International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 35, June 2005







Ed Keller


The Reinvention of Self and World:

On Dundjerovic's _The Cinema of Robert Lepage_



Aleksandar Dundjerovic

_The Cinema of Robert Lepage: The Poetics of Memory_

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2003

ISBN 1-903364-33-7

181 pp.


'To repeat the questions that Foucault and Deleuze pose to us: What can I do, What do I know, What am I? These questions are not the result of some kind of narcissistic preoccupation with the Self. Instead they point to the radical questing of subjectivity as such; it is a critical interrogation and transformation of the specific production processes that make up our Selves; it is a questing of the 'I' that is always already politically and economically related to the 'we' of the multitude . . . this questing of our Selves, our subjectivities, is the ultimate terrain for theory as practice and practice as theory . . .'.

Steffen Bohm [1]


Robert Lepage's films are astonishing, beautiful, challenging. I remember the first time I saw _Le Confessional_ (1995) and _Le Polygraphe_ (1997): it was a revelation for me that cinema could combine a kind of naturalism in the reality of characters and situations, with a formal perfection and the distancing that a Brechtian approach would insist on. Lepage's films serve as poignant evidences of the constant process of a very special kind of reinvention of the self -- positioning the individual in a much larger context and showing subjects emerging out of a vast context and yet managing to send ripples back into that context as actors with voice and agency. In many ways, _The Cinema of Robert Lepage: The Poetics of Memory_ is in tune with this quest. There are several key questions which drive Dundjerovic's study of Lepage: Where do I come from? Who am I? Where am I going?


These questions -- in part drawn directly from Lepage's interviews/texts, in part from his films -- provide an impetus for examining the ways that subjects are formed and transform, gaining agency. This genesis of agents -- politically, culturally, individually -- is positioned theoretically in a large framework imbricated within a geopolitical context of film culture, the economics of production, the hegemonies of Hollywood and the US film industry, and also the intimate fragilities of individual subjects. This book is an excellent overview of Lepage's cinema and theatrical work, process, and thinking, and also of the political context in Canada that he reveals was instrumental in the formation of Lepage as a director. Dundjerovic sites Lepage's work in a kind of contemporary 'subaltern' practice, and attempts -- perhaps following Lepage's example -- to go beyond the conceptual limits that define some variants of subaltern thinking (more on this below).


Dundjerovic structures his book straightforwardly -- his overview of the themes of myth and memory in Lepage's life and work leads to an in-depth historical review of Canada's political and cultural history; he then develops key themes of searching read through Lepage's theatre and film work, and several of the films in particular: _Le Confessional_, _Le Polygraphe_, _No_ (1998), _Possible Worlds_ (2000) -- with illustrative chapter subtitles: Where did I come from?, What is truth?, Where am I going?, What is my real world? And in his conclusion restates the position he suggests Lepage's process and work occupies: a new and crucial form of invention of possible worlds and options for agency. Finally, an interview between Dundjerovic and Lepage provides more supporting evidence.


Although the text is packed with detail about Lepage's process, the genesis of the films, his background in theatre, and a nuanced and sometimes ironic examination of the Canadian context these films emerged out of, my initial reading of the book left me quite cold; the focus on a highly semiotic theory of cinema seemed to dominate Dundjerovic's approach to Lepage, which is at odds with my own encounters with Lepage's film and theatre, and also at odds with my own thinking through film. As well, the *tone* of the book is sometimes too descriptive of a single interpretation which Dundjerovic discusses as if it is the truth of the film, when indeed they contain many more 'possible worlds'.


However, during subsequent re-readings in the course of writing this review, I came to change my opinion and subsequently perceived a much broader encounter with Lepage's work on the part of Dundjerovic, which is crucial in explaining the deep political and intellectual foundations of Lepage's theatrical and cinematic work. In fact, the book seems absolutely vital to me now, even though I still occasionally take issue with the tone of the writing and the reiterations of an overly interpretive approach to cinema. Ultimately it has fed back powerfully into my take on Lepage. High praise for a book which I threw across the room after my first reading.


