That Was Then: Revisiting the Positive Images Debate

By Design

Canada 1982. Director: Claude Jutra
Cast: Patty Duke, Sara Botsford, Saul Rubinek, Clare Coulter

The great Quebec auteur Claude Jutra directs an English-language screwball comedy about lesbian parenting in the set-in-Vancouver By Design. Helen (Duke) and Angie (Botsford) are partners in fashion and in life. When Helen announces she wants to have a child, Angie reluctantly agrees to support her. Denied permission to adopt, and rejecting artificial insemination, the couple set their sights on sleazy photographer Terry (Rubinek) as a potential one-night stand for Helen. Revisiting territory he first explored in À tout prendre, Jutra consciously reverses the male gaze that has traditionally anchored both the film and fashion worlds, presenting Helen’s (and later Angie’s) heterosexual coupling as purely functional, and in so doing giving new cinematic meaning to telephone sex. The film was panned by most Canadian reviewers, who saw it as further evidence (especially after his adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing) of Jutra’s diminished powers when working in English Canada. However, By Design had one notable champion in New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael, who called the work “a buoyant, quirky sex comedy ... a look around the whole modern supermarket of sex. By Design takes in the bars and beach houses, fast food restaurants and discos, and the sexual patterns of those who inhabit them.” Colour, 35mm. 92 mins.

That Was Then: Revisiting the Positive Images Debate
Long before the television series Oz or the recent film The Kids Are Alright, two Canadian narrative films boldly waded into the treacherous representational waters of male sexual subcultures in prison and lesbian parenting. Either ignored or critically reviled in Canada at the time of their release, these two films nevertheless bear re-viewing and reassessment.