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‘Le Confessionnal’ a post-modern ode to Hitchcock from Robert Lepage

‘Le Confessionnal’ a post-modern ode to Hitchcock from Robert Lepage


This year, Robert Lepage was honoured as the recipient of the Glenn Gould Prize awarded for “a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human conditions through the arts.” Previous winners include Leonard Cohen, Yo-Yo Ma, Oscar Peterson, and R. Murray Schafer. In association with The Glenn Gould Foundation, TIFF presented a retrospective on his directorial work. One of the most famed working filmmakers in Quebec, Lepage’s influence extends far beyond the screen and he is also one of the foremost directors of the stage. Considered an important figure in the theatrical avant-garde, he brings his multi-media and theatrical approach to the screen to create unique and layered visions of the world.

Back in 1995, Lepage made his feature film debut with Le Confessionnal, a post-modern Hitchcock pastiche set in Quebec. The film is the story of the Lamontagne family and spans two different eras and the issues and crises that plague the various family members. At the heart of the film is the making of I Confess (1953) (shot and set in Quebec City), Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller about a priest who cannot divulge the identity of a murderer and is put on trial, and how it relates and parallels to the events of the family’s life. Using Hitchcock’s work, pastiche and intertextuality are used in Le Confessionnal as a means of exploring the search for identification and resolution in the Lamontagne family. The pivotal narrative line in the present is Pierre helping Marc find his real father, while the flashbacks about their parents and grandparents serve to illuminate and distort their search for the truth.

There is a significant use of visual homage in Le Confessionnal that twists the context of familiar images, the most obvious of these being recreations of specific shots from Hitchcock’s work. Early in the film, a scene begins with an image of a drain as the water begins to turn red, lifted directly from Psycho’s iconic shower sequence. As the shot plays on, it is revealed that the red substance is paint, because Pierre is painting a room in his parent’s house. The effect inspires levity but it also places the audience in a position of discomfort and distrust because a sign we understand as meaning death is reduced to being rather insignificant. This is a tool often used in post-modernism as a means of distancing the audience, so they become more aware of the constructs of the medium. Another reference to the shower scene later in the film appears with far more serious implications.

Though there are several shots in the film that are direct reconstructions from I Confess, the most significant is an homage to part of the flashback sequence. One of the most iconic shots in I Confess is an uncharacteristic, romanticized slow-motion shot as Montgomery Clift’s character watches Anne Baxter climb down a set of stairs. The same high angle and soft angle is used in Le Confesionnal, as Francoise looks down on her husband and his new cab. The vision initially idealized in Hitchcock’s film is decidedly romantic, and Ruth (Baxter) descends the stairs to meet her handsome lover: in slow motion, she is the vision of beauty and young love. In Le Confessionnal, Francoise’s smile quickly turns to frustration. The audience already knows she disapproves of Paul’s career choice, but the scene also reveals her depression and the failed chemistry between the couple. Later, Paul describes how difficult it was for him to remain supportive and affectionate to his wife, who was depressed, especially compared to her more youthful and beautiful sister. When he recounts “his” story, this moment takes on greater significance, as it seemed to be an opportunity on Francoise’s part to idolize herself as the Venus that Ruth appeared to be in Hitchcock’s film.


Another more subtle allusion to Hitchcock’s work is the use of colour. Pierre’s constant attempt to paint a room where the impressions of old photographs and frames that hang on a wall never seem to fade is reminiscent of Marnie, especially since, for most of the film, the wall is a blinding red. The wall seems to represent a traumatic past and difficult memories, Pierre cannot seem to paint over them, and soon becomes as obsessed with painting that wall as he does helping his brother find his real father; it reflects both Marnie’s troubled memories and her compulsive nature. This can also be evocative of the use of colour in Vertigo, where red is also significant. According to Glenn Johnson, red in vertigo is associated to both Scottie’s “romantic fantasies, but also with his vertigo and thus a sense of danger”. This similarly evokes trauma as the flashes of red do in Marnie, but also add a touch of romanticism which is not as relevant. The room does, however, hold special importance as it is a part of the family’s history as it is their home throughout the entire narrative. Much like the false romanticism in the recreated flashback sequence from I Confess, the red seems to yearn for a romantic and happy understanding of the past, but unfortunately, it does not exist and the path it will lead the characters on will only bring them pain.

An even more powerful use of colour and reference is employed during Marc’s suicide in a bath, which mirrors Marion Crane’s death in Psycho. In his article “Alfred Hitchcock- Master Paradox”, Ken Mogg describes the use of white in the shower scene in Psycho. He notes how, despite Marion’s moral ambiguity, the use of white walls and scenery suggests an angelic quality, adding religious implications to the scene. Marc is as morally ambiguous as Crane, and his own death is similarly white in appearance. However, as Marc disappears into the water, his slit wrists turn the water red, which brings us back to the tumultuous psychology of Marnie and Vertigo, as well as the unresolved memories and suffering that haunt the protagonists of both films. Though Marc’s physical pain is over, his psychological pain is almost directly translated to Pierre, who bears the burden of his brother’s death. The deification of Marc is important though, as so much of the film is centered on religion and religious institutions. As he is bisexual, a drug user, and negligent as a father, he is far from the ideal Christian. His suffering, however, is tragic because he seemed doomed from the onset because of his mother’s suicide and his father’s refusal to love him. His suffering is due to repression and secrecy, and as much of the intrigue of Hitchcock’s work comes from evasion and lies, in this narrative it serves tragedy rather than the thriller. Further enriching this narrative thread is the story of Oedipus which is referenced, as Paul allows himself to go blind because of the guilt he suffers as a result of Rachel’s, Marc’s mother, death.  Upon hearing this story, Hitchcock quips that the story is not suspense, but a tragedy; little does he know how these evasions and secrets would play out as a part of a larger mystery 30 years later.


