Jean-Claude Lauzon

Quebecois director Jean-Claude Lauzon once said, “I always need to be in motion. Whether I’m riding my Harley South or flying my airplane North, it’s the only place I don’t feel anxiety.” With his untimely death early last month, it’s fitting that his passing came within the only place he felt happy; the womb-like confides of his plane. Lauzon was a man of extremes, and whether he was burrowing himself deep into a new project, or flying high above his detractors, he never failed to stir up controversy. Of course, for a man who threw away the 1992 Cannes film festival’s Palme d’or just so that he could lewdly rifle festival juror Jamie Lee Curtis, this comes as no surprise.

Born in 1953 on St-Dominique Street in Montreal, Lauzon’s childhood was a rowboat awash in a sea of madness, driven by winds of psychosis. As echoed in his autobiographical masterwork Léolo, Lauzon’s boyhood years were not kind; nearly all of his family - with exception of his mother - were institutionalized at one point or another. Lauzon himself escaped a life of petty street crime only through the intervention of Andre Petrowski, then the head of the NFB’s French film distribution. It is to him that Léolo is dedicated, and rightly so, for Petrowski was the man responsible for guiding Lauzon out of the gutter of his youth and into filmmaking.

The consummation of this guidance was Lauzon’s 1986 feature film debut Un Zoo, La Nuit (Night Zoo), a searing depiction of violent crime, street life, corrupt cops and the loss of the lead character’s father, another point which figured strongly in Lauzon’s personal life. Zoo went on to garner 13 Genie awards and standing ovations at its debut at Cannes, which thrust an unguarded Lauzon in front of a hungry press. He came out punching.

“You can’t imagine what it was like to be suddenly sitting in a press conference with journalists from all over the world,” accounted Lauzon in Saturday Night magazine. “Someone asked me what my sexual orientation was, and I said the first thing that came to my mind. ‘When I have a hard on I’ll fuck anything’, I said, ‘even a telephone pole. I’’d fuck a beaver.’”

His unrestrained public persona created a media frenzy. Here was a Canadian director, with an already controversial film, playing the insolent, self-destructive bad seed. Lauzon’s arrogant histrionics made for great copy, and the press ate it up.

After the furor over Un Zoo, La Nuit died down, Lauzon went on to write the script for Léolo, a film in which he plundered the pained memories of his childhood for inspiration. Following the descent of a young boy, surrounded by madness, into the maelstrom of insanity, Léolo is at once poetic, crude, beautiful and grotesque. Easily one of the best Canadian movies ever, this profoundly tragic film went on to nearly snatch the best film award at 1992’s Genie awards from the eventual winner, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. Lauzon settled instead for three awards in costume design, editing and writing, but the back to back successes of his two films seemed to portent a brilliant career.

Unfortunately, Lauzon was flummoxed by an industry that attempted to guide his talents into Hollywood movie making, and instead squandered his talents directing TV commercials for a steady pay cheque. When offered the chance to direct a Gene Hackman thriller by Norman Jewison, Lauzon scathingly replied, “I don’t want to make a little piece of shit to be able to make a big pile of shit.” It was this unswerving dedication to avoiding a career in filmmaking that left us with only two examples of what may have been Canadian cinema’s greatest underachiever.

“My body on this earth is not very important,” Lauzon once said. “The body of artists is not very important.” Pretentious as this statement may be, Lauzon’s small body of work is all we have left of this contradictory genius, and is itself of great importance. Lauzon may have lived an arrogant, confounding life, but his experiences begot wonders on film. As poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “At night he stands up, the distant call of birds already deep inside him; and feels bold, because he has taken all the galaxies into his face.”

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