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Canadian Journal of Film Studies (2003) - Bridgespotting: Lepage, Hitchcock, and Landmarks in Canadian Film




Concluding a 1997 essay on cinematic cities, Scottish theorist Colin McArthur addresses a persistent tension between two kinds of audience response to film locations:

When people respond with recognition and pleasure to cinematic representations of the spaces they inhabit in the 'real' world, this should not be dismissed with academic arguments about our incapacity to know the world except through discourse. At the same time, the act of filming any space is clearly an act of discourse production..., prey to complex elision, condensation and repression and as dependent on previous acts of discourse production as on relationships with the 'real' world.

This is a tension we must simply live with.1

These remarks, especially the abrupt final paragraph-sentence, demand taking up. To begin, I would observe that recognition of the inevitable ideological content of an individual response to a representation need not pre-empt or invalidate that response: the personal/local recognition of presence and familiarity and the academic/theoretical apprehension of absence and strangeness can be productively combined in an assessment of a particular cultural product. The first kind of response may even be necessary to the second: it is hard to account for what is elided, condensed, or displaced without having registered what is present. McArthur's remarks seem particularly provocative from a contemporary Canadian point of view. How exactly should Canadians live, simply or otherwise, with the tension McArthur describes, when many Canadian audiences still have a shortage of films to which they can respond with the pleasurable recognition McArthur mentions, or with other strong forms of identification?

Moreover, when Canadian cinematic images are available, their recognition by Canadian audiences is not always a straightforward process: it is challenged by, among other things, the distances, both material and ideological, between Canadian communities. Peter Harcourt remarks that "[t]he political walls of ideological regionalism can only be surmounted by cultural bridges," but such structures can be difficult to build and to maintain, and they are not always used when they are available.2 While Robert Lepage's Le Confessionnal (Canada, 1995) was acclaimed at Cannes, and later at the Genie Awards, its Canadian premiere was complicated, and perhaps partly undermined, by political and commercial rivalry between the Toronto and Montreal film festivals.3 After its Toronto premiere, the film opened its regular run in the city to half-full theatres.4 Critical response has been fairly extensive and appreciative, yet remains far from exhaustive. By investigating one of Le Confessionnal's less obvious allus...

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PETER CLANDFIELD holds a PhD from Queen's University, where he has taught courses in film and in twentieth‑century literature. Currently he teaches at Royal Military College of Canada. His research interests include the roles of places and spaces in films and novels, particularly British and Canadian. He is also interested in theories and practices of censorship.


