Jutra was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec as Claude Jutras. His father, Albert Jutras, was a radiologist and a director of the Collège des médecins du Québec. He made the short films Dément du lac Jean-Jeunes and Perpetual Movement (Mouvement perpétuel) before graduating from the Université de Montréal with a degree in medicine, but turned to filmmaking instead of medical practice after completing his degree. He studied theatre in Montréal (1952–53) and wrote his first original Quebec television play (L'Ecole de la peur) in 1953, and a television series, Images en boite, in 1954.
He went to work at the National Film Board of Canada in 1956 where he trained in all facets of filmmaking, although his first film for the NFB, Trio-Brio, was permanently lost when the organization moved its head office from Ottawa to Montreal. As a filmmaker, he dropped the s from his surname, a common Québécois surname, because the Jutra spelling was more distinctive. In 1958 he went to France and Africa to work with noted French filmmaker, Jean Rouch.
Claude Jutra's career in film, in a certain sense, paralleled Quebec cinema itself. Beginning as an amateur at a time when there was no Quebec cinema, he participated in (and sometime led) several of the principal developments in Quebec: traditional documentaries and docudramas at the NFB; the germinal period of direct cinema; the first steps in the early 1960s toward independent film production; and later trend toward large-budget features, such as Kamouraska, a box office failure now revealed to be a major work in the canon of Canadian cinema. Overall, his work had a consistent thematic pattern: young people and the (often traumatic) passage from innocence to knowledge, a theme that has nostalgic overtones.
Jutra was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease in the early 1980s. He was reported missing on November 5, 1986. His body was found in the St. Lawrence River in April 1987, with a note in his pocket reading "Je m'appelle Claude Jutra" ("My name is Claude Jutra"); an autopsy later confirmed drowning as his cause of death.
In 2016, 30 years after Jutra's death, journalist Yves Lever wrote in the book Claude Jutra, biographie and claimed that Jutra was a pederast. Lever said that "one of Jutra's victims was under 14 years old." He also maintained that Jutra's proclivities were known by many people in the industry, "but nobody made a big deal out of it." Lever's allegations were not officially proven, as no victims publicly came forward; however, in the wake of the allegations, Québec Cinéma held an emergency meeting to discuss changing the name of the Prix Jutra.
On February 17, 2016 La Presse published an interview with an alleged victim of Jutra, who requested to remain anonymous, relating sexual contact ranging from embrace to oral sex from the time the victim was 6 to 16. On the same day and based on the information in the same article, the Minister of Culture of QuebecHélène David asked Cinéma Québec to remove the name Jutra from its prizes recognizing cinematic achievements in Quebec, which they did. She also mandated the Commission de toponymie (Quebec Toponymy Commission), a sub-agency of Office québécois de la langue française which reports to the Minister of Culture, to assemble a list of all streets and public places in the province bearing the name Jutra. On the same day, Montreal mayor Denis Coderre announced that the city would remove Jutra's name from streets and parks in its jurisdiction.
Of the controversy, The Globe and Mail wrote: "Few legendary figures have fallen so quickly and so completely. Merely 24 hours after the official publication of the first explosive allegation of child abuse against the Canadian cinematic pioneer, the film industry and governments started scrubbing the name Claude Jutra from every trophy, park and street."
Jutra made his debut as a director with Le dément du lac Jean-Jeunes - it explored themes that remained throughout his work, a nostalgia for childhood, madness, and troubled waters.
His collaboration with Michel Brault began at this early period. Mouvement perpétuel was influenced by Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d'un poète. L'École de la peur (1953) was the first television film made in Quebec. Toward the end of the 1950s, he moved to France, and François Truffaut, who became a friend, asked him to direct Anna la Bonne (1959), a Cocteau scenario. In 1960, Jutra returned to Canada.
Multiple parks and streets later were renamed or scheduled to be renamed after the pederasty controversy in 2016.
Books and thesis
CARRIER-LAFLEUR, Thomas, Une philosophie du « temps à l'état pur ». L'autofiction chez Proust et Jutra, Paris : Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, Québec : Les Presses de l'Université Laval (Zêtêsis : Esthétiques), 2010, 215 p.
GARNEAU, Michèle, « Pour une esthétique du cinéma québécois », Thèse de doctorat en Littérature comparée, option théorie et épistémologie, Montréal, Université de Montréal, 1997.
LEACH, Jim, Claude Jutra filmmaker, Montreal/Kingston/London/Ithaca, McGill-Queen's University Press (Films Studies), 1999, XII-306 p.
BELLEMARE, Denis, « Narcissisme et corps spectatorielle », in Cinémas, vol. nos 1-2, fall 1996, p. 37-54.
BRADY, James, « À tout prendre : fragments du corps spéculaire », in Copie Zéro, Revue de cinéma, no 37 (October 1988), p. 23-26.
MARSOLAIS, Gilles, « À tout prendre », in Lettres et écritures, Revue des Étudiants de la Faculté des Lettres de l'Université de Montréal, vol. I, no 2 (February 1964), p. 35-41.
MARSOLAIS, Gilles, « Au delà du miroir... », in Cinéma : acte et présence, Québec, Éditions Nota bene, 1999, p. 189-203.
WAUGH, Thomas, « Je ne le connais pas tant que ça: Claude Jutra », in Nouvelles « vues » sur le cinéma québécois (on line), no 2, summer-fall 2004.
SIROIS-TRAHAN, Jean-Pierre, « Le devenir-québécois chez Claude Jutra. Autofiction, politique de l'intime et le je comme faux raccords », in Nouvelles « vues » sur le cinéma québécois (on line), no 11, fall 2010.