Films

Mirage and magic

One film weaves intrigue, the other enchantment

Brian D. Johnson January 27 1997
Films

Mirage and magic

One film weaves intrigue, the other enchantment

Brian D. Johnson January 27 1997

Mirage and magic

Films

One film weaves intrigue, the other enchantment

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Internationally acclaimed Quebec director Robert Lepage has built his career on creative risks—daredevil leaps of imagination that have produced wildly uneven results. This month, the same British critics who hailed the genius of his marathon play The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994) panned the London première of Elsinore, his audacious one-man Hamlet. Now, after making a dazzling debut as a film director with Le confessionnal (1995), Lepage has followed it up with a second feature that is decidedly less successful—yet compelling.

LE POLYGRAPHE

Directed by Robert Lepage

Like his first movie, Le polygraphe is a drama about guilt, deception and the haunting distortions of memory and art. Like Le confessionnal, it is set in Lepage’s home town of Quebec City and involves a film within a film. Once again, the scenario is strewn with shards of autobiography, and again the theme is confession: the confessor, in this case, is not a priest but a polygraph, or lie-detector, in a police interrogation room.

All the characters seem to lead double lives. François (Patrick Goyette), a historian who moonlights as a waiter, remains a prime suspect two years after the unsolved murder of his girlfriend and the torching of her apartment. Unaware of his connection to the case, his friend and neighbor, Lucie (Marie Brassard), is cast as the murder victim in a movie based on the crime. She, meanwhile, becomes sexually involved with a forensic pathologist (Fargo's Peter Stormare) who has a murky past as an East German refugee.

Co-writing the script with Brassard, Lepage based Le Polygraphe on their 1988 play, which was inspired by an extraordinary trauma in his own life. In 1980, his closest friend, actress France Lachapelle, was stabbed to death in Quebec City by an attacker who then set fire to her house. Before police caught the killer two years later, Lepage underwent a gruelling ordeal as a suspect. While the case was still unsolved, Quebec film-maker Yves Simoneau tried to cast Lepage in a movie based on the crime—as the killer.

That background lends a macabre real-

ity to Le polygraphe s esthetic conceits. Lepage wraps his murder mystery in onionskin layers of art and life—which he symbolizes with a Matreshka, the Russian doll containing a series of ever-smaller dolls. Employing a myriad of visual puns, the director plays with notions of dichotomy, comparing the Berlin Wall to the septum that divides the ventricles of the heart. The

film is also riddled with allusions to his other work—notably Elsinore.

While well-acted and conceptually brilliant, Le polygraphe is dramatically negligent. Lepage has expanded the play—changing the ending, adding characters and making token concessions to the form of a whodunit. But the extra plot seems tacked on— a dash of creative deceit that sends the viewer’s polygraph sensor skittering in disbelief. A visionary like Lepage, however, can be as fascinating in his failures as in his triumphs.

GABBEH

Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

From the opening shot, which shows a brightly colored carpet adrift in a clear stream, Gabbeh is a film of astonishing beauty. It is a magical fable about the nomads of southeastern Iran who herd sheep

and tint the wool with brilliant dyes to weave carpets called gabbehs. The narrative begins with an old couple playfully arguing over who should wash their carpet. Then the spirit of the carpet, a young woman named Gabbeh (Shaghayegh Djodat), appears and tells them the story that is woven into its pattern, which portrays a couple eloping on horseback.

It is a simple tale of romantic frustration—of Gabbeh’s family continually thwarting her marriage to a mysterious lover who follows her tribe on a white horse. The nomadic narrative unfolds with the cadence of poetry, as a lyrical odyssey through landscape and fabric. The characters, dressed in rainbow colors, pass through shimmering fields of yellow, green and poppy red, through blanched deserts, palm oases and snow-covered moonscapes. A small girl chasing a goat

along a cliff is a splash of peacock blue against dun-colored rock.

Boiling dyes from the flowers around them, and distilling images from their dreams, the nomads are literally weaving the land into their carpets. With the same intuitive logic, the film-makers have made their own gabbeh, with the yarn of pure cinema. Producing such masters as Abbas Kiarostami, Iran has the most treasured film culture in the Middle East. And Gabbeh director Mohsen Makhmalbaf is its current star. Many of his films are threaded with subversive political themes, and four have been banned by Iran’s dictatorship—including Gabbeh, although the director insists that it is apolitical. It is hard to imagine what anyone in the Iranian theocracy could find offensive, unless color is a crime.