QuÈbecois actor, and film and theatre writer/director Robert Lepage (US audiences may remember him for his role in Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal) has built a reputation over the last ten years as a maker of intelligent and offbeat productions that explore inner human themes amid larger technological or historical contexts. And although he has inspired two book-length studies devoted to his work, his last two films (at least) were never distributed in the US, theatrically or on video. This is a shame because the SF thriller Possible Worlds (2000) and the dreamlike drama The Far Side of the Moon (La Face cachÈe de la lune) (2003) are beautifully-constructed meditations on the modern world and humanity’s place in it. Fortunately, the Canadian distributor Alliance Atlantis has recently released both of these films on DVD in Canada; US viewers can view the discs even without a multi-region player.
The Far Side of the Moon, more literally and thematically translated as The Hidden Face of the Moon, is based on a theatrical one-man show Lepage wrote and performed for three years on the international stage. It’s about two brothers (both played by Lepage) living in Quebec who must come to terms with their mother’s death as well as their own troubled relationship. Phillipe is a floundering graduate student working on his thesis regarding the role of narcissism in space exploration and AndrÈ is a more lively but opportunistic weatherman who seems perennially flustered–both characters suffer from oversensitivity to personal criticism. Phillipe’s contemporary study of the American-Russian space race and its troubled competition and cooperation during the ’60s mirrors the relationship between the brothers and provides a potent metaphor for emotional weight versus transcendent uplift.
The Far Side of the Moon‘s use of circular motifs–cellestial bodies, fishbowls, and washing machines–provides a visual expression of the characters’ endless searching and self-directed gaze. As is mentioned in the film’s striking opening sequence (a mixture of CGI, found footage, and creative sound effects), ancient people on Earth imagined the moon was a large mirror that merely reflected the earth’s mountains and oceans on its murky surface. Modern satellites, however, revealed the moon to be a spherical rock with a side facing perpetually away from the earth, and the first images of our planet rising from the lunar horizon astounded viewers. The film asks whether space exploration, then, is an act of self-projection or self-observation in the same way that it presents its characters in a constant state of projection and introspection–a worthy theme seized upon by SF works, perhaps most notably in Stanislav Lem’s Solaris and Tarkovsky’s thematically-inverted film adaptation.
To further develop this theme, Lepage works in a subplot about a SETI project to collect home videos from the population and launch them into space, an idea that appeals to Phillipe, who begins randomly filming his apartment and musing on the significance of his life, another confluence of inward soul-searching and outward reach. (AndrÈ sarcastically quips that Phillipe always complains that no one listens to him so it’s only appropriate that the whole universe becomes his listener.)
In addition to the film’s many layers of interconnected meanings, a formal one persists: while Phillipe wanders around his house shooting his first video production, The Far Side of the Moon was Lepage’s first venture into digital video filmmaking. Shot in something like fifteen days, the meditative, carefully lit, and complex visual style of the film belies the medium’s reputation for harsh, handheld productions. Like Lepage’s previous work, he pays special attention to crafting refined visual transitions between scenes, using a variety of match dissolves: a circular washing machine window slowly becomes the portal of a spaceship in a following scene, a man walking on snow becomes a figure on a moonscape, etc., crafting a fluid merging of reality and fantasy that is comical, inventive, and thought-provoking.
The DVD contains an audio commentary in French by Lepage and reminds me how much I wish DVD companies would subtitle commentaries according to the languages options included with the feature. It also provides a very informative featurette on the film’s use of digital video and the way so many of its effects were generated in real time, which allowed for instant feedback and improvisation. As visually striking as the film is, most viewers will still be amazed to discover just how many “ordinary” shots have been digitally manipulated in subtle ways.
A minor complaint: purists will decry the DVD’s subtle PAL-to-NTSC ghosting effect, a particularly odd technical flaw from a digital video production released in NTSC-friendly Canada. Ideally the film should have been transferred directly from its digital source in order to preserve the full quality of the image, but Alliance unfortunately doesn’t have the best technical track record in this regard. Still, this is a small price to pay for such a creative, inspiring film that fully deserves a wider exposure.