Narrative as Myth & Memory

By Aleksandar Dundjerovich

confessional-robert-lepage.jpgThe Confessional, Robert Lepage, 1995

The Cinema of Robert Lepage

Stories, drawn from both personal and collective memory, are an essential element of Robert Lepage’s theatre and film work. In order to write, he believes one has to be a mythomaniac, to ‘amplify the stories you hear, give a larger dimension to the stories you invent.’ He goes further, stressing the importance of the connection between mythology and mythomania, ‘a connection that has a lot to do with the world of storytelling and memory. Mythology is linked to the handing down of shared stories from generation to generation’.[1]

This underlines the importance of storytelling in Lepage’s childhood. He has talked about his childhood fascination with the family car trips organised by his father, who was a colourful storyteller. This was Lepage’s greatest opportunity to see the world that existed beyond Quebec City. His father would earn extra money by driving tourists in his taxi and telling stories about Quebec City. The imperfections of his mother’s recollection of the War stories, and his fascination with the world outside Quebec impacted on Lepage’s understanding of storytelling, not as an exact account of events but rather as a result of the narrator’s personal memory. Furthermore, the stories about Quebec that his father improvised for the tourists during a voyage are similar to the position of narrator in Lepage’s films regarding the spectator. The reception of the stories depend on the subject; thus narration invites them into a world of film by establishing a familiar frame of references that subject can relate to; discovery of the unknown and the need for the audience to recognise the authenticity of the story.

Cross-cultural reading in Lepage’s films results in the position of the spectator being similar to his own position as a film auteur, simultaneously aware of the significance of the material within and outside of its cultural context. The characters in Lepage’s films bring with them a different cultural position into Quebec’s milieu, a cultural perspective acquired whilst being outside. This creates a difference between the local Quebecois perspective and the international perspective: the inside view is now challenged by elements from the outside that threaten to expose Quebec’s inbuilt cultural attitude as ridiculous or petty, relevant only to its own momentum.

What makes Lepage’s work different from that of other film authors in Quebec is that his subjective reading of film narrative is in between worlds: simultaneously on the outside looking in and on the inside looking out. This peculiar position of dual perception is a result of both Lepage’s upbringing and his theatre work. Lepage’s childhood experience of growing up in Quebec in a bilingual and bicultural family gave him a valuable insight into being simultaneously an insider and outsider. By developing his performances in Quebec and then taking them on international tours, he acquired the ability to transpose one cultural understanding into another. He does not ‘offer’ the audience a fixed product, nor does he relate his narrative to the international audience as if they were a homogeneous entity. His narrative is open to a plurality of readings according to the range of perspectives in which audiences engage with the work. Lepage’s films develop from his theatre productions, and embody that understanding of international cultures and multiple perspectives. His theatre narrative is unfixed and perpetually transformative. It is a work in progress that feeds from the cultural specificities of the different locations where it is performed. Each culture where Lepage performs contributes something to the narrative and leaves an imprint on the ‘mise-en-scène’ he personalises and appropriates a culture as an artistic resource that has an experiential value and that can be communicated to the international audience outside of the original cultural boundaries.

possible-worlds-robert-lepage.jpgPossible Worlds, Robert Lepage, 2001

Looking at Lepage’s films, it becomes clear that narrating is a means to personalise national or local mythology. Film is the storytelling device of a personal journey. His work supports the idea that stories in literature, theatre and film show a movement of actions not as a factual recollection of event but rather personal reflections. “It’s not so important if a fishing story is true or not. What really counts is how we transform events through the distorting lens of memory. It’s the blurred, invented aspects of story-telling that give it its beauty and greatness.”[2] Like avant-garde or counter cinema, Lepage emphasises the subject and focuses on the relationships between spectator and text. The individual experience is detached from any sense of the ‘real’, distrusting the mystifications and ideology of fiction as it is used in traditional cinema, and favouring pulp or popular fiction used in a postmodern context as quotation and fragmented recollections of plural narratives that are interwoven together.