One of the strongest aspects of this book is Dundjerovic's siting of Lepage's work in the space of a 'subaltern' cinema. [2] In this reading of the work he argues that it re-establishes/re-inscribes a very specific Quebecois identity and ultimately leverages that identity into position in a geopolitical arena. The function of a subaltern cinema might be seen on the one hand as simply providing a negative critique or alternative voice, with little power to change standing order. However, on the other hand, Lepage's breed of subaltern practice is understood to function as a vital part of the constant reinvigoration of global discourse, an expansion of possible stories and experiences which become available to subjects in daily life.


The entire process of Lepage's work -- both in the final product evidenced in the films themselves, as well as the RSVP process (see below) which Lepage uses to prepare, rehearse, perform, refine, and re-perform in a constant tuning of the effect and form of the work -- is oriented towards exactly this reconstruction of self, of identity, and of agency. Lepage has everything at stake in his work: he isn't just telling a story, he's reinventing his own and his viewers' relationship to history, time, responsibility, and the world. However on several counts there is a hyper-focused (too much so) aspect to the text. Dundjerovic's rigorous investigation puts a totalizing spin on the more comprehensively universal aspirations that are present throughout Lepage's work (often it seems that a reinvention of the self can take place for Dundjerovic only within a particular theoretical construct) and he avoids a discussion of purely cinematic (image, camera, edit, montage, performance) events in the films which can lead to a non-intellectual, non-rational outcome -- especially for what these techniques do both within the diegetic reality as well as to us as viewers. (Nota bene: this opinion on my part is driven strongly by my own unification of an interest in 'meaning' and narrative with formal logics which go beyond meaning. I'll discuss this further below.)


In my opinion, Lepage really puts himself at risk in his work and stakes a claim for the relationship between the individual and the collective such that responsibility for others is a defining characteristic -- regardless of what culture it may emerge out of and in many cases regardless of what the ethical/moral outcome may be. [3] These universal themes encompass a range of human experiences: from personal conflicts, acted out by agents unaware of the more intellectually grounded machinations of cultural theory (Marc, in search of his real father in _Le Confessional_); to the wild leaps of imaginative freedom that a teenager in identity crisis can have whilst on a midnight hallucinogenic spree (Lepage's own surrogate, in _The Far Side of the Moon_ (2003)); up to the inclusion of historical moments and resonances which insist on a collective agency and subjectivity. Examples of this final category appear in many of his films, the most obvious his use of documentary footage from Tiananmen Square in _Le Confessional_, or the destruction of the Berlin Wall in _Le Polygraphe_.


There is an erasure of genre boundaries in Lepage's films, which Dundjerovic is very sensitive to throughout his text. His discussion of exactly how a genre of filmmaking is reconceived, however, is channeled through written ideas and theories of what a genre is, rather than directly addressing the techniques and tropes of a genre, and how they work to build autonomous languages of form that function parallel to the interpretive realm.


These other kinds of human and cinematic experience have little to do with an intellectualized investigation of national identity, language politics, failed separatist revolution, etc. Indeed, they have little to do with a 'theory' of cinema at all, which is what makes Lepage's oeuvre one of real genius. As Dundjerovic notes, Lepage himself plays with the suspense genre in many ways -- in _Le Confessional_ he not only directly quotes Hitchcock's _I Confess_ but also sets up his characters in space-times which we as viewers have greater command of. This manoeuvre on Lepage's part, and the ways he explores the presence of multiple times in any situation, event, or body, is aimed squarely at inventing a new kind of viewer, one who recreates themselves, and situates themselves within historical time as an active agent literally inventing new meanings. Meaning can no longer *mean*: it can only resite itself as new meaning, new *sense*.


Dundjerovic champions this thinking: it is an insightful and crucial observation about Lepage's work. My reservation is that Dundjerovic's analysis and siting of Lepage's work constantly engages film as a semiotic structure, with all image/sound/narrative structures understood as operating in service of an engine that produces meaning. As such, any critique of a film relies on the critic/reader's construction of meaning, not their direct encounter with the film as image/cut/sound/space/diegetic formal logic.


