Le Confessionnal 10 Years Later: A Québec Classic Revisited

Robert Lepage's Le Confessionnal Ten Years Later

by Donato Totaro Volume 9, Issue 5 / May 2005 22 minutes (5319 words)

In 1995 a then well known Québec theatre director named Robert Lepage made his first feature film, Le Confessionnal which, to my mind, remains one of the most impressive debut Canadian films ever. An intellectual and polyglot, Lepage carried his theatrical self-assurance over to the sphere of cinema without compromising cinematic language, and in fact expresses his ideas through formal means in the manner of an assured auteur. Thematically the film is not much of a stretch for a Québec film, centering on one of the constant themes in Québec cinema: sibling-parent tension. In this case, as in many other important Québec films, the tension revolves around an estranged father-son relationship [to name just a few Québec films dealing with troubled mother/father and daughter/son relationships, Les Bons Débarras (Francis Mankiewicz, 1980), Un Zoo la Nuit (Jean-Claude Lauzon, 1987), Les Invasions Barbares (Denys Arcand, 2003), and La Vie avec mon Père (Sébastien Rose, 2005)]. What makes the film impressive is not the story but its formal treatment across two time frames, weaving the past and the present and the personal and the historical.

The film’s narrative spans two eras of Québec, the Québec city of the Duplessis era (the early 1950s) and the Québec city of the post-Quiet Revolution period (1989). Using camera movement, hidden cuts, and music cues, Lepage weaves a seamless bridge between the two time frames. The film begins when the central character, Pierre Lamontagne (Lothaire Bluteau), returns to his native home in Québec city in 1989, after several years studying art in China, for the funeral of his father Paul-Émile Lamontagne (Francois Papineau), who died after years of neglecting his diabetes. Bluteau tries to connect with his estranged half-brother Marc Lamontagne (Patrick Goyette), a male hustler troubled by the mystery surrounding his father’s identity. Also on board in the 1989 portion of the film is a stripper who Marc fathered a boy with, Manon (Anne-Marie Cadieux), the boy, who suffers from the film’s ‘symbolic’ disease, diabetes, and Pierre’s conservative cousin André (Richard Fréchette), who gets Pierre a job as bellhop at the Château Frontenac Hotel, where he works as a service manager. In the 1952/53 Québec city scenes we follow the lives of Pierre and Marc’s lower working class family –Pierre’s soon-to-be father Paul-Émile Lamontagne, a cab driver, Paul-Émile’s sister Jeanne d’Arc (Lynda Lepage-Beaulieu), his wife Françoise Lamontagne (Marie Gignac), and her 16-year old sister Rachel (Suzanne Clément). Another important character is the young priest who will hear Rachel’s troublesome confession conerning her illicit pregancy, Raymond Massicotte (Normand Daneau). All their lives are partly affected by the presence of Alfred Hitchcock, who is in Québec city shooting his latest thriller I Confess.

Young priest Massicotte listens to Rachel’s confession

The appearance in Québec city of Alfred Hitchcock and his cast and crew for the filming of I Confess (released in 1953) is used as both a cinematic and thematic lynchpin. The real historical event of Hitchcock filming in Québec city is dramatized by Lepage interconnecting the shooting of the film with his fictional characters. Ron Burrage plays a convincing Alfred Hitchcock and Kristen Scott Thomas plays his ice-cold blond assistant. The character played by Thomas may or may not be based on fact, but is clearly an allusion to Hitchcock’s preference for casting actresses in (usually) stereotypical roles of ice-cold blonds (Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Doris Day). The main plot twist in I Confess, in which a priest played by Montgomery Clift hears the confession of a murderer but is bound by the oath of the cloth not to reveal the killer’s identity, is replayed in Lepage’s plot. In this case it revolves around the 16-year old Rachel, who works at the presbytery of the church where Hitchcock is filming, Saint Zepherin de Stadacona. Rachel is pregnant and terrified at the consequences of being an unwed mother in a cultural climate of severe Catholic morality. She confesses the identity of the father to a young priest, Raymond Massicotte (Normand Daneau), who is then suspected as being the father of the child after refusing to reveal the father’s identity for the same reason: the seal of the cloth. Françoise, who has been unable to bear a child, accepts her sister’s newborn child, Marc, as if it were her own. Depressed and unable to bear the weight of her guilt over the identity of the father, who is still unknown at this point, Rachel commits suicide by jumping off the Québec bridge (this bridge being one of the film’s most potent symbols). A short while later Françoise gives birth to her own child, Pierre. As part of a cover-up over the true identity of the father, the Lamontagne family do nothing to dissuade the rumor surrounding the priest. The main thrust of the film’s plot is unraveling the mystery of Marc’s father, which is played out across the two time frames and two sets of characters and revealed, in the past in the form of a story (confession) Paul-Émile recites to Hitchcock while a passenger in his cab, and in the present by the elderly, ex-priest Massicotte.

