The Curious Case of Robert LePage

Robert LePage in The Far Side of the Moon

Imagine this world isn’t the only world. This life isn’t your only life. There are others, variations, subtle shifts from one to the next but you don’t see them. Time always holds you in its continuous grip. Unless somehow you could jump, you being you, but the worlds would change. That’s the concept behind Possible Worlds (2000), a film by Robert LePage, a Looper for the multiverse. This year the multitalented theatre and film director won the Glenn Gould Prize for his many artistic contributions. In recognition of that honour, TIFF has mounted a retrospective of LePage’s films, called Possible Worlds. We’ll look at a couple, after the jump, but no promises this is the same universe after that click.

There’s no doubting that Robert LePage is a genius. The French Canadian visionary has won tremendous accolades worldwide. His exquisite staging has brought to life remarkable plays, from his own original works to adapting Shakespeare. He’s directed operas, including a massive production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen for the Metropolitan Opera of New York. He’s directed films, most notably his Hitchcock infused debut Le Confessional (1995), and even mounted elaborate multimedia tours for Peter Gabriel. His best known role as an actor is likely as René in Denys Arcand’s moving Jesus of Montreal (1989).

With such a varied and successful career, it’s surprising then that LePage is ambivalent about film. In an interview last year with Financial Times Magazine, LePage said “I thought film would be natural for me – but film and I don’t get along.” As his own critic, he’s probably too harsh. But he’s not entirely wrong.

All that world-hopping can’t be good for your health, Mr. Barber (Tom McCamus, right)

Take Possible Worlds. The film centres around George Barber (Tom McCamus) a man who’s able to jump his consciousness from one world to the next. In each world he experiences, he encounters his lover Joyce, played by Tilda Swinton. Each world is different though, and each Joyce markedly so. In one world she’s an introverted scientific researcher, in another a vivacious and prickly stock trader. George woos them all, though the more he speaks of his multiple reality experiences, the creepier he gets. The secondary plot is a murder mystery: two detectives investigating the death of a man whose brain has been removed. The film’s two plots revolve around each other, like planets, but gravity inexorably pulls them crashing together. Adapted from his own stage play by John Mighton, Possible Worlds is cerebral sci-fi in the vein of Andrei Tarkovsky and Primer. The ideas are thought-provoking, and LePage captures his worlds with stark austerity. McCamus and Swinton are excellent, but dry. The movie’s final revelations are a lessening of its conceit, tho doubtless they’ll provide wonderful fodder to anyone convinced the universe is a simulation in a computer. (Come back, Neo, all is forgiven.)

Robert LePage plays Philippe, a sad-sack intellectual obsessed with the first voyages into space

LePage is more successful when he mines his own biography for his inspirations. The Far Side of the Moon (2003) concerns itself with many things, but foremost it is about the relationship between two brothers, both played by LePage, after the death of their mother. The eldest, Philippe, is a forty-year-old graduate student stuck in the throes of an overlong dissertation, earning his living as a telemarketer. He is estranged from his younger brother, André, a resolutely superficial gay weatherman.Unable to successfully defend his thesis, Philippe doggedly pursues his belief that the space race of the 50s and 60s was fuelled primarily by man’s own narcissism. It’s an ironic obsession, as both brothers talk past one another from the solitudes of their self-involvement. Written initially as a play after the death of LePage’s own mother, the film is slow-moving but beautifully allusive. Tensions between the brothers flash back to episodes from their youth, and Philippe’s imaginings of the cosmos drift seamlessly into archival footage of Soviet and NASA space programs. Each their own sole remaining family connection, the brothers are perpetually orbiting each other, but as unknown as the scarred far side of the moon is to Earth. Whether they can ever connect is the question the film take its time to answer, but the circuitous route it takes to get there is funny and wryly satisfying.

TIFF’s retrospective Robert LePage: Possible Worlds runs from March 27 to April 1st. The film Possible Worlds screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday, March 29th at 7pm, with Robert LePage present. The Far Side of the Moon screens on Tuesday, April 1st at 9pm. For the full schedule and ticket info, see here. If you’re not in Toronto, these are hard films to track down online, but both are available through Amazon and other DVD sellers.


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