An alternative to this kind of approach argues that for film and space there is a domain beyond the signifying where film also 'does something', and that such an operation exists in a pre/non-signifying space which can only be evaluated for what its consequences are -- not according to what one critic or another might theorize the 'image' means. Dundjerovic does discuss at length the construction (from a cinematic and 'technical' point of view) of Lepage's works, but almost always sets this techne up in service of a realm of interpretation. This for me was the one blindspot of the study. Denis Hollier writes:


'Is it possible to conceive of an architecture that would not inspire, as in Bataille, social good behavior, or would not produce, as in Foucault's disciplinary factory, madness or criminality in individuals? Architectural devices, according to Foucault, produce subjects; they also individualize personal identities. But why would they not work in reverse, leading against the grain to some space before the constitution of the subject, before the institutionalization of subjectivity? An architecture that, instead of localizing madness, would open up a space anterior to the division between madness and reason; rather than performing the subject, it would perform spacing: a space from before the subject, from before meaning; the asubjective, asemantic space of an unedifying architecture, an architecture that would not allow space for the time needed to become a subject.' [4]


To expound on this train of thought, we could easily compare the film output of a director like David Cronenberg -- and specifically look at _Videodrome_ (1983). There's no question that _Videodrome_ is a film about the hegemony of US cinematic and televisual output. That _Videodrome_ sites itself in Canada as a place of minor piracies and resistances. That Cronenberg knows this, too, as a Canadian filmmaker/television director. And that the geopolitical desiring machine Max Renn (James Woods's character) is embedded within is both something he wants more than anything yet has no real ability to comprehend -- as his sometime friend Masha says to him about the pornographers/purveyors of the Videodrome signal: '. . . they have something you do not have, Max . . . they have a philosophy!'. [5]


But the fact is, _Videodrome_ goes far beyond that one scan. There are myriad interpretations and *senses* to be drawn out of the film. I use the word *sense* in the manner developed by Deleuze [6] to underscore my own position as a viewer possessed by an almost schizophrenic anti-theoretical identity that nonetheless embraces theories oriented towards meaning, subaltern thinking, etc.: all of which I find compelling and urgent. I can illustrate this with a crucial example: Deleuze's two-volume _Cinema_, [7] which exists as several texts. It is simultaneously a P. K. Dick-ian alternative history of the world system -- from the birth of cinema circa the First European War, up through the post-war and into the cold war, which tracks the evolution and decay of structures of consciousness, the body politic, and time itself, as indexed by cinema -- as well as an insistent refrain, arguing for the presence of unthinkable abstract (intensive, non-extensive, quasi temporal) bodies within cinema (and thus, within the life world, one way or another) that simply cannot be interpreted but can only be observed, tested, and put into play with each other. *Sense* acts by discovering a rule before rules which allows precognitive experience to function in a nearly computational manner to generate awareness, perception, intelligence. This kind of *sense* is what I find permeating all of Lepage's work, and the lack of engagement with this theme is the only weakness I find in Dundjerovic's book.


There are a number of themes that I wanted to discuss in this review after reading Dundjerovic's book and re-screening Lepage's films. I've already touched on several of them: the quest for self and body politic; the subaltern and the universal; and the excellence of Dundjerovic's investigation of Lepage's filming method, history in theatre, and engagement with Canadian cultural identity. This last theme is related to a question of

universal narrative, with ties to a theory of the multitude. It is provocative how Lepage's work addresses this directly in all his films, not only dealing with very broad themes, but also as a subset, with Canadian identity as a cipher for a very specific kind of postmodern subject and state. Dundjerovic's insight and good humor is at its best when on he describes reality in Lepage's films reflecting '. . . the social fabric of Canada, a country some commentators suggest is the first postmodern state. The term 'Canada' can be defined as an 'agreed-on set of distinctive policies and institutional arrangements' (Marshall 2001:287), and as such can dispense with the usual trappings of a unified national identity.' (41) This way of approaching Lepage's work perceives the most urgent aspects of it, especially in the context (above mentioned) of contemporary subaltern theory.