Socio-political Relevance

The film begins with a shot of the Québec bridge, over which we hear the voice-over of Pierre recite: “In the city where I was born, the past carries the present like a child on its shoulders.” Both this image and the words will return in the final scene, by which point the bridge will have become the film’s over-riding symbol of the co-existence of the past/present. The words also underscore the film’s overriding theme: the weight and influence of the past on the present, both emotionally and historically. The shot cuts to a long shot of Pierre’s family home in 1952. We hear his voice-over: “That year (1952), life in Québec city was marked by three important events: the arrival of TV; the re-election of Maurice Duplessis as Premier of the Province; and the presence of Alfred Hitchcock, who had chosen the city as the setting for his next thriller.” These three elements bear significance on the film’s theme and plot. The introduction of television in Québec can be seen as a foreshadowing of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960’s, a period where the media (television, newspaper, journals, radio, cinema) became an important tool and voice used by intellectuals and future politicians to help transform Québec from a religious (Catholic), rural society into a modern, secular, and politicized society. Maurice Duplessis, the founder and leader of the conservative Union Nationale Party that led Québec from 1936-1939 and 1944-1959, represented everything the Quiet Revolution opposed. The Duplessis reign, which is sometimes referred to as La grande noirceur (The Great Darkness), was built on strong Church patronage, which led to a policy of anti-Communism, anti-unionism, and conservative social policies. The significance of the third ‘event,’ the presence of Hitchcock, is less clear but may have something to do with Hitchcock’s own ‘troubled’ Catholicism. The condescending attitude of Hitchcock and, primarily, his assistant, to the Québec clergy and citizens may also be a sly reference to Hollywood and US cultural imperialism.

Duplessis on the left

Plot Machinations

Pierre’s search for the truth begins with his search for his half-brother Marc. Since Marc did not attend the funeral, Pierre has yet to make contact with him. While at work at the hotel [12’37”] Pierre spots Marc slipping out of the room of a sophisticated looking older man. [1] We later learn, as part of the film’s plot revelation, that this man is the young priest from the 1952-1953 scenes, Raymond Massicotte, now played by the older actor Jean-Louis Millette, who, not coincidentally, looks and moves uncannily like Ron Burrage’s Alfred Hitchcock. The parallel not only provides a playful link between 1952/53 and 1989, but between the two dominant male figures of the film, Hitchcock in 1952/53 and Massicotte in 1989. As the person who holds the knowledge of who Marc’s father is, Massicotte symbolizes a form of absolute power, which he holds over Marc and Pierre. Up until this point Pierre and Marc see themselves as half-brothers because Marc was adopted and raised by Pierre’s parents Paul-Émile and Françoise Lamontagne. Pierre believes the family cover-up about the priest, and confides this to Marc as the reason why his mother committed suicide. However, on a trip to Japan Marc learns from Massicotte that, in fact, he and Pierre share the same father, Paul-Émile, who slept with his wife’s sister Rachel. Soon after receiving this information Marc follows his mother’s footsteps by committing suicide, taking the truth of his father’s identity to the grave with him.

