I coined the term “global brunch” several years ago after seeing a film of the Stravinsky-Cocteau Oedipus Rex as staged by Julie Taymor. Back then, Taymor had not yet attained demigod status for directing The Lion King on Broadway, nor had anyone told me she was a highly important artist; so, in my ignorance, I went by what I saw and concluded that her Oedipus Rex was dumb. Big, Cycladic-looking puppets jiggled nonsensically beside performers who’d been assigned Kabuki-like costumes and movements (the only reason being that the production happened to have been staged in Japan), while the chorus, in primitivist Mud People get-ups, writhed about on an Industrial Chic grid. In brief: a little of this, a little of that. I had seen such menus before; and it now occurred to me that their audience was the brunch-eating class.
Patrons of the $75-a-pop avant-garde, brunch eaters sit atop the world’s cultural food chain, sampling from buffets of African dance, Asian costume, Latin rhythm, Native American ritual. Some people claim that semiotics sparked their appetite–all those floating signifiers we used to hear about–but I blame the sun-dried tomatoes. Chefs began sprinkling them on damn near everything in the eighties; and where restaurants go, the arts will follow, for practical reasons. Directors and impresarios need a congenial place to confer with the grant-making officers of foundations, without whom the $75-a-pop avant-garde could not exist. What these people eat one year, they serve up on stage the next.
I will admit that such multicultural grazing is not common in motion pictures–or rather, it takes a different form, known as Europudding. Various national film bureaus, television channels and state-subsidized funds in Europe co-produce a film, which then must feature an actor from each participating country and be performed in a language spoken in none. But on rare occasions, some enterprising person carries a true global brunch from the stage to the movie house. That’s what happened with Nô, a film directed and co-written by Robert Lepage.
Even I, a Big Mac eater, know that Lepage has developed the reputation of being a highly important stage director, perpetually flying off from his base in Montreal to mount shows in Paris, London, Stockholm or Tokyo. Out of one of these productions, a Wagnerian-length extravaganza titled The Seven Streams of the River Ota, Lepage has carved the mini-brunch called Nô. Here’s what you get at the buffet:
It’s October 1970, and a Canadian actress named Sophie (Anne-Marie Cadieux) has come to Osaka to perform at the World’s Fair. At the Japanese pavilion, she observes an artwork that is profoundly rooted in national tradition: a Noh play. Meanwhile, back in Montreal, her boyfriend Michel (Alexis Martin) is engaged in his own drama of cultural authenticity, as an ideologue of the separatist Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ).
Floating between these two worlds, Sophie feels absurd. The play in which she appears, ostensibly to represent her nation, is not French Canadian but French: a Feydeau farce, performed with Parisian accents. To a self-aware Québécoise, no role could be flimsier or more shameful. When Sophie at last vents her frustration–in a restaurant, of course, at dinner with the Canadian cultural attaché and his caricature of a wife–you want to sympathize with her. All she wants is an acknowledgment that she exists. And yet, when you step back and look at the movie as a whole, it’s hard to grant her the identity she demands. What would she do with it?
Nothing much, to judge from the other characters. For all their dedication to the cause, Michel’s comrades in the FLQ behave like a cadre of clowns–dangerous clowns, considering they have dynamite in their hands. As for the film’s principal Japanese character–Hanako (Marie Brassard), the interpreter who assists Sophie–her native culture is something to be escaped. A survivor of Hiroshima who is subject to prejudice, Hanako cannot expect to marry in Japan. Her best chance at happiness lies elsewhere.