Triptych (Triptyque): Berlin Review

Berlin Film Festival
Though it never quite comes together, this cinematic stage adaptation offers some interesting food for thought.

Canadian theater royalty Robert Lepage adapts his 9-hour stage spectacle "Lipsynch" for the screen and co-directs the adaptation with cinematographer and director Pedro Pires.

BERLIN -- Two Quebec sisters and a German doctor in London are connected in multiple ways in Triptych (Triptyque), a cinematic reinvention of Robert Lepage’s 9-hour, multimedia stage spectacle Lipsynch, which Lepage here co-directs with his cinematographer and editor Pedro Pires.

As the title suggests, the film version is divided into three interconnected chapters, which look at each of the three protagonists -- down from the nine leads of the stage version, which was like a trilogy of triptychs. As the film goes back and forth between Europe and Canada, questions related to the human voice, the recollection and memories of people’s speech and the human brain that contains and directs all this information are explored, though despite an ending that provides a sense of synthesis and closure, the actual ruminations over the course of the film never manage to feel like more than just an initial consideration of the subject.

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In Canada, where Lepage is a celebrated theater artist, this film should attract some attention, though theatrical engagements elsewhere will be rarer, though festivals will pick up some of the slack.

The film opens with a chapter named after Michelle (Lise Castonguay, competent), a spindly and frail-looking woman in her fifties who has just been released from a mental hospital and who manages to get her job at a second-hand bookstore in Quebec City back. She’s clearly extremely knowledgeable about books and culture in general and initially her going back to work seems to do her good, though it emerges she still has problems separating the voices in her head from reality.

Her sister also has voice problems: Marie (Frederike Bedard, good) is a Montreal-based jazz singer who has a brain tumor that requires an operation that could potentially influence her speech faculties, at least temporarily. Her story is more fully explored in the film’s third chapter, with the middle segment focusing on Thomas Bruckner (Hans Piesbergen, convincing), a German brain surgeon in London who will operate on Marie and who will at one point become Marie’s boyfriend (the timelines of the stories are scrambled, with Thomas already Marie’s partner in chapter one but not yet in chapter two). An alcoholic in an extremely unhappy marriage with Ada (operatic soprano Rebecca Blankenship, clearly not an actress), a singing teacher, Thomas faces his own, potentially life-changing moment when it becomes clear that his hands tremble too much to continue doing his precision work in the operating room.   

The main parallels between the characters are relatively straightforward, as each needs to overcome imposed medical obstacles and adjust their lives to potentially very different situations from what they’d like or hoped for. Throughout, the human voice is a recurring leitmotif that impacts all the characters, as they have to speak languages that are not their own, thus limiting their potential for expression and comprehension, and Marie, after her operation, becoming obsessed with the memory of the voice of her late father, an amateur singer whose precise sound she fears she has forgotten. Singing is another recurring leitmotif.

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But despite this, Lepage, who wrote the adaptation of his own play, never quite manages to bring all the material together in a meaningful way, occasionally straying into unrelated subplots that distract from rather than reinforce the main themes of the story, notably with the rather improbable story a cute bookstore customer (Eliot Laprise). Several references to art history -- notably Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas and Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam -- also fall flat and border on the pretentious because Lepage and Pires don’t give them enough space to develop into things that are fully anchored into the film’s thematic undercurrents. That said, the ending, in which Marie uses a series of dubbing actors to try and capture her father’s lost voice again, offers a resolution of sorts that ties the various elements together.

Lepage’s collaboration with Pires, an Emmy-winning visual effects artist who here handled cinematography and editing as well as co-directorial duties, ensures the film at least feels like a movie rather than a filmed play, though the strangely saturated image quality wasn’t without blemishes at the screening caught. Some of the camera movements are graceful, including during Marie's operation, though many viewers will probably not be too happy with the close-ups of the actual brain surgery. (Interestingly, the idea of a brain surgeon who would like to know what goes on inside his own head was also the subject of Philippe Claudel's recent French-language film Before the Winter Chill, with Daniel Auteuil as the surgeon.)

The fact Triptych was made over an unusually long time span, to accommodate the directors’ and actors’ other commitments, has no visible impact on the film. A few famous pieces of classical music substitute for a conventional score.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)

Production companies: Les Productions du 8e Art, National Film Board of Canada

Cast: Frederike Bedard, Lise Castonguay, Hans Piesbergen

Directors: Robert Lepage, Pedro Pires

Screenwriter: Robert Lepage

Producer: Lynde Beaulieu

Director of photography: Pedro Pires

Production designer: Jean Babin, Christian Legare, David Pelletier

Costume designer: Judy Jonker

Editors: Pedro Pires, Aube Foglia

Sales: Entertainment One International

No rating, 94 minutes.