The elderly Massicotte: priest turned politician

The ‘double-suicide’ scene of Marc and his mother Rachel is one of the film’s most delicious moments, blending cinephilia with a powerful montage that alternates between the two time periods. The suicide sequence begins with Pierre [in 1989, 85’20”] trying one last time to paint over the ‘remnants’ of the past, the faded markings of the family photos that once hung on the wall of his family home. The scene cuts to Marc, who has accompanied Massicotte on a business trip to Japan, leaning on the side of a luxurious Jacuzzi. This cuts to a long shot of Rachel running along the bridge (back to 1952). As Rachel runs pass the camera the shot cuts to a location shoot of I Confess, with Hitchcock directing a scene set in the church. We see Hitchcock seated in his usual chair on the far right and his camera filming the action from screen left. As the action ends we hear Hitchcock yell, “…and…cut.” On the word “cut” the scene itself cuts to a medium close-up of Marc in the Jacuzzi, holding a straight razor in his hand as blood trickles down the front of his chest (back to 1989). The word “cut” as uttered by Hitchcock can be seen as a subtle reference to Psycho, the most famous of ‘bloody’ shower sequences, and in a more general sense, to the very notion of the physical ‘edit’ as itself an act of cinematic violence. A match cut to an overhead shot of Marc follows. He slowly falls backward into the pool, which dissolves into blood red and fades out and then fades in to an identical overhead shot of Rachel’s upturned corpse floating up to the surface of the water (back to 1952). This stylistic gesture is an ironic echo of the earlier transition [39’25”] from on overhead shot of Marc in a fetal position, to a slow dissolve of his mother Rachel’s pregnant (with him) stomach. The sequence ends by returning to 1989 and Pierre’s living room, only now the ‘past’ does not show through the newly painted blue wall. As Pierre receives the notice of his brother’s death (through an off-screen phone call) the camera dollies toward the dark blue wall, moving beyond a wall wood frame so the blue fills the cinema frame. As the shot lingers we forget this is a wall and recall the ‘blue’ waters in which both Marc and Rachel died.

A few months pass after Marc’s suicide and Massicotte returns from his business trip in Japan. Pierre confronts Massicotte and forces him to write out a large check for the welfare of Marc’s son. Massicotte agrees, but also throws out a cautionary warning about the hereditary nature of diabetes, which brings home the shared lineage of Pierre, Marc, his son, and their shared father, Paul-Émile; and the symbolic weight of the past (inheritance) on the present. This link between the past and the present, manifest throughout the film in the cutting, camera movement, and sound, gets its final reference in the last scene of the film. Pierre stands in front of the same bridge where Rachel committed suicide, with Marc’s son on his shoulder (a reference to the end of Stalker?). A sign next to the mouth of the bridge, which now stands to represent the film’s structural passage between past/present, reads the symbolic words, “Danger: Do Not Trespass.” Pierre’s voice-over, heard in the beginning, confirms the visual symbol: “In the city where I was born, the past carries the present like a child on its shoulders.” With ‘truth’ in hand, Pierre puts the boy down and, together, they move pass the sign and over the bridge toward what can be construed as a hopeful but uncertain future.

Questions of Stylistic Meaning 1: Time-Bending

In an early scene [5’00”] Pierre opens the garage door of his family home which houses his father’s old 1950s model taxi cab. Lepage performs a clever formal graphic match when he dissolves from a low angle shot of the front of the car, to a low angle shot of the coffin now holding Paul-Emile’s dead body.

