Jean Pierre Lefebvre is one of the seminal figures in Quebec and Canadian cinema. He has made 24 feature films, a number of short films and an intriguing cycle of videos (known collectively as L'âges des images). A genuine independent, Lefebvre has always spoken out for a cinema that is true to itself and to the resources it has at hand. He has eschewed the allure of commercial cinema, preferring to work in complete freedom with smaller budgets.
Lefebvre has also played a key role in encouraging a younger generation of important filmmakers. His production company, Cinak, which has produced virtually all of his own films, was also responsible for producing Denys Arcand's first two features, La Maudite galette (1972) and Réjeanne Padovani (1973), as well as films by André Blanchard, Michel Audy and Jean-Claude Labreque. While head of the fiction studio of the National Film Board in 1969, he produced, amongst other films, Gilles Groulx's Entre tu et vous (1969). His influence extended to English Canada in the 1980s and 1990s due to retrospectives of his work as well as workshops he gave.
Lefebvre studied literature at Université de Montréal and taught for two years at Loyola University. He began writing as a film critic, his articles appearing in Quartier latin, Séquences and Objectif. He has also published in Cinéma Québec and 24 images. He embarked on his filmmaking career in 1964, making the 24-minute short L’Homoman. Later the same year, he directed his first feature film, Le Révolutionnaire, focusing on the paralysis of a group of intellectuals. The film was shot in brutal sub-zero temperatures, with very little time and on a meagre budget. These practicalities helped shape the film’s aesthetic, which favoured long shots over close-ups. The experience also helped forge Lefebvre’s cinematic style and language. According to the film critic and theorist Peter Harcourt, Lefebvre's language seems, in part, based on limitations. In fact, some consider his low-budget, rigorous aesthetic a desirable model for filmmakers in economically developing nations.
After making three features, Lefebvre was asked to make a film for the NFB, Mon amie Pierrette (1967). Shot like a father would make a home movie, it was his first film shot in colour and was seen as amateurish by the NFB. It is a fascinating snapshot of a Quebec balanced between old and new values and two generations. In reaction, his next film for the NFB used all the technical resources of the organization and starred one of Quebec's biggest popstars, Robert Charlebois. Lefebvre was named head of the fiction studio of the French side of the NFB and proceeded to set up the Premières Oeuvres series, which was designed to make shorts and features on very small budgets. Four features and a number of shorts were produced within a year before the initiative was halted.
Lefebvre left the NFB and proceeded to make a number of films that were extraordinary for their inventiveness and insight. Les Maudits sauvages (1971), Les Dernières Fiançailles(1973), On n'engraisse pas les cochons à l'eau claire (1973) and L'Amour blessé (1975) all showed Lefebvre dealing with different aspects of Quebec — its Indian heritage, its older people, its politics and Québécois talk radio shows. But it was his next three films that include some of his greatest work: Le Vieux pays où Rimbaud est mort (1977) explores the relationship between Quebec and France (which was also the second part of his Abel trilogy following Il ne faut pas mourir pour ça, 1966); Avoir 16 ans (1979) captures the disaffection of Quebec youth without any trace of cliché; while Les Fleurs sauvages (1982) is a pastoral portrait of a family of different generations spending their annual week in the country together. All of his films until 1983 were co-produced and edited by his wife, Marguerite Duparc, whose influence was considerable.
In the 1980s, when feature film funding dried up, Lefebvre (who has often criticized the commercial nature of funding decisions by Canadian agencies) moved between highly personal work like Au rythme de mon coeur! (1983) and La Boite à soleil (1988), and films designed for a theatrical release, such as Le Jour "S..." (1983), Le Fabuleux voyage de l'ange (1990) and Aujourd'hui ou jamais (1997), the final film in the Abel trilogy. Lefebvre has also made a number of fine works in video, including the compelling, five-part project L'âge des images (1994–1995), which displays his lasting commitment to the humanist impulses of the period in which he emerged. This work bears the influence of Barbara Easto, his second wife, who has edited and produced many of his film since the mid-1980s.
The need for a language specific to Québécois culture is central to Lefebvre's work as both filmmaker and critic. From the outset, Lefebvre was determined to capture what he considered Quebec's neglected history as well as its day-to-day reality. Equally significant to his humanist view of cinema is his assertion that culture is as essential as shelter and food. Characteristically, Lefebvre is more interested in the relationships between people and society than in individual psychology.
Lefebvre was one of the first Canadian filmmakers to receive international acclaim for his work; his film Il ne faut pas mourir pour ça was the first Canadian film to be invited to the Cannes Film Festival, and at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, he received the International Critics' Prize for Les Fleurs sauvages. Les Dernières fiançailles won the prestigious Prix de l'Organisation catholique internationale du cinéma in 1974.
Several retrospectives of Lefebvre’s work have been held in Canada and abroad. In 1995, he was awarded Quebec’s prestigious Prix Albert-Tessier. He also teaches film in Montreal and lives in the Eastern Townships.