Further subtleties in the film’s link to Hitchcock are the parallelism between I Confess’ narrative and Le Confessionnal’s. Both are bound by location, a priest and the confessional. The setting is important, notably the Church where Hitchcock’s film is set and where the Lamontagne family go for their Sunday service. This is where Rachel works, and her family suspects she was impregnated by one of the priests. Where Father Logan (Clift) hears a confession of a murder, which he is later accused of committing, the young Priest hears of Rachel’s affair, and is similarly bound by silence, which threatens and possibly destroys his career. The confessional makes one more appearance in the film, in the contemporary setting, where the private booths in a strip club are called confessionals. This undermines the sanctity of the confessional within the church and in a way, reveals how they bring more pain than comfort. In both cases, it seems as though people are buying false sentiment or thrills; one is sexual, the other spiritual. If anything, there is greater respect for the role of the stripper as all artificiality is acknowledged, especially since money is being exchanged.

The youth of both priests is also pivotal, and puts them both under immediately suspicion. This idea becomes almost meta within context of the post-modernist technique of Lepage’s film, as the doubt and distrust of both priests is tied directly by how they defy the expectations of the parishioners’. Since in both cases, their fears and doubts are completely unfounded, as both men are innocent, our understanding of reality and truth within film is put further into question. The parallels are played into heavily, and soon both Hitchcock’s shooting of the film and the drama unfolding begins unwinding concurrently, and even “reality” become blending “directly” into fiction.

The film further plays into the post-modern aesthetic through its use of incorporated footage. As the film is centered on I Confess, numerous scenes and segments from the film are included in Le Confessionnal. Sometimes, the references serve to enhance the action of the film, while more often than not; they are used to deconstruct how we perceive cinematic realities. A notable example would be in the church as the scene when Clift is walking through the church with a candle because he has heard someone. The construction of the entire sequence by Hitchcock undermines how we perceive the footage from the film moments later, especially as it becomes apparent that the scene is not lit by candlelight after all, but rather a candle modified with an electric light. This kind of deconstruction that is common with post-modernism serves to alienate the audience and force them to re-evaluate their understandings of genre. In revealing the illusion behind the magic of cinema, it puts into question our understandings of cultural norms and identity.

Though somewhat on the backburner, the importance of Quebec’s cultural milieu plays into the film’s narrative, especially in how significant Hitchcock’s presence in the province is. As much as the film is about the search for identity for the characters, it reflects a national pre-occupation, and it is a theme that runs through Lepage’s work. Le Confessionnal provides its regional political context through conversation, notably a taxi driver’s appraisal of Duplessis to Hitchcock. In retrospect, most regard the Duplessis era as the “dark years” and his positions autocratic, conservative, and repressive. Understanding the events through this perspective seem logical, as during the 1989 setting, there is often a TV on in the scene which is depicting the unraveling protests at Tiananmen Square and the subsequent massacre of the students. In both cases, the simple repressions and rebellions of daily life take on greater significance as their struggles become more universal. Though it can be argued that equating personal experience with this kind of sacrifice and political violence undermines its power, in the case of this film it only strengthens it as most of the tragedies that beset the Lamontagne family are directly connected to the repressive environment they exist within, even decades after Duplessis’ death.

The deconstruction of cinematic technique and illusion helps establish the idea our interconnectedness, as well as our inability to exist independent of the past. The alienation felt by the characters reflects of the distancing of the audience, as their inability to overcome their milieu and the suffering that the environment causes is expressed through Lepage’s filmmaking. Constantly breaking expectations and building on references and homage creates a work of collage that expresses post-modern ideology: all art exists in relation to what preceded it.

Using the work of Alfred Hitchcock, which has ingrained itself in popular culture, Lepage is able to express his ideas about the lives of Quebecois in relation to both an artistic and political context. Even with the changes made to his scenario in order to appease the church censors, they cut parts of I Confess during, and the most obvious interference between art and state become apparent. The relationship between art and our lives is not always so obvious, and it is through his other references and contextualization that Lepage expresses the significance of environment and past in the shaping of who we are. Marc is not only tortured by the idea of not knowing who his father is, he is burdened by constructs of society that emphasizes the importance of the father figure. Le Confessionnal is brimming with patriarchal references, not only in context of the traditional family unit, but within the church, politics and even filmmaking. The film asks us to understand how we interpret symbols and imagery from Hitchcock’s films that have been re-contextualized to serve a new purpose, but also to understand the more significant generic constructs of our society with the same kind of apprehension. It begs us to ask about how we measure our own worth against social and cultural norms that are often accepted without question.

— Justine Smith