The scene has shifted to the church where Paul-Emile’s funeral, attended only by Pierre and his cousin, is taking place. In this scene we get the first of many ‘bridges’ between the past/present achieved through a clever formal device. In this case a lateral long take ‘breaks’ the Bazinian sanctity of real time by shifting from 1989 to 1953. The shot begins on the two men, Pierre and André sitting alone in the church. They rise to their feet at the order of the priest and the camera tilts down and begins to track screen left laterally past a few empty pews, with priest’s sermon heard off-screen. The first pew is numbered ‘89’ which corresponds to the year the film is set in. Visible but not dominant in the frame are the odd numbered pews which decrease as the camera tracks further left. The film’s titles begin to appear. At pew number ‘81’ the sound changes to a 1950’s popular song and we see a woman seated at the pew. As the camera tracks more people begin to appear dressed in 1950’s clothing. The last pew is ‘53,’ which signals the end point of the past footage (the 1950s footage ends with the premiere of I Confess, released in 1953). The literal and figurative movement back in time also reflects the cultural changes that have transpired in the interim period. The empty church in 1989 represents the decline of the church as both a symbolic and political power in Québec. Once back in the Duplessis-era fifties the church fills up, reflecting the power and importance of the church. The camera then changes its course and dollies forward while craning up slightly to a close-up of the amber lit confession box, as the film’s main title appears, “Le Confessionnal,” with a straight razor through the letter ‘o’. The shot cuts to a close-up of the mirror reflection of Pierre’s father, Paul-Émile, shaving with the same type of straight razor seen in the title shot. This type of graphic match linking the present and the past occurs throughout the film.

Lepage performs this type of temporal shift within a singular, fluid “time-bending” shot on several other occasions. One of the first scenes in 1952 is between Paul-Émile and his wife Françoise in their bathroom, as he shaves and she takes a bath. Paul-Émile joins his wife in the tub. They begin to playfully toss water at each other, until they are stopped by the sight of blood forming in the tub, a sign that Françoise has had a miscarriage. At this point [10’42”] the camera pans slowly to the screen right away from them to a corridor, where we see Pierre in 1989 exit a door into the corridor and walk toward the camera [shot ends at 11’13”]. Later in the film [65’17”] the elderly Massicotte walks up the winding staircase of a theatre. The camera cranes up to follow him, losing sight of him momentarily when obstructed by the landing. As it continues to crane he comes back into view, only now it is 1952 and he has become the young priest. In these examples the effect is as if there were a cinematic ‘black hole’ in the narrative which the camera uses like a time tunnel. Although this effect of moving back/forth temporally within a shot has been done by many other directors before Lepage –Kenji Mizoguchi, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ettore Scola, and John Sayles to name only a few– the effect is still rare enough to appear fresh and exciting when well done.

Questions of Stylistic Meaning 2: Allegorical Spaces

If I referred earlier to the double suicide scene as the film’s most ‘delicious’ moment, the film’s most ‘delirious’ moment is the sauna scene, which starts at 21’55”. After spotting Marc exit from Massicotte’s hotel room Pierre has himself invited into his room on the pretext of a room service call. When Massicotte leaves for the bathroom to attend to a forehead cut, Pierre snoops around the room and finds Marc’s passport on a table, and next to it a pack of cigarettes and matches advertising a bar or club, which he puts into his pocket. A few scenes later he goes to the bar with the hope of finding Marc. The establishment, a gay sauna, provides Lepage with a space rich in allegorical and intertextual meaning. When Pierre first enters he is met by a leather-dressed gay clerk manning the desk, who seems to have little patience as a visibly uncomfortable Pierre walks around the foyer, ogling the wall of Tom of Finland paintings. The clerk sarcastically asks: “Do you want a room or are you here just to look at our Christmas decorations?” Once Pierre enters the sauna area we leave the flat, high key style of the foyer space for a richly textured, chiaroscuro private space. Our introduction to the space is through a visual illusion. Pierre enters and walks toward the foreground along a dark corridor, only to enter from screen right and reveal a mirror effect (he nearly walks into the mirror himself). He begins to walk along the corridor leading to the sauna. The first room he walks by has an elderly man with white hair wearing an orange house coat, accompanied by a much younger man wearing only a towel, who quickly shuts the door. The contrast between the orange/white and striking all-black background recalls the somber pictorialism of a Caravaggio painting. The image also recalls Greek or Roman Antiquity, which would comply with the sexual practices of the day, where sexual relations between younger and older men (pedastry) were common.

