Le Polygraphe: Two Media, Two Perspectives,
One Post-Modern Work
April 4, 2004
Le Polygraphe is a character driven story that explores the after-effects of a murder in Quebec City. The play has only three speaking characters and the relationships between these characters and the murder are the central focus of the story. “One character is suspected in the killing, another dissected the body, and yet another is auditioning for the role of the dead woman in a filmed dramatization of the tragedy” (Monk 177). The film version of Le Polygraphe has many more characters than the play; however, the focus remains on the three mentioned characters. Independently both works are identifiably post-modern; however, when they are examined together the post-modern characteristics are even more pronounced. The two works are very different, yet they are complementary. The package could be examined as one work. Their similarities and differences work together to be transformed into one multi-dimensional piece of art.
Robert Lepage is often seen as one of the “most exciting visual narrators in Canadian Cinema” (Monk 176). Interestingly, Lepage did not begin his career in cinema; rather, he began in the theatre. His theatrical background is evident in many of the techniques that he employs in the film version of Le Polygraphe. It could be said that the film is very theatrical in its tone and how it is presented to the audience. The tone of the film is conveyed in some cases by placing less focus on the dialogue and more focus on cinematic and theatrical techniques such as lighting and camera angles. The film is deliberately presented to the audience in a very voyeuristic way. The film acknowledges that there is an audience watching it.
A central theme in Le Polygraphe is the idea that film is a lie. This theme is expressed in both the play and the film versions of the story. Lepage is known for his examination of the “metaphysical space between the film frame and reality”(Monk 177). In Le Polygraphe, Francois’ interpretation of reality becomes altered by the events of the story. Before taking the polygraph test, Francois knows that he did not kill his friend. After the polygraph test, and more importantly, as a result of not being told what the results of the test were, Francois begins to doubt his knowledge of what really happened. When Francois discovers that there is a film being made about the tragedy his doubt deepens so much that he begins to believe the opposite of what he originally knew. Why is it that a film, which we all know is fake, has the power to make us believe something which may or may not be exactly true? This is the question that intrigues Lepage.
In Le Polygraphe, Lepage clearly makes reference to films not being real. One example of this is in a conversation that Lucie and David have about crying in film. “(She takes a tube from the dressing room table.) You’ll never guess what this is made for. It is a special product they use in movies to help actors cry” (Lepage 71). David is mortified by this realization and even proclaims, “What a deception!” (Lepage 71). When immersed in a story an audience is willing to suspend their knowledge that what they are watching is not real and true. It is a troubling idea that viewers can grow to believe in and trust characters so much that they believe that they are really crying. In a final statement Lucie, perhaps unintentionally, relates this idea to reality: “I guess that sometimes you have to suffer if you want it to look like you are suffering”(Lepage 72). Sometimes in order to make people believe that something is real it has to be real. The danger in film is that though the tears, for example, may be real the situation causing the tears is simulated. Tears are such a powerful symbol of pain and sadness that the sight of them is all a viewer may need to believe that a character is actually feeling those emotions.
In the play there is another illustration of Lepage’s theme that film is a lie. It occurs in scene twenty, and there are no actors present. The only things present on stage are a rain-covered wall and a camera that is covered with an umbrella. The personification of a camera could be seen as a condemnation of the audience. It clearly portrays the audience as the ultimate voyeur. They are obsessed with the lives of others, real or fabricated. Post-modern works such as Le Polygraphe are often “concerned with the effects of representational practices.. .and thereby problematize [their] own representational practices and their effects”(Harvie 227).
A characteristic of the post-modern era is that work is thought to be unfinished. Writing, film making and other disciplines are a process and artists should be free to make changes and modifications as any story is bound to evolve. Le Polygraphe has gone through a number of evolutions. The play itself has been re-written several times in addition to going through the transformation from stage to screen. Focusing on the transition of the story to film, one is likely to find many changes, including the addition of characters, as well as the chronology of events. One major change between the play and the film is that a lot of the characteristics of Francois were left out of the film. In the play Francois is more controversial and sexually provocative. We get a hint at this in the film because the sexually toned scene where he ties up Lucie remains; however, in the play this side of Francois is more evident and better developed. Unlike in the film, there is a pattern of behavior developed that characterizes Francois as someone who would tie up Lucie in the way that he does in the play. We find out early in the play that Francois is gay, and in scene seven there is an intense homoerotic encounter in a bar. The sexual scene is controversial itself because it is quite violent, yet completely consensual. This scene gives the viewer insight into Francois’ character, specifically the emotional turmoil he is going through. In another scene the viewer sees the physical effects of that encounter. “His back is marked with whiplash weals. He soaks his shirt in water and lays it across his back with a sigh of relief’(Lepage 72). In later scenes the viewer sees that Francois is suicidal and that he uses cocaine. Just before he ties up Lucie in that provocative scene he describes candidly his use of the straps in masturbation. Although the play and the film arrive at this scene differently, it is equally effective. In the play Francois’ actions in this scene are seemingly more characteristic of his recent behavior which illustrates the progression of his self-destruction, ultimately ending in his death. In the film, Francois’ behavior in this scene is rather uncharacteristic. The rashness of this behavior reveals the desperation and self-doubt that Francois is feeling. Francois’ actions are used in each medium differently to portray his emotional state.