I have already raised the problematic of a theory of signification vs a theory of sense, and this can be connected not only to various competing cinematic opinions, but more usefully to a very precise range of techniques that Lepage uses in his work. Dundjerovic deals with the 'RSVP process' in a number of passages in his book, showing how this process of theatrical development contributed to Lepage's overall formation as an artist, and also plays a significant role in his filmmaking: _Le Polygraphe_, or the more recent _The Far Side of the Moon_, for example, were derived initially from theatrical productions which metamorphosed over time into cinema. RSVP is a process developed by Ann Halprin and Lawrence Halprin and used by Theatre Repere, a company founded by Jacques Lessard which Lepage worked with in the early/mid 80s. This process cycles the material in development through a set of constraint based steps, as Dundjerovic writes:


'RSVP consists of four parts: Resource (motivational/material), Score (process), Valuaction (selection) and Performance (presentation in progress). Lessard turned these fundamentally dance-oriented processes into a model that can be used in the theatre devising process -- Re (resource) Pe (partiture experimental and partiture synthesis) and Re (representation). Lepage learned this way of working from Lessard and brought it to his own intuitive method of spontaneous creativity.' (23)


Here we find an interesting way to re-engage the semiotic vs abstractly machinic positions. Semiotic skill becomes transformed in the RSVP/repere process, which ties in several ways back to a reinvention of agency -- like the constraint-based operations of the OULIPO, [8] the constraint stands in for purely expressive/intuitive acts of creation and forces a new kind of awareness to develop. Implied in Lepage's work is the possibility that this constraint-driven process could have a ripple effect back into the world, thus not only driving the creation of his theatre and film, or his own reinvention of self, but also the life-world experiences of his audience. Modernism and postmodernism struggle continuously with the exact moment and mode of introduction of these constraints; the RSVP process creates a balance between absolute abstract expressionism, and a play with existing flows of narrative, character, prop, plot, event, and image -- thus revitalizing the concept of *sense*. [9]


Another theme is that of bodies in bodies, and encompasses the multi-temporal aspect of Lepage's work, how the idea of *sense* I have mentioned above can function, and the kind of time/awareness/agency that is created in moments where multiple temporal sections begin to coexist and interfere/inflect one another. Both _Le Polygraph_ and _Le Confessional_ give astonishing examples of these temporal/historical overlaps. The shots are too numerous to catalogue here, but for example, in _Le Confessional_, the superimpositions over the course of the film of a body in one temporal/historical continuity with another in a discrete space-time, constantly insist on the way that bodies always and unavoidably contain other bodies inside themselves. For example, in the house of his father, when he returns after his father's death, Pierre (Lothaire Bluteau) wanders through the house. In one shot a miscarriage takes place -- it is a scene in the past between Pierre's father and mother, prior even to Pierre's own conception. Lepage shoots this intense scene in such a way that a seamless pan takes us from the event in the past, into a hallway where Pierre exists in the present. Colors function as time machines; emotions, memories, events, spaces, props. Time within time, bodies in bodies.


This presence of many bodies in time -- (the people) in one body (the house) -- is accentuated by the way Lepage reveals yet more multiplicities of body, as Pierre discovers his own connection to both his father and his brother Marc -- when he realizes that he is diabetic. The genetic scale functions as a vector for information and noise to pass through a body -- allowing one moment in time to communicate with and affect another space-time. What Lepage is really showing us here is the presence of multiple times and identities: the presence of a 'host of spirits'. This leads to the production of quite different forms of identity and agency. To quote from Nietzsche's _Birth of Tragedy_:


'At bottom the esthetic phenomenon is simple; one need only have the ability to see continually a living play and to live perpetually surrounded by hosts of spirits, and one is a poet; one need only feel the drive to alter oneself and to speak out of alien bodies and souls, and one is a dramatist.