The allusion to Greek antiquity also parallels the penultimate scene where Paul-Émile tries to sell a suspense story to Hitchcock, who is sitting in the back seat of his cab. The story he recites is in fact his own story of having slept with his wife’s sister, only in this rendition the adulterer plucks out his eyes. The allusion is, of course, to the tale of Oedipus Rex, but also diabetes, which can lead to blindness. As Hitchcock tells him, “That’s not a suspense story. It’s a Greek tragedy.”

The confession cloaked in a story that Paul-Émile tells to Hitchcock is also a perfect example of what is referred to as “mise-en-abyme,” which is when a passage or scene in a film contains a miniature duplication or reflection of the whole text.

To return to the scene, Pierre enters his change room and strips down to a towel wrapped around his waist. He leaves and walks off in search of Marc. At this point the camera cuts to a complete high angle overhead shot and begins to track following Pierre, who soon gets lost among the many similarly dressed (mainly old) men walking around the red carpeted hallways or coupled in their private, ‘confessional’ cabins. From the god-like angle the camera looks down through the grid ceilings of each private cabin. The warm, dark colors (black and red) and the sound of hushed whispering voices underscore how this maze-like space is meant to suggest a modern version of a religious confession box.

The position of the camera angle to the ground and the perpendicular tracking movement recalls the camera movement style of one director in particular, Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the greatest spiritual directors of his generation, who made this camera movement his own, especially in his last three films (Stalker, Nostalghia, and The Sacrifice). The reference to Tarkovsky is brought home for me by the music cue during this long take [24’24”-26’08”], a slow, brooding Asian tinged score with Japanese flute, which is unmistakably similar to a musical motif in Stalker. Why Tarkovsky? I would speculate that, along with the fact that Tarkovsky engaged spiritual issues, something which also concerns Le Confessionnal, Tarkovsky, like Lepage, shared a fascination and love with Japanese culture and aesthetics.

Lepage’s (right) homage to Shochiku studios (left)?

The camera cranes back down to the narrow, red carpeted hallway, which is surrounded by black walls, and picks up Pierre walking out of a dark corridor. At this point the scene takes on a more surreal atmosphere, starting with Pierre’s being propositioned by an elderly man speaking through a voice-machine. The old man is wearing a white bib around his neck to cover his injured throat, but the effect within this allegorical space, gives him the appearance of a priest.

Pierre passes through a room where a bunch of toweled men are sitting watching, appropriately enough, a peplum film. [2]

He exits the screening room into another long corridor, which is bathed in a lighter, warmer pink and gold. At the end of the corridor he sees the back of a nude man through the frosted sauna door. Pierre enters the heavily steamed, golden room calling out Marc’s name: “Marc. It’s Dad. He’s Dead.” Marc’s voice responds, “I know.” The image of Pierre, barely visible through the steam, walking aimlessly guided by an extended arm can be taken as a visual metaphor of the film’s central theme: the search for truth.

Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Avant-Garde

On the stage Robert Lepage has made a name for himself directing award winning multimedia experimental and avant-garde works (Tectonic Plates, The Face on the Other Side of the Moon, Geometry of Miracles). It is not surprising, then, to find out that Le Confessionnal is a challenging work at the level of style and form and that it reflects an awareness of art/cinema history. As such, Le Confessionnal makes for an interesting study on the question of modernism and postmodernism, the periodization of these terms, and what they signify across different arts. My point is not to engage a debate which is far too extensive and porous for a single essay, but the issue does hold relevance for Le Confessionnal, which mixes elements of both modernism and postmodernism. The relevance for Le Confessionnal in terms of the critical/theoretical debate is best expressed in Anne Friedberg’s discussion on the subject in her book Window Shopping, more specifically the chapter “The End of Modernity: Where is Your Rupture?” [2] As Friedberg argues, the essential problem for cinema with the periodization of the terms modernism/postmodernism is that cinema was born into modernity, into an age of science, technology, mass communication, mass consumerism, and scientific management, but was not technically and thematically ‘modernist’ right from the beginning. Hence where someone like architectural historian Charles Jencks can point to ‘1972’ as the end of modernism in architecture, the same can not be done with cinema. [3] With the general consensus of Postmodernism in most arts forming in the 1960’s, cinema may now be “in postmodernity,” but not all cinema is postmodern. Elements such as closure, mimesis, and linearity, the lynchpins of realism (anti-modernism), are commonly used within the modern apparatus techniques of cinema which, Friedberg believes, makes the modernism/postmodernism terms inappropriate for cinema. [4]

