The Cinema of Robert Lepage: The Poetics of Memory
175 pages, Wallflower Press, £14.99 pbk
Does Robert Lepage deserve an in-depth study of is cinematic work? A relative newcomer to the world of film, Lepage has, to date, directed four films: Le Confessionnal (1995), Le Polygraphe (1996), Nô (1998) and Possible Worlds (2000). Though not as prolific as some of the directors featured in Wallflower's Directors' Cuts series on the salient directors of World Cinema, and better known for his work in theatre, Lepage has, nonetheless, emerged as an auteur with crossover appeal, simultaneously resisting and co-opting the more commercial elements of the film industry. This publication by Aleksandar Dundjerovic, the first book-length study of Lepage's cinema, is an introduction to the cinematic work of Lepage, and an analysis of his unique place in contemporary creativity. However, the true value of this book relies in the way it shows the crossovers between modern dance, theatre and film, and how one creative process can have an impact on different media.
Dundjerovic explains that, as a theatre director himself, he is intrigued by Lepage's experimental synthesis of theatrical and cinematic styles, resulting in plays which are enjoyable to cinema audiences and films that are attractive to theatre audiences as well as the usual cinema-goers. In other words, Lepage cares about the audience as well as the critics. In fact, judging from the mixed reviews of his films so candidly acknowledged in this publication, Lepage appears to value the audience and their enjoyment highly, while not caring particularly what the critics write. Entertainment value actually matters to Lepage (the sauna scene in Le Confessionnal is more South Park than art-house and none the worse for it).
This appreciation of the audience is reflected in the book. Lepage's own comments - gentle, unassuming and often downright funny - are a constant feature of the text. The book ends with Dundjerovic's in-depth interview with Lepage, providing a generous resource for further commentators. The appended interview also serves as a reference point to Lepage's creative process, highlighting his method of work. Undergraduates and film-goers alike will be encouraged by Dundjerovic's unbiased coverage of Lepage's failures as well as successes. Even more encouraging (to me, anyway) are the accounts of Lepage's knacks for turning obstacles and limitations to his advantage.
Lepage's status as an outsider is inseparable from any examination of his work. A Francophone Quebecois formed by the tumultuous events of regional dissent in the 1960s and 1970s, Lepage as a film-maker emerged from a cultural context dominated by the politics of language and identity. In this context, there was (and still is) considerable pressure for regional cinema to reflect the past of a relatively small community for the appreciation of that same community. Lepage succeeded in moving his film narrative beyond this geopolitical limitations and opening up the reading of local cultural references to a global interpretation without abandoning his Quebecois heritage. His films incorporate issues of marginalisation, but always within a framework of themes at once both personal and universal. In this way, Dundjerovic emphasises, Lepage is creating a style of cinema with remarkably wide appeal. Everyone is allowed to have their own unique reading of a Lepage film: I (Irish and Catholic) see remarkable parallels with post-independence Irish literature as well as a dynamic departure from the influence of French cultural colonialism; a friend of mine sees an instance of references to gay cinema, and yet another points out similarities with South Park and an Alanis Morrissette video - all of this within one film.
However, the book is not all fun and games: there is some substantial film and theatre theory to grapple with, and it is tempting to skip through this to the more interesting and intriguing analysis of Lepage's films. As an illustration of theories in practice, the book is valuable to students of film and theatre; as an example of new theories emerging from new practice, it is inspiring. Though it would be helpful to see the films in question, Dundjerovic succeeds in relating material to the general readership. Ultimately, the essential appeal of Lepage is his cinematic polyvalence and the richness of his imagery. The author succeeds in capturing this spirit. It is only to regret that the quality of the visual images in the book is not such that they can clearly point to Lepage's cinematic/theatrical visual expressiveness.
Ita O'Keeffe is an independent media critic, personal development trainer and obsessive heavy metal fan. She gained a FIRST HONOURS B.A. degree in English and Sociology at University College Cork, Ireland and subsequently a Masters in Sociology of Religion focusing on the representation of Catholicism in the contemporary Irish cinema. For about 5 minutes in the early 1990s she fronted the punk/folk band PWA (Paddies With Attitude), who inevitably fell apart due to artistic differences (or something like that). For the past dozen years she was heavily involved in Liverpool Fledgling community theatre project and environmental activism, by night, while pursuing an unconventional academic career by day at Liverpool Hope University College (from which she escaped unharmed). Other publications include the reports Village People: Community Care on a Housing Association Estate and States of Independence: the Supply of Specialist Disability Equipment in Liverpool, as well as It's Not Like Frasier: Experiences of NHS Psychotherapy. She is currently working on a film project about immigrant life in Liverpool.