Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Far Side of the Moon

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE FAR SIDE OF THE MOON

7/10

La Face cachee de la lune : Canada 2003 : Robert LEPAGE : 105 mins

and when we shoot for the stars
what a giant step
have we got what it takes
to carry the weight of this concept?

Tasmin Archer, Sleeping Satellite

This is Quebec dramatist LePage’s fifth feature as writer-director, and it now seems he’s comfortable floating freely between the worlds of theatre and cinema. What started as a one-man show now becomes a highbrow comedy-drama which ambitiously encompasses interplanetary travel and the more mundane difficulties of communication down here on Earth. LePage himself plays both lead roles: Philippe is a head-in-the-clouds academic whose thesis posits that the space-race was primarily motivated by narcissism; his older brother Andre is a more down-to-earth type, a gay weatherman content to look at the surfaces of things without penetrating much deeper. They aren’t close, but the death of their mother means they have to resume contact in order to deal with the practicalities. Cosmic complications ensue.

'Ladies and gentlemen, we are now floating in space'Nothing in The Far Side of the Moon quite matches the impact of its remarkable opening. We see Philippe at a launderette, then the camera goes inside the washing-machine to observe the world through the circular window. The shot then pulls back until we see that the window has become that of a spaceship orbiting the Earth – Benoit Jutras’s (consistently outstanding) score swells in epic crescendo, and the film’s Cyrillic-type titles fill the screen. Throughout the film LePage and his cinematographer Ronald Plante pull off similar sleight-of-eye visual coups in which aspects of everyday reality neatly ‘rhyme’ with astronomical images, as when the stars in the constellation Orion ‘become’ the dust floating in a gold-fish’s bowl. Globes and circles abound, and the viewer is effectively taken into Philippe’s head – everywhere he looks he sees reminders of his great interest.

Not that Philippe is an especially sympathetic protagonist: oddly androgynous (and facially reminiscent of a defenceless, ageless, hairless shrew) he admits he’s something of a bore – anti-social, terminally unlucky in love, resentful of his brother’s material success, and still living firmly in the past. The bearded Andre, who looks completely different (rather like American actor Jeffrey Jones, in fact), may not have anywhere near so much screen time as his sibling, but his presence is crucial to the film’s thematic concerns of doubling, mirrors, narcissism (both personal and political) and deep-rooted family dysfunction.

Someone comments that Philippe has “original technique and unusual ideas”, and that’s also true of LePage – The Far Side of the Moon may be a little slow and cerebral for some tastes, but it represents an intelligent, quizzical cinematic voice appealingly different from those usually heard at the moment, even in arthouse cinemas. And while we – like the Russian expert he meets late on – may not quite ‘buy’ Philippe’s thesis, LePage’s approach of using a fictional format to explore philosophical ideas actually holds up very well to scrutiny from multiple angles. The picture seldom feels dry or schematic: there’s a surprising amount of humour along the way, mostly at the expense of the hapless Philippe, while LePage’s visual imagination provides a series of memorably oddball images. These include the remarkable, gravity-defying final shot which, by all accounts, LePage also achieved on stage, though heaven only knows how he pulled it off.

13th September, 2004
(seen 21st August : FilmHouse Edinburgh : press show – Edinburgh Film Festival)

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by Neil Young