Lepage makes use of expressionism in both versions of Le Polygraphe. Expressionism is used mainly to objectify inner experience. His use of expressionism is very apparent in the film version and not quite so in the play. The difference lies in the viewers’ expectations of what they are going to see when they attend a film as opposed to a play. They key difference between the two mediums are that the play is live and the film is not. The expressionistic techniques in Le Polygraphe are most apparent in the visual effects. That translates into mainly the lighting and set design in a play. In a film that translates into a lot more. When reading the play, we see that the main examples of expressionism are not in the dialogue, but in the stage directions. “A marked ‘slow’ change in lights and sounds indicates a time warp: time is rapidly passing. LUCIE and DAVID reach for their coffee cups in slow motion, their eyes locked together”(Lepage 76). The viewer of the play does not have the written stage directions in front of her/him and therefore it is more difficult to understand that time is passing at an accelerated rate. In the film the rapid passage of time is quite effectively portrayed thanks to the wonders of visual effects. All of the characters are simply sped up because the film is sped up. It creates a visually stunning scene that can easily be comprehended.
What makes the rapid passage of time an objectified inner experience and not just a visual effect? When generalizations and insights into a characters emotions can be drawn from that visual effect it is expressionism. The rapid passage of time, for example, symbolizes the desperation that Francois is feeling. He feels like he has no control over his innocence. The police did not tell him that the polygraph test showed that he did not commit the murder. He has been living for a year in limbo. It is interesting that in the film when time is moving so quickly, it is moving at a normal pace to Francois. Life is going on around him, and it is as if he doesn’t allow himself to be a part of it because his guilt, or perceived guilt, is over-powering. Another example of expressionism in Le Polygraphe is in the scene where Francois ties Lucie up. Francois is trying to project his feelings onto someone else. When Lucie is tied up and blindfolded she is helpless. Her well-being is completely subject to the will of another. The vulnerability of that situation can be very over-bearing and is so for Francois. Lucie, though, is able to trust Francois despite her fear. This scene portrays the contrast in the stability of each character as at the end of the scene it is Francois, the aggressor, who breaks down and it is Lucie who is there to comfort him.
The fact that the two versions of Le Polygraphe are very different is characteristic of post-modernism. Having a number of versions of the same story at one’s disposal is valuable. Reading the play and watching the film together can enhance the experience and understanding of the message of the story. Post-modern culture takes into consideration the fact that not all people can or will sit down with a book and fully comprehend what the writer is trying to say. Today’s artists can reach more people by experimenting in a number of different media. In the case of Le Polygraphe, different aspects of the story resonate with the audience better in one work than in the other. It is an important idea that there are different versions of every story. These different versions are born from different perspectives. Le Polygraphe could easily be written again from the perspective of a different character, for instance. However, the perspective that is most important in post-modernism is the perspective of the audience. The audience truly does complete the work. Each member of the audience is encouraged to take something unique from the post-modern work. Hybrid works like Le Polygraph could be said to provide the reader with more information and different information. They can be equally appreciated by an audience on their own or when looked at together.
Harvie, Jennifer. “Robert Lepage.” Post Modernism The key Figures. Ed. Hans Bertens and Joseph Natoli. Blackwell: Mass, 2002. pp.224-30.
Lepage, Robert. “Le Polygraphe.” Canadian Studies 242: Canadian Literature on Film. Ed. Ginny Ratsoy. CC: Kamloops, 2002. pp. 66-84.
Monk, Katherine. “Weird Sex and Snowshoes And Other Canadian Film Phenomena.” Raincoast: Vancouver, 2001. pp. 176-78.
LePolygraphe. Dir. Robert Lepage. CFP Video. 1996.