  1. Colin McArthur, "Chinese Boxes and Russian Dolls: Tracking the Elusive Cinematic City," in The Cinematic City, David B. Clarke, ed. (London: Routledge, 1997), 40.
  2. Peter Harcourt, "Introduction," Canadian Journal of Film Studies 2.2‑3 (1993): 4.
  3. Brian D. Johnson, Brave Films Wild Nights: 25 Years of Festival Fever (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2000), 268‑271.
  4. On the premiere, see Johnson, 271; on the Toronto run, see Shannon Kori, "From festival fanfare to box‑office flop," The Globe and Mail, December 8, 1995, C2.
  5. On the relationships between Le Confessionnal and I Confess, see e.g. Christopher E. Gittings, Canadian National Cinema (London: Routledge, 2002), 127‑135.
  6. Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock, revised edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 99.
  7. Henry Petroski, Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America (New York: Vintage, 1996), 121.
  8. For an illustration highlighting the similarities of scale and profile between the two bridges, see William D. Middleton, The Bridge at Quebec (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 104.
  9. Luc Perreault, "Robert Lepage et le 7e art: une fatale attraction," La Presse, 23 Septembre 1995, C1.
  10. Martin Lefebvre, "A Sense of Time and Place: The Chronotope in I Confess and Le Confessionnal," Quebec Studies 26 (1998‑99): 97.
  11. "The end titles show the image of the Quebec Bridge, which the camera of Alain Dostie transforms suddenly into a mass of steel whose effect takes the viewer by surprise." Luc Perreault, "Deleau, un inconditionnel de Lepage et du Quebec," La Presse, 20 Mai 1995, C4.
  12. "I thought that for everyone it would be a metaphor of vertigo, an image evoking the danger of living.... One day, someone asked, 'why does he kill himself at the end?' At Cannes and Toronto, [interpretation of the shot] was really split 50‑50. People see what they prefer to see." Quoted in Perreault, "Robert Lepage et le 7^sup e^ art," C1.
  13. Geoff Pevere, "In the eye of the storm," Globe and Mail, November 24, 1995, C3.
  14. It may be useful to compare what Lepage does in the final shot of Le Confessionnal with a much less ambiguous and less challenging use of a similar scenario. In the final sequence of the coming‑of‑age drama Foxfire (USA, 1996, Annette Haywood‑Carter), protagonist Maddy Wirtz climbs atop, and begins to walk across, the trusses of Portland, Oregon's Broadway Bridge. In so doing she is emulating earlier feats by her free‑spirited and liberating friend "Legs" Sadowsky; thus the film invites us to read her negotiation of the bridge as a straightforward metaphor for a new‑found ability to negotiate her future.
  15. Marco de Blois, ""A Great Tragedy"," 24 Images, 78‑79 (Octobre 1995): 85.
  16. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in contemporary South Africa, for example, operates on the principle that confession can provide closure on a troubled individual and social past and can make way for the reconstruction of community.
  17. Bill Marshall, Quebec National Cinema (Montreal: McGill‑Queen's University Press, 2001), 306‑312.
  18. Erin Manning, "The Haunted Home: Colour Spectrums in Robert Lepage's Le Confessionnal," Canadian Journal of Film Studies 7.2 (1998): 49.
  19. Ibid., 50.
  20. The 1907 collapse provides a poignant indication of the extent of the significance of the bridge: among its victims were many ironworkers from the Kahnawake Mohawk community, where recently efforts have been underway to memorialize the approaching centenary of the disaster. See Dan Rosenburg, "Two Rivers seeks memorial to Quebec Bridge victims," The Eastern Door (Kahnawake Mohawk Territory) 29 September, 2000. Available at http://www.easterndoor.com/deer/9‑35/9‑35‑3.htm.
  21. Petroski, 108‑110.
  22. Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 24, 26.
  23. It is noteworthy, though, that while Shaviro draws heavily on images of sex and violence to support his theoretical claims, the final sequence of Le Confessionnal could be classed as "family" viewing in more than one sense.
  24. Quoted in Maurie Alioff, "Haunted by Hitchcock: Robert Lepage's Le Confessionnal," Take One 4.9 (1995): 15.
  25. Petroski, 118.
  26. See Normand Provencher, "Robert Lepage devoile enfin a Quebec les secrets du "Confessionnal"," Le Soleil, 23 Septembre 1995, C12. Lepage's interest in the complication of local, individual identities by global social forces is also suggested in Le Confessionnal through Pierre's fascination with China, from which he has just returned. The film's incorporation of news footage from the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square serves to acknowledge that the uncertainties and dangers facing contemporary Quebec (and Canada) are less daunting than some of those existing elsewhere.
  27. Normand Provencher, ""Le Confessionnal" s'ouvre enfin au public quebecois," Le Soleil, 30 Septembre 1995, C3.
  28. Hansard: Debates of the House of Commons of Canada. 35th Parliament, 2nd Session. Available at http://www.parl.gc.ca/english/hansard. 1410‑1411.
  29. Ibid., 1431.
  30. Ibid., 1429.
  31. Ibid., 2135.
  32. McArthur, 34.
  33. Ted Magder, Canada's Hollywood: The Canadian State and Feature Films (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 72.
  34. McArthur, 18.
  35. Robert Kroetsch, "A Conversation with Margaret Laurence," in A Place to Stand On: Essays By and About Margaret Laurence, George Woodcock, ed. (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1983), 54.
  36. See Truffaut, Hitchcock, 147.
  37. Robert Kroetsch, The Studhorse Man (Toronto: Macmillan, 1969), 41.
  38. Brenda Longfellow and Thomas Waugh, "Of Canadian Cinemas and Canadarms: New Materialities," Canadian Journal of Film Studies 10.2 (2001): 4.
  39. Lee Carruthers, "Quebec, Hollywood, and Spaces In‑Between: Canadian Film Criticism and the Displaced Text," unpublished paper presented at the 2001 conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada at l'Universite Laval. I am grateful to the author for providing me with a copy of this paper.
  40. Brenda Longfellow, "The Red Violin, Commodity Fetishism, and Globalization," Canadian Journal of Film Studies 10.2 (2001): 11‑12.