Rather than this historical divide Friedberg follows the lead of postmodern theorist Andreas Hussyen, who shifts the critical emphasis onto a cultural/discursive divide rather than temporal/historical divide. In his writings Hussyen positions modernism vs. mass culture, with modernism being an art movement or style which foregrounded a ‘divide’ from mass culture. Positioned somewhere between modernism and mass culture is the avant-garde, which rejected the divide (separation) from mass culture. This can be seen in the historical avant-garde with surrealism, which loved silent comedy, horror films, the low budget and esoteric, or futurism, which loved cars, speed, trains, technology and violence. Hence for Hussyen the avant-garde can be seen as the forebear of the postmodern because of postmodern’s attempt to reconcile, fuse, or cloud over the ‘great divide’ between mass culture (low brow art) and modernism (high brow art). “The ‘historical avant-garde’ (which includes Russian constructivism, Berlin Dada, and French surrealism) would be Huyssen’s chosen genealogical forebear for the postmodern.” [5] So the critical emphasis becomes not periods, but the nature of the ‘divide,’ or the lineage between a particular art and its relation to mass culture, with modernism refuting it, avant-garde incorporating it, and postmodernism (for the most part) embracing it (if sometimes for critical reasons). From a critical standpoint the question becomes one of cultural dominance rather than strictly stylistic exegesis, since the emphasis, the context, the attitude, etc., can make a major difference in whether a style is considered modern or postmodern (or avant-garde).

The point of the above is to lend some clarity to analyzing the “cultural dominance” in Le Confessionnal, a film which has the earmarking of the avant-garde in the sense of both embracing and employing elements of popular art (with the Hitchcock subtext being primary), but not at the expense of denying certain formal and thematic elements of modernism (formal: non-linearity, symbolic use of landscape, color, and art direction; thematic: existentialism, urban alienation, quest for personal and national identity); or the recourse to a certain postmodern sensibility (cinematic allusion, reflexivity, the use of anachronistic music, mise-en-abyme, brash stylistic ruptures).

In the end, Le Confessionnal clings to modernism in that it does hold out for the search for meaning/truth (anxiety, urban alienation, identity crisis, depression) in a world increasingly fragmented, complex, and overwhelming; in contrast to the more likely postmodern attitude of bypassing these questions, relativizing them, or suggesting they are no longer viable. For example, the use of the Hitchcock film-within-a-film is not merely cinephilic glee on Lepage’s part but used to help articulate the film’s socio-political analysis of Québec. It is said that the reason why Hitchcock set I Confess in Québec is because he wanted a contemporary city where the power of the Church and religion still held sway, since it would make the story more believable. Lepage also uses the dual narrative to counterpoint the shift in power from religious to political authority, which is symbolized by the Massicotte character, who is a priest in 1952/53 and a politician in 1989. Although the extent of Massicotte’s political power is unknown, he maintains authorial power in the narrative through his wealth, status, and, more importantly, knowledge of the ‘truth.’ Oppressive forms of direct political authority are hinted at by Lepage in the television news coverage of the Tiananmen Square incident. The waning power of the Catholic Church and the shift from a sacred to secular Québec society is depicted visually in the earlier described church scene –where the empty church in 1989 is transformed into a full church in 1953– and the way the private confessional space of the past is replaced in 1989 by surrogate, secular private spaces, some which have become ostensibly sexual in nature (the private cabins at the sauna, the small cubicles at the dance bar where Manon performs private stripteases, Paul-Émile’s taxicab).