Dionysian excitation is capable of communicating to a whole multitude this artistic power to feel oneself surrounded by such a host of spirits, with whom one knows oneself to be inwardly one. This process of the tragic chorus is the originary dramatic phenomenon: seeing oneself altered before one's very eyes and now acting, as though one had really entered into another body, another character. This process stands at the beginning of the development of drama . . . Here already the individual gives itself up by entering into an alien nature. And what is more, this phenomenon arises epidemically: a whole crowd feels itself enchanted in this way.' [10]


Of course the fundamental process of cinema is a manipulation of the viewer such that they enter into this process of transference and invocation, but the question remaining is: to what degree does the filmmaker reveal their tools and method in the manipulation of the viewer? By adopting simultaneously naturalistic and extremely alienating and genre-disrupting techniques in his filmmaking, Lepage puts us into a new relationship with this host of spirits, thus providing an opportunity for us to historically site ourselves, for us to redeploy ourselves across time.


Ultimately this theme connects back to the paradox of the single body within the multitude, invoking the geopolitical arena that Dundjerovic sites Lepage's cinematic work in. Lepage show us this problem from many points of view in his films; for example the scene in _Le Polygraphe_ when Francois -- a student doing graduate work on the political situation in Germany between East and West (Patrick Goyette, playing a surrogate for the transfer of Lepage's own real life experiences) -- is shown defending his thesis in a series of montage overlays with Christof (Peter Stormare), an ex-German forensic specialist, whose autopsy on the body in front of him exactly explains the situation in Berlin that he himself escaped from years earlier, and that Francois is describing in his thesis. This shot becomes a flashback to Christof's escape from East Germany. Later, these two men's oscillation through each other as doppelgangers is resolved in the documentary footage Lepage uses, showing the masses crawling over the Berlin Wall during the opening of the East. In this case the techniques of montage, intercutting, and flashback all seamlessly link not a meaningful event, but a *coherence* (in the quantum physics sense) of time-spaces, which are so tangled they can not be unravelled. Spooky action at a distance; bodies within bodies.


This act of filmmaking can be interpreted in many ways. Dundjerovic brings it back to the invention of possible worlds, worlds that you, I, and other subjects in a new world order of emerging subaltern-ities can use to play with in a new kind of 'glass bead game'. But there's no question that for Lepage and Dundjerovic, this game is crucial and takes place in a materialist history that is still building itself. No end of history here. [11]


I myself would connect this to Badiou's take on Deleuze: what he thematizes in Deleuze's work as the problem of the 'All-One', which in the end boils down to a simple question: how is difference possible, and if it is, then how are agency and awareness produced? [12]

Lepage handles this by forcing a confrontation with the scale shift when an individual takes on responsibility in the world, for themselves and for others, and shows how bodies develop the ability to act, to invoke other spirits and bodies, and to *sense*. The escape from a singular mode of thought is in my opinion what Robert Lepage's films excel at, managing to produce dialogs both within a theoretical boundary, but also so far beyond the pale that a real *unthought*, a real *outside sense* is discovered.


In cinema and architecture I argue for a kind of surrealist materialism, a theory which seeks emergent and inexplicable behaviors, new modes of relation, rather than the sanitizing space of a comfortable neo-modernist or humanist storyline where futures are already given in the present and the past remains immutable.


Lepage achieves this; I believe Dundjerovic is keenly aware of it. This is a project contemporary to the search for a new subject/agent/sovereign: individual, yet collective -- that Negri and Hardt have conducted in their work. [13] This project also has in-built an unknown factor (parasitical, the *noise* in the system) which reduces all theories to just '. . . sound and fury . . .', and mysteriously opens up all discourse to 'l'avenir' -- snatching the cubic centimeters of chance in Kairos and using them to render all possible worlds visible, coherent, and accessible to us.