More importantly, this approach to narrative places Lepage in the context of what 24 Images calls ‘Cinéma et exil’, alongside film directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopoulos, Atom Egoyan, Raúl Ruiz, Fernando Solanas, Léa Pool and Michka Saäl, among others.[3] Fundamentally, this narrative of ‘mise a distance’ looks at the conflict and contradiction experienced by individuals who broke from their past and roots. The narrative is organised around themes that are relevant to time. The central preoccupation is on capturing and preserving time, which is embodied in the image of a place – a ‘non-location’ which is simultaneously fantasised, even fetishised, invented and remembered. This place is the key to triggering and reliving emotional contents stored in the characters’ subconscious that allow the characters to relive a sense of self that is at a loss at the present moment. Memory is ‘alive’ and constructs the characters’ environment through the involuntary re-enactment of the past, as in Raúl Ruiz’ film Le Temps Retrouvé, an adaptation of Proust’s novel. Likewise, Lepage’s Le Confessional and Possible Worlds use involuntary recollection or what Edward Branigan calls ‘unauthored flashback’, where ‘the past is simply made present.’[4]

possible-worlds-robert-lepage-2.jpgPossible Worlds, Robert Lepage, 2001 

However, remembrance is an important cultural process in Quebec. In terms of the representation of national identity in film, it is a most crucial, political concept that invites the spectator, as a subject, to be in the process of perpetual remembrance. A car as a film object is often utilised in Lepage’s film narrative as a signifier for time – in Le Confessional a car indicates in a single continuous shot the time that has passed between two periods: the 1950s and 1980s – or to point towards a non-location as in Possible Worlds, where a car with no plates creates a contra-sign, preventing the spectator from equating location with identity. An invitation, or a reminder to remember, is perhaps best epitomised by the sign on the car licence plates in Quebec. Each Canadian province has a written logo on their car plates; Quebec’s used to be ‘La Belle Province’, but sometime after the October Crisis in 1972, when Quebec nationalism, through the Front Libération de Québec (FLQ), attempted unsuccessfully to resolve their quest for independence through military/terrorist action, car license plate texts in the province were changed to ‘J’me souviens’ (I remember), clearly reflecting the sentiments of the Francophone population towards remembering as a political action.

But what exactly does Quebec pledge to remember? Lepage observes that “…nobody knows exactly what ‘J’me souviens’ means, what it refers to. Is it the past? Is it a vengeance? Is it Quebec saying ‘I will remember what has been done to me’? Does it mean, J’me souviens in the sense that ‘I remember that I am different, I remember my language; I’m in a society where its cultural expression, its first cultural expression, which is French, is being forgotten? So, do I have to be reminded that I have to not forget this language and all that? So it means many things, J’me souviens. And the thing is, it’s about solving the past.”[5]

Quebec’s dilemma about remembering its past and accepting their differences whilst moving forward towards the world is indicative in Lepage’s explanation of the meaning behind J’me souviens. Likewise, his films reflect similar tension and ambiguity, contradictions of collective identity captured between the regional and global politics of cultural, social, political and economic forces. Lepage points out that “the nature of cinema is recording. It’s about leaving traces and it’s about remembering how things were and what they meant.”[6]

Using film to record time and embody existence at a given moment, making it immortal by stopping time, is fundamentally different from the ephemeral liveliness of theatre. Lepage’s way of working utilises time to workshop material, meaning that the development of the narrative depends on time. Transformation of narrative through theatre performance takes two to three years of working in order for narrative to ‘mature’, to be discovered and come to fruition. From a filmmaking perspective, theatre becomes a workshop in which what will latter become a film narrative will be explored and experimented upon. Since film necessities fixed a timeframe, defined rehearsals and a precise shooting schedule, and involves greater financial resources, theatre become a much more flexible art form in which to search for the narrative. However, once film narrative is completed, external time has no relevance, while his theatre transforms through productions. Factor of time is relevant to Lepage’s perception of film structure. His deliberate distortion of time within the film narrative is an outcome of time being subjectively interpreted, which is similar to treatment of time in avant-garde and non-linear cinema. He disrupts temporal and spatial continuity through jump cuts, flash-forwards and particularly flashbacks (the cinematic representation of memory), creating transitions through continuous shots into another temporal and spatial reality.


[1] Rémy Charest (1997) Robert Lepage: Connecting Flights, in conversation with Rémy Charest. (Trans. Wanda Romer-Taylor). London: Methuen.
[2] Ibid
[3] 24 Images (2001) “Dossier Cinéma et Exil” No.106 (Printemps).
[4] Edward Branigan (1992) Narrative, Comprehension and Film. London: Routledge.
[5] Robert Lepage (2002) Personal Interview. Quebec City, 8 January.
[6] Ibid

Aleksandar Dundjerovich’s book, The Cinema of Robert Lepage: The Poetics of Memory is published by Wallflower Press.