A disinterested Hitchcock listens to Paul-Émile’s ‘confession’

In Frank Kermode’s wonderful book The Sense of an Ending, he argued that one of the functions of narrative art is to render meaning to that which we can not experience: finality and death. We can not experience our own end, so create ‘endings’ in our stories and give ‘meaning’ to them. Death occurs in several temporal and narrative levels in Le Confessionnal: it occurs in the ‘real’ past and the ‘film-within-a-film’ narrative of I Confess; and it occurs in the present. Paul-Émile’s death is one of necessary convenience, since it triggers Pierre’s return home and his search into the past for the truth. The two more meaningful deaths are the dual suicides of Rachel and her son Marc; one occurs in the past, one in the present; one as a result of the truth repressed (Rachel), the other as a result of truth discovered (Marc). The one character who gains from the truth is Pierre, who in the end is able to put the past behind him –symbolized by the frame markings on the wall finally being covered by the blue paint– and take the risk of traversing the bridge toward an uncertain future.

Stains of the past…finally covered

Narrative time is at the service of this ‘meaning.’ The modernists were also infatuated with a particular form of ‘meaningful’ time, what Henri Bergson called durée (duration), the experience of time, which preoccupied many ‘modernist’ era philosophers (Bergson, William James, Alfred Whitehead, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl). This question of temporal experience became a major subject/theme across the greats of modern literature (Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Wolf, Gertrude Stein, Jorge Louis Borges, on through to Alain Robbe-Grillet). In postmodernism there is a diminished importance to temporality —what postmodern theorist exemplaire Fredric Jameson referred to as a ‘weaning of historicity,’ ‘historical amnesia,’ and ‘schizophrenic time’. The result is that in postmodernism time is less bound to the personal and the historical, and becomes more aligned to the technological and the cosmological (chaos theory). In short, the time scale becomes distanced from human comprehension. This is not the sense one gets from Le Confessionnal, where time, whether linear or non-linear, is never beyond ‘human comprehension.’ This makes it tempting to label Le Confessionnal a ‘throwback’ to modernism. However, that would be in denial of the noted allusions to popular culture and its flirtation with a postmodern sensibility. The latter is nowhere more in evidence than in the music video-like interlude during the scene at Manon’s cheap motel room (at approximately 54 minutes), where a magical gust of wind, pinkish light source, and pixilated stop motion camera ‘stops’ the narrative for no apparent reason other than as a hip stylistic gesture. To further the postmodern turn, the song played over this scene, Depeche Mode’s “Waiting for the Night,” was released a year after the setting of the film, 1990; and several other contemporary pieces used in the film by Depeche Mode, Portishead, Goldfrap, and Tricky were also composed in the mid-1990s. The mixture of such techniques as anachronism, a staple of postmodernism, with the accommodation of popular art and reliance on modernist trappings make Le Confessionnal a film which continues to defy easy categorisation. With the hindsight of Robert Lepage’s Renaissance career as actor, playwright, art designer and film, theatre and opera director, this is hardly surprising.


1 The time code throughout is based on the Alliance Atlantis Region 1 DVD.

2 Peplum was a genre of Italian film in the late 1950s, 1960s set in Ancient Greece or Rome, often featuring toga dressed musclemen of Greek or Roman mythology (Hercules, Samson, Achilles, Ulysses, Maciste, Spartacus, etc.).

3 Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1993, 157-179.

4 Friedberg, 158.

5 ibid. 165

6 ibid. 165

The photo of Duplessis and the clergy was taken from the Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia

Le Confessionnal 10 Years Later: A Québec Classic Revisited

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 9, Issue 5 / May 2005 Essays   canadian cinema   country_canada   le confessional   lothaire bluteau   modernism   patrick goyette   political   postmodernism   quebec cinema   robert lepage