Columbia University

New York, New York, USA





1. Steffen Bohm, 'Movements of Theory and Practice', _ephemera_, vol. 2 no. 4, November 2002 <>, pp. 328-351.


2. As a way of unpacking my use of subaltern, I subscribe to a broad and inclusive definition, which suggests both a subject embedded in a political landscape, but also an agent capable of altering that landscape; this position is outlined with this brief quote: 'For Gramsci, subaltern groups were by definition always subject to the authority of ruling groups, even when they rose in rebellion. However, for Ranajit Guha subaltern politics in colonial India constituted an 'autonomous domain' which did not originate in or depend on the domain of ruling groups. The fact that Guha and most Subalternists are writing against the backdrop of colonisation helps understand the compulsion behind this difference.' Tabish Khair, Subaltern Studies: Hegemony and Speech <>.


3. As Dundjerovic notes, Lepage emerges from a hybrid Canadian upbringing, dealing with a lengthy history of colonization in Canada, and with both English and French aspects to family life, culture and his identity; but he contrasts his own unique Canadian identity and history -- and that of his characters onscreen -- with such a wide range of sites in the world that I find it impossible to see his work as anything but a meditation on universal identities, roles, responsibility and actions.


4. Denis Hollier, _Against Architecture_ (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1989), pp. x-xi.


5. More recent examinations of the same thematic include not only Cronenberg's own _Existenz_ (1999), but also Olivier Assayas's stunning slow burn of a film, _Demonlover_ (2002).


6. Gilles Deleuze, _The Logic of Sense_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 81: 'Sense . . . is that which can be expressed by propositions, but does not merge with the propositions which express it.'


7. Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 1: The Movement Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), and _Cinema 2: The Time Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). Also cf. Philip K. Dick, _UBIK_ (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), and Jameson's comment's on _UBIK_ in his own _The Geopolitical Aesthetic_ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p. 14. Jameson easily evades a monocultural view, in that he sees the cinema as a symptomatic, functioning as a new index and register of political and economic systems in operation. Of course meaning plays a role in this, but there are many other components at work that are evidence of the nature of a vast system that uses individual or collective subjectivity as only one part of its overall strategy. This would be why Jameson often cites Pynchon or P. K. Dick in _The Geopolitical Aesthetic_: they are both authors intensely aware of systems dynamics that go beyond the limits of what we usually call *everyday reality*. My own interest lies in discovering the unexpected and unthought, as well as the new subject or the geopolitical agent.


8. The literary group, Ouvroir de Littrature Potentielle, which included writers like Georges Perec, and used artificial constraints borrowed from mathematics or logic to construct texts. Other examples (among many) include serial composers like Schoenberg, or the Oblique Strategies card operations used by Brian Eno.


9. In the world of theatre one thinks immediately of the virtuosic constructs made by the Wooster Group. For example see their piece _Poor Theatre_ (2004-05) <>.


10. This quote from Nietzsche is borrowed from Samuel Weber's excellent text, 'Displacing the Body: The Question of Digital Democracy' <>.


11. Again, there is that theoretical blind spot which is roughly equivalent to what we might find if we believe that, at the end of history, all that is left to us is to play a kind of 'glass bead game' (here I reference the Hermann Hesse novel _Magister Ludi_) with the shards of previous narratives. This is nothing new: the problem of a '. . . sound and fury, signifying nothing . . .' has been exhaustively (to mention only three examples) . . . rehearsed first by Shakespeare, in _Macbeth_:


' . . . To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.';


then exhumed by Hemingway (eponymously: _The Sound and the Fury_); then resurrected by Dave Sims in his graphic novel _Form and Void_ (Cerebus Book 14, 2001), an episode in his multivolume epic starring the time travelling soldier Cerebus, wherein Cerebus engages in a soul searching dialog with Hemingway's ghost.


12. Alain Badiou, _Deleuze: The Clamour of Being_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).


13. Antonio Negri, _Time for Revolution_ (London and New York: Continuum, 2003); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, _Empire_ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001) and _Multitude_ (Harmondsworth: Penguin Putnam, 2004).



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005



Ed Keller, 'The Reinvention of Self and World: On Dundjerovic's _The Cinema of Robert Lepage_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 35, June 2005 <>.











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