"Post-Modernism in Robert Lepage’s Le Polygraphe"


By Amy McKinnon


            The challenge of studying a postmodern work, whether it is literature or film, is that it becomes a contest, as the viewer must work to gain a true understanding of the composition. Robert Lepage once said, “if you want to have an audience embrace what you do, you have to offer them a workout, not forced entertainment” (Goddu 1).  This is evident in his work Le Polygraphe.  As both a play and a film, it exercises the mind as it creates a truly imaginative postmodern work through emphasis on the world as a global village, the denial of chronology, references to specific plays and films as well as to each genre, stage and camera techniques, and the autobiographical nature of the plot.  Both works challenge the viewer in so many ways that it is impossible to gain full appreciation and understanding in just one viewing.  In the leap from stage to screen, Le Polygraphe involves a transformation in the characters, the plot, and the visual aspects of the story and becomes a truly distinct experience.


            Among the many postmodern aspects of Le Polygraphe, as both a play and a film, the references to the global village are very evident.  Lepage’s need to attain “his globalized place in Canadian cultural production” (Marshall 166) is evident in the many references to the individual’s role in a global community.  The connections made between the Berlin Wall and the human heart provide a fine example of this in both the play and the film:

A sophisticated system of alternating doors open and close to allow the flow of -

visitors from the West -

de-oxygenated blood –

and to impede -

inhabitants of the East -

oxygenated blood –

from circulating the “wrong” way (Lepage/Brassard 67).

The notion of the political world intruding on one’s personal world is shown through references such as this one and others.  For instance, David/Christof Haussman’s connection to Berlin and to Lucy and François, who happens to be writing his thesis, almost obsessively, on the topic, provides a view of  the effects of the political upheavals of the time on the personal self. 


In the film, there is a constant reminder of the political and personal connections through radio and television news reports of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  These audio reports provide a soundtrack to the events in the world and the effect they have on people so far away.  François’ graffiti on the wall of the roof, or the garden in the play, provides a dichotomous global/personal connection, as he must wash off the words, “history is written in blood” (80).  In a sense, he is attempting to cleanse himself of his guilt and rid the world of political mess.  In the film there is yet another personal connection between Christof and Berlin, as he discovers that Anna, a close relation, has committed suicide in Germany.  Although he is so far away, he still experiences the personal emotions and connections to life in segregated Berlin; and he is constantly reminded of them by the Matruska that he took from Anna before he escaped: “… I like to think it may stand for other things like… hidden feelings… One truth which is hiding another truth and another one and another one…” (76).


Another postmodern aspect of Le Polygraphe is the denial of chronological time.  This is evident in both the play and the film, as each reverts to the past, within a scene, and returns to the present, mirroring confusion in the characters and their world.  The audition scene, in both works, is a prime example of this, as Lucy must improvise “an absolute state of panic” (70).  It is in this scene where the surroundings regress to a subway platform where Lucy views a man commit suicide by jumping in front of a train.  This flashback provides us not only with insight into the personal state of panic and fear for Lucy, but also with a  foreshadowing of the tragic ending of the play.


The denial of chronology is also evident in the many flashbacks, in the film, to Christof’s life in Germany.  The use of flashbacks provides us with a view of the double lives of the characters (Maclean’s 62), whether it is François’ historian-by-day, waiter-by -night life as a murder suspect; Lucy’s connection to the character she plays in her new role; David’s connection to François as the conductor of the polygraph test; or Christof’s secret “past as an East German refugee” (62).  Voyeurism, yet another postmodern element, is evident through the knowledge of these characters’ lives.  As the viewer is shown the truth, through flashbacks, there is a constant reminder that the events are fictitious.  Lepage believes that, “the way for the audience to feel empowered is for them to feel that there’s no secrets” (Goddu 1) and this is very evident in the voyeuristic elements of Le Polygraphe.


A very obvious element of postmodernism in Le Polygraphe is the many references to plays, film, and writing in both works.  The play within a play, through Lucy’s role in Hamlet, and film within a film, through her role as the murder victim, are just a few of the many references made in both the play and film.  Lucy’s comparison of theatre and film provides an analysis of the visual media in which Le Polygraphe is presented: “In theatre it’s very different.  When you perform, the audience is watching you the whole time… But today, I felt that they were taking me apart” (Lepage 75).  The fragility of the individual self in film is shown as the camera takes it apart through various shots and angles.  The falsehood of film is evident through the references to the camera and to the fake tears that Lucy must use while filming; these, in turn, bring forth the awareness that one is viewing fiction.  The analysis of film and its production creates an ironic tone as one is viewing this analysis on a film.  This irony is evident in the scene in which Lucy and Christof discuss the cookie-cutter plot of most murder dramas: if you don’t know who the murderer is, blame it on the police.  An additional sense of irony in this scene is that they are discussing a story in which François is a suspect without knowing it - yet  another instance of voyeurism.


