like a good Montrachet, gets better with age.

I stopped drinking, and smoking, to try and root out probable causes for my affliction. What affliction? Was it cancer? A tumour pressing against some part of my brain? There was a corpse in my masterpiece, and he probably succumbed from cancer because of the asbestos mine.

Why was I sick?

Patience, Claude. It will come back to you. Remember instead the glory of Trois-Rivières — that great hub of activity, (but no Montreal), where my next film was so well greeted, with a standing ovation in my presence. I shot it there, if I recall. A period piece. Children, of course. Why did the rest of Quebec turn away from it? Probably not political enough.

My, those were turbulent times: the 60s and 70s. That balding fellow who smoked all the time . . . Lévesque! What a great orator. Should have been an actor. How sad we all were after the referendum. Now, if we had our own country, everything would have been different. Culture would have been respected, and preserved, and language too. And we wouldn’t lose so many brilliant minds to Ontario and the United States. Rather than seek a political theme, the critics and pundits would have seen my work for what it was: a penetrating look into human emotion — an attempt to understand, through cinema, why we cannot remain innocent. And if my work made the spectators lose their innocence, that would be a good thing. A sensitive man like me can be trusted with a child’s innocence.

Forget about that part, Claude. It’s too late now. Stay in the present.

Yes, around Trois-Rivières I felt a strong counter-current from the Saint-Maurice. That was my life, I suppose: against the current, always in opposition, and, ultimately, powerless.

Could it have been an aggravated brain infection from my Vespa accident? Recurring concussion?

Drifting by Nicolet, (where they train the police, I recall. Was I ever arrested? Such a craving for drama!), there was an awfully cold undercurrent, maybe from the narrowing of Lac Saint Pierre. Such dread and fear in the depths of January.

I needed a change when I fled from Montreal, but I believe it was more of a running-to . . . Toronto. “Travailler en anglais? Jamais!” I remember saying. Now, there’s a film title that I can remember: Surfacing. Atwood. (Like driftwood? I’ve seen plenty of that. English names are so strange.) The Anglophones didn’t like that film either. It’s true what they say: You can give an artist a thousand compliments; all we remember is the one critique. When I was in Paris, (with Truffault), in Africa (with Jean Rouch), they said I was brilliant. So did Cassavetes and even Renoir. All great men. I remember.

I’m not sure what happened with Montreal. At least Mimi was there for me, at the end. Wasn’t she?  “You’re going to be fine, Claude,” she always said. “It will come back to you.” But I could read the truth in her; poor Mimi, with our mother’s eyes, who always could look straight at me.

I’ve got to stop trying too hard to recall. Let the current do the work.

Toronto brought me an income, and I could still make a living as a filmmaker. At the time, that’s all I cared about. Though I think it was in Toronto where I experienced my first loss for words: I couldn’t remember the word “screenplay” in English, or (scénario) in French. And when I did remember, or thought I had, I couldn’t put the word onto my lips. It was a rare enough occurrence — trying to form the word in my mind, and in my mouth, but failing — so I forgot all about it.

At Sorel-Tracy, I began to enter the lake. The waters warmed, a touch. It felt like coming home.

After heading back along the 401 to Montreal, I dove right back into film work. Nothing was ever as well received as my earlier films, (like the short, with Norman, about me and the chair, or the one about the girl Anna, written by Cocteau,) but it was a steady stream of work — another metaphor. Ha!

It was around then, (1980?) that I started to forget. There had always been little moments of forgetfulness, (Where are my car keys? Why didn’t I pack a bathing suit?) But then there were bigger blunders, like parking my car at the NFB and completely forgetting where; my co-workers regularly had to help find it. Or when I forgot it was my birthday, (which I still can’t remember — spring, I think). The essentials weren’t a problem: bathing, feeding myself, feeding my three cats, (each with different types of food), and writing and creating every day. Though remembering certain words began to fail me with greater regularity. I would chastise myself: “Claude, how can you forget UCLA? You taught film there.” I felt stupid, but knew that I wasn’t.

Christmas was always a happy time, though it was hard not to feel gloomy as the river pulled me past Lanoraie; I knew people were celebrating above, with all the wondrous childhood joys and predicaments so conducive to a . . . screenplay, like in my masterpiece. Mimi and . . . my brother and I couldn’t wait for Christmas Eve: a night of goodies and gifts, and in the morning, the new-fallen snow over the tranquil city streets of Montreal, with Mount Royal itself looking like an enormous snow fort, and tobogganing down its treacherous slopes for hours.

