The Polygraph

(Le Polygraphe, Robert Lepage, Canada/France/Germany, 1996)


Do not go to The Polygraph expecting a sinuous, sexy mystery-thriller. As in his previous The Confessional (1995), director and co-writer Robert Lepage appears to find such thrills vulgar, almost abhorrent.

His use of a murder enigma in The Polygraph is extremely attenuated and minimal – a way of focusing our attention on the inscrutability of behaviour, and the illegibility of truth. It is a curious but finally rather unsuccessful essay.

Lepage is a theatrical wunderkind from Quebec's avant-garde. The purveyor of a "theatre of images" like Australia's Barrie Kosky, his move into cinema reveals a cautious interest in storytelling and old-fashioned, three-dimensional characterisation.

As a filmmaker, Lepage is principally interested in creating a thick, gloomy mood, and in conjuring for us certain paradoxes or "theorems" related to time, history and the obscure internal and external forces acting upon individual lives.

The tricky storyline traces unusual connections between all its characters. François (Patrick Goyette) is suspected by the police of killing his lover Marie-Claire – and, disconcertingly for him, he cannot quite remember whether he did or not.

Meanwhile, François' neighbour Lucie (Marie Brassard) is cast as Marie-Claire in a filmic reconstruction of the case directed by Judith (Josée Deschênes) – another interested party with her own axe to grind. Thickening this stew are Lucie's troubled boyfriend Christof (Peter Stormare), who happened to perform the autopsy on Marie-Claire, and François' teary, jealous compatriot Claude (Maria de Medeiros).

Like many contemporary art movies, such as those by Atom Egoyan or Peter Greenaway, The Polygraph has a layer-cake construction. Lepage sets various threads in motion – the central investigation, the film-within-a-film, characters who wander off into their own separate stories – and then he busily creates echoes and rhymes binding together these diverse pieces. His aim, presumably, is to create a rich, metaphoric structure.

Unfortunately, much of the film comes over as merely hyper-contrived, mechanical and lifeless.

For all its thundering obviousness of technique and metaphor, The Polygraph is finally a frustratingly cryptic film. Little baubles of meaning are strewn along the path – glittering, half-formed, portentous ideas about secrecy, loyalty, intimacy, memory, the personal and the political – but they never add up to anything coherent or satisfying.

Nonetheless, the film clearly has the conviction of its own brooding seriousness – and it is the kind of art movie often produced but rarely released in our boutique cinemas today.

© Adrian Martin August 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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