The unique uses of multimedia, stage, and camera techniques provide a prime example of postmodernism in both the play and the film.  The projections, which begin every scene in the play, provide a foreshadowing effect and set the atmosphere for the scene.  Projections, such as, “The Wound” (74), “The Call” (79), “The Rain” (83), and “Death” (83), provide a slight indication of what is going to happen in the scene.  However, they are also vague enough to maintain mystery and suspense for the viewer.  The use of projections also allows for a change of settings within a scene, as is the case in Lucy’s audition/panic scene.


The  stage techniques are unique and provide a cinematic effect, showing the passage of time, flashbacks, and the inner thoughts of the characters.  Through the use of lighting and movement of the actors, the passage of time within a scene is shown in the restaurant.  Through the use of minimal stage props, the illusion of a busy restaurant is created as François moves around the stage, with a table and the appropriate settings, speaking to his imaginary customers.  The use of lighting and movement provides an opportunity for flashbacks and allows the viewer to see into the minds of the characters.  This is evident as David remembers his life in East Berlin in scene eight of the play, and returns to the present with Lucy.  These techniques provide the stage with a unique atmosphere resembling that of a film and add a cinematic tone to the play.


Certain camera techniques add to the postmodern tone of the film, giving the viewers a sense of the characters’ interior lives.  This is evident in the restaurant scene, as the fast pace of the restaurant is emphasized by acceleration of the movement of the staff at certain times and deceleration at other times.  When Lucy visits François, he returns to regular speed, but the rest of the staff continues to move around them in fast motion.  This emphasizes the chaotic environment and the sense that the world continues to move at a fast pace, even when the characters slow down.  The continuous use of mirrors is also evident in the film, emphasizing the reflection of the characters and the different ways in which they view themselves and their lives.


A final element of postmodernism in Le Polygraphe involves the writer and director of both the play and the film - Robert Lepage.  Le Polygraphe was inspired by a real-life trauma in Lepage’s life, as he experienced events practically identical to those experienced by François:


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 the police caught the killer two years later, Lepage underwent a grueling 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 (Maclean’s 62).


The eerie parallelism between Lepage and his main character conveys a “macabre reality to Le Polygraphe’s esthetic conceits” (62).  In the play, this “macabre reality” reflects the inner angst of Lepage and what could possibly be his own contemplations of death.  This is reflected in the final scene when François commits suicide by throwing himself in front of a train.  This information raises the question of whether or not Le Polygraphe is fact or fiction.  The ambiguity of the answer provides a postmodern element to both the play and the film, as the viewer does not know whether the outcome is true to the real-life events.


            Among the many great qualities that make Le Polygraphe a truly memorable work to read and view, the postmodern aspects seem to stand out the most.  Although postmodernism requires a great deal of concentration and intellectual effort, once it is completely understood, it is extremely fulfilling to the reader and the viewer.  The postmodern aspects of Le Polygraphe add new dimensions to both the play and the film through emphasis on the global village, the denial of chronology, references to plays and films, unconventional stage and camera techniques, and the autobiographical plot.  In his work, Lepage has completed his desired goal of offering the viewer a workout in attempting to understand and analyse his work. Unlike most other workouts, Le Polygraphe has proven to be extremely enjoyable.


Amy Mckinnon

Canadian Studies 242


Works Cited

Dault, Gary M.  “Robert Lepage’s Le Confessional & Le Polygraphe: a Rumination.”  Take One 5 (1997): 17-21.

Goddu, Jenn.  “Quebec Director Lepage’s Newest Play a Work Under Construction.”  Canadian Press Newswire (1998): 1-3.

Lepage, Robert and Marie Brassard.  “Polygraph.”  Canadian Studies 242: Canadian Literature on Film Reader.  Ed. Ginny Ratsoy.  Kamloops: UCC Print Services, 2002. 63-84.

Le Polygraphe.  Dir. Robert Lepage.  Perf. Patrick Goyette, Marie Brassard, Peter Sormare, Marie de Medeiros, Josee Deschenes, and James Hyndman.  CFP Video, 1996.

“Le Polygraphe.”  Maclean’s (Toronto Edition) 110 (1997): 62.

Marshall, Bill.  Quebec National Cinema.  Montreal: McGill University Press, 2001.