So much cinema — like the first moving image I ever saw: my aunt’s film of her travels. What was the image again? A sailboat, yes, but I can’t quite picture it. Un coup de foudre! I was hooked: a simple fish. Jim Morrison said something of the sort to me when I was with him in Los Angeles. What a gorgeous man. How his music and words have traveled with me. Perhaps this is the end, my beautiful friend. I wish we could have . . . it doesn’t matter. Let it roll.

Moving backwards, (it’s a retrograde journey, remembrance), I reached Lavaltrie in early December, where the push from the Lachine rapids finally let up.

The turmoil of my illness had been too much, so Mimi moved into our duplex on Laval Street to take care of me. Little did she know that I had been journaling my mind’s progressive decay. Little did anyone know! Hopefully they will say that Claude’s final film — that of his life — is a work of genius — his best since . . .

Saul came in from Toronto to visit me. Lovely Saul. How we rejoiced in watching films together. Especially comedies. Chaplin was our favourite, The Great Dictator —when he would curse in German while frantically trying to pull a pen out of a … what do you call it? Superb. Saul said I should see a brain specialist, and Mimi agreed. If only they knew how much I knew. You can’t have a medical degree without having some understanding of . . .

Early-onset Alzheimer’s! That’s it.

Then that was the reason. My reason . . . for . . . getting here . . . in the river?

Oh, Mimi. How many times a day did I call you? Wherever you were. Wherever I was. Whenever I got lost — in our own neighbourhood, around Carré Saint-Louis. Always so understanding. Even when Papa forced me into science and Maman put you up on stage; I was so envious, and told you so, and yet you never showed me anything but compassion — especially as my mind went black. It was too easy for me to be terrified. It made me hate myself even more. Once, I was a brave artist.

Who was that actress who also cared for me, even moving into the upstairs apartment on Laval? Did I make a movie with her? I feel it was my last. It was something about children escaping an institution, and creating an imaginary world for themselves. I was to play their adult confidant, a child at heart. I loved working with children. Their innocence, so captivating . . .

I couldn’t remember my lines. It was humiliating. The tears flowed like torrents.

The waters sped by so quickly through late November. I passed Saint-Sulpice, and before that Repentigny, and before that Charlemagne, where my course turned due-north, a last turn away from my island home in the rushing night. My final moments with Montreal were along the Port: all the immense tanker ships sitting high above me, and the hum of cars racing home through the Lafontaine tunnel below. It was cold, and dark, though I had already lost consciousness . . . on impact.

“Make a splash!” as the English say. All I ever wanted: to have an impact on the audience — to make them think, to make a little difference in their lives, through film.

Will my story be lost? That is my greatest fear.

My daily terrors had grown unbearable: I could barely recognize anything or anyone anymore. Which is why I collected all my materials for archives . . . in the months leading up to . . . ? 

With the help of Saul and Mimi, and I left notes behind, with instructions on feeding the cats, but also so as to unburden my family and friends — I know I have been difficult to care for. I have wept in the dark, and have wanted to escape from family functions and award ceremonies, since anyone asking me a question was a threat, and every place became unfamiliar and horrific. In early November, I stopped eating. I was like an abandoned child, always wanting to go home, even when I was home.

My Vespa accident was on the Jacques Cartier Bridge. I remember.

Then that must have been the reason: to unburden those I love. And those young men — boys — I’ve betrayed.

I loved them all. Truly, I did.

But my greatest love of all: the cinema. They will name the Quebec film awards after me, and parks, and prizes.

Then, they will take it all away, erase my name, as I’ve had my mind erased.

Well deserved, Claude. You did this to those boys.

That night I left the apartment on Laval. It was cold. I walked through Carré Saint-Louis over to Saint-Denis, (the street my father grew up on), then down the hill to Ontario, left turn, and east to Papineau. The bridge was just a short walk from there.

I walked with the flow of traffic, and made my way across, facing west — facing this great city of mine that I love, but — like a lover — brought as much pain as joy.

I reached the middle of the span, and looked down at the swirling, black waters. 

I took out the little, plastic case I had secured to my belt. By the streetlight of the bridge, I could read what I had written on the slip of paper: “Je m’appelle Claude Jutra.”

No, Montreal hadn’t betrayed me. And life hadn’t turned away from me either. I had done all of that to myself. To them.

And now, I’m left with this: my only purpose, in love and in life, now lost to me, was the moving image — the white sail, flickering above the waves.

  1. This story will stay with me for a very long time as being possibly the weirdest I have ever read after Alice in Wonderland. I am still shaking my head, wondering how anyone could possibly come up with this idea, stamp all over my credulity yet still leave me reading to the end — twice.

  2. Wow! A new insight!

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