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.
From this summary, you might imagine that Lepage is out to satirize people’s wishful notions of identity. But that, I’m sorry to say, would itself be a wishful expectation. Watch how the film plays out, and you realize Lepage cares only about how he can throw together his ingredients.
As the film cuts back and forth among its stories, switching from black-and-white Montreal to colorful Osaka, Sophie finds that her life imitates Feydeau farce at one moment, Noh tragedy the next. Not that Lepage has any feeling for Noh. The tremendous fact of Japanese drama exists within Nô as a mere conceit, an idea as translucent as the thinnest slice of smoked salmon. But then, Lepage has no feeling for Feydeau, either. Witness his plodding exposition of each plot point, his grinding elaboration of the slightest gag. If we may describe French farce as a dance of imposture, then Lepage’s version of Feydeau is the sham of a sham.
And what of the third drama enacted in Nô–the political crisis of October 1970, when the FLQ carried out kidnappings, and the Trudeau government responded by instituting martial law?
It’s just another item on the menu. That Lepage has nothing to say about the FLQ should be obvious to anyone watching his perfunctory comedy about Michel and the bumbling bomb-throwers. To anyone who has also seen Pierre Falardeau’s 1994 film Octobre, the shabbiness is all the more apparent. Although Lepage prefers to gloss over the fact, the FLQ did not merely take hostage Pierre Laporte, a government minister; after several days, they murdered him. Falardeau’s film about the episode is a pedestrian piece of work with a made-for-TV look, but it does something that the slick Nô won’t even attempt. It gets you into the heads of the FLQ, and into their stomachs. You feel them churn, as the kidnappers slowly decide they can’t turn back from their threat of killing Laporte. And even though Falardeau’s film is clearly made in sympathy with the separatists, it plunges you into Laporte’s experience, too. Do you want to know what it’s like to be blindfolded and strapped to a bed and bargaining for your life with people who are all the more terrifying because you halfway agree with them? Try Octobre.
Of course, a slab of experience that thick might give Lepage’s audience indigestion. Brunch eaters want a quick succession of flavors but not nourishment (which they might have to work off at the club). They enjoy references to different cultures but would rather not face the lives of different peoples; they want to hear ideas mentioned, but they don’t want to think. And so, in service to this clientele, Lepage ultimately undermines the reality even of Sophie. She gives voice in Nô to a simple, basic desire to be seen and heard as herself; and yet Lepage uses her body itself as an abstraction. To sum up Sophie’s unsettled situation in the world, Lepage reduces her to that cliché of obstetric symbolism, the woman who is pregnant and can’t decide what to do.
Anne-Marie Cadieux does her very best with the role. The period costumes that would be an affliction to most women–the see-through blouse, the miniskirt with metal belt, the white vinyl raincoat–look passable on her long, bony frame. She even holds up against pink lipstick–and if she can do that, she can survive Lepage’s dramaturgy. Marie Brassard has a rougher time of it as Hanako, a “character” who is no more than a conflation of types, Inscrutable Oriental plus Brave Waif. Hidden beneath a wig and dark glasses, Brassard manages the assignment wisely, by doing as little as possible. The rest of the cast is passable. But perhaps I should recommend that Marie Gignac receive the actor’s equivalent of a Purple Heart for her duties as Patricia, the attaché’s wife: a role that is meant to recall the bourgeois matrons of Feydeau’s theater, but instead brings to mind the Jews, as seen by Nazi cartoonists.
Good luck to Robert Lepage, “a creative force of seemingly limitless scope,” according to his press bio. Good luck to his audience; long may they graze. I’m off to watch Entrapment, the movie that asks the question: “Do you want to see Catherine Zeta-Jones in a body stocking?” Yes, I do, even though she’s been directed by Jon Amiel. And with the cost of popcorn figured in, I’ll still come out $63 ahead, compared with what I’d spend on brunch.