September 29, 1953, Montreal – 1997, Kuujjuaq, Quebec
Director, screenwriter and adventurer, Jean-Claude Lauzon made only two feature films before his untimely death in 1997; however, his reputation as daredevil, provocateur and creative genius endures, and he remains in the pantheon of internationally acclaimed Québécois filmmakers.
Born on September 29, 1953, to a working-class family in Montreal, Lauzon left the city after completing high school to pursue job opportunities in Ontario, always maintaining an interest in the arts. In 1976, he completed studies in design and photography. That year, he also became a certified diving instructor and moved to Bermuda to work on an underwater photography project.
After a brief stay in British Columbia, during which he wrote the poetry collection Les chats de ma liste, Lauzon returned to Montreal to study communications at l’Université du QuébecÂ in Montreal. While at school, he made the short film Super Maire l’homme de 3 milliards that won the Norman McLaren Grand Prize at the Canadian Student Film Festival in 1979. After graduation, Lauzon entered theÂ American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He began work on another short film, Piwi (1981), shot in Montreal, which won the Jury Prize after screening at the 1981 World Film Festival in Montreal.
Lauzon’s reputation had already begun to take shape with Piwi. In many ways, Lauzon and his work represent the marginalized: he is viewed as having worked outside mainstream Quebec cinema, creating films that were as controversial as they were admired. His unique vision has drawn comparisons to filmmakers as diverse as Jean-Jacques Beineix, Jacques Tati and Federico Fellini.
In 1983, Lauzon wrote the first draft for his debut feature, Un zoo la nuit, but spent most of the several years following Piwi enjoying a successful career directing television commercials and earning his pilot’s licence. When Un zoo la nuit premiered in 1987 at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, the intriguing combination of policier and family drama was a popular and critical — if contentious — success. It received many awards, including 13 Genies in 1998. The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott, addressing criticisms that the film was too ambitious and scattered, wrote, “More than anything, ZooÂ is a movie of extremes; few films in the history of the cinema have wandered so successfully all over so much of the emotional map.”
It is widely acknowledged that Lauzon achieved artistic maturity in his semi-autobiographical masterpiece Léolo (1991). A grim, stylized, magic-realist portrait of a working-class family in Montreal, the film centers on a 12-year-old boy who copes with his dysfunctional family by succumbing to a world of fantasy. Sometimes grotesque, yet compellingly humane, Léolo won prestigious awards, including Genies for best original screenplay and best direction, and a Special Jury Citation for best Canadian feature at the Toronto Festival of Festivals in 1992. The critical response was overwhelming: Roger Ebert, in the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote that “Léolo is an enchanting, disgusting, romantic, depressing, hilarious, tragic movie, and it is quite original — one of the year's best. I have never seen one like it before.”
Whether Lauzon’s films are examined as essays on the relationship between personal and Quebec national identity, or appreciated for their narrative sophistication and panache, they are celebrated as films that are “far out of the ordinary,” as Janet Maslin of theÂ New York Times wrote of Léolo. The aura surrounding Lauzon’s work is heightened by the director’s self-professed reckless lifestyle and audacious manner. In 1992, he told the World Press Review in New York, “[I am] so angry to realize that I’m a Québécois, with no past, no history, just two cans of maple syrup,” a comment that belies a fierce intimacy with the province he portrayed so evocatively in his films.
In 1997, Lauzon died with his girlfriend, television actor Marie-Soleil Tougas, when he crashedÂ his plane near Kuujjuaq, Quebec. They wereÂ on their way home from a fishing trip.