Something is missing from George Barber's apartment: his brain. In the opening moments of Robert Lepage's film adaptation of the Governor General's Award-winning play by Toronto's John Mighton, the police discover the rest of George (Tom McCamus), a financial analyst, but are baffled as to why he's literally been left empty-headed.
Though the police are busy trying to solve the mystery behind George's death, George does not assume the usual behaviour of a corpse. He still has a life to lead. In fact, it becomes clear as Possible Worlds unfolds that he has many lives in many different worlds. He meets a woman named Joyce (Tilda Swinton) in each of them, and their romance is played out again and again with significant variations. In one world, Joyce is a shy neurologist he meets in a cafeteria; in another, an aggressive businesswoman who seduces him in a bar. As the events become increasingly tangled and surreal, the details of George's true fate begin to surface.
One idea that inspired the play was a scientific experiment involving epileptic patients that indicated the two halves of the brain function independently of each other, suggesting the possibility of separate consciousnesses within the same person. "I think people have grown more aware of the schizophrenic nature of any person," Mighton says in an interview last week. "You can be perfectly happy one minute, then the tiniest thing can plunge you into a part of your mind you'd forgotten about."
Mighton suggests that people's growing understanding of the multiple nature of their personalities partially explains the vogue for such stories. "Roland Barthes wrote once that in the 1800s, you could usually say that if a person liked one thing, then he or she liked other things, that you could accord people a set of traits and dispositions according to their class. Now it's much harder. People piece their lives together out of random bits they take from different religions, different social philosophies. I think we're beginning to understand how provisional our lives are, how we construct them."
Possible Worlds is a typically brainy (or heady, to use an equally dubious pun) example of Mighton's work, but he says it's less about the weird science involved and "more about how we create these worlds." Currently working on a post-doctoral fellowship at the U of T's Fields Institute in Mathematical Sciences, Mighton is a fascinating writer with a background in philosophy and mathematics as well as the Toronto theatre scene. Though Possible Worlds is his first screenplay credit, it's not his first encounter with the movie world -- a few years ago, he corrected some of the math in the script of Good Will Hunting and ended up with an acting part.
He wrote Possible Worlds over a decade ago, but the timing of this film adaptation is less than ideal. Coming after thrillers like The Matrix, eXistenZ and Open Your Eyes (the Spanish film being remade by Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise as Vanilla Sky) and dramas like Passion of Mind and Sliding Doors, Possible Worlds' premise about alternate realities hardly seems novel.
However, Lepage's adaptation -- the Montreal actor and director's fourth feature film and his best since 1995's Le Confessionnal -- has a visual panache and intellectual rigour that most of the others lack. It is also much more deliberately poetic, with Lepage heightening the play's dreamlike qualities and emphasizing images of water and mirrors. Its meditative pace makes it reminiscent of the later work of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, The Sacrifice), which Mighton admits was an influence on his writing and on the development of the adaptation.
The play was first produced at the St. Lawrence Centre in 1990, but Mighton says he "didn't have a lot of faith" in Possible Worlds until director Daniel Brooks put it on at Theatre Passe Muraille in the mid-'90s. "That production is when Atom Egoyan saw it, and he got Sandra Cunningham interested as a producer," says Mighton. "I just got excited about the work again. When I met with Robert, he agreed that it should stay fairly close to the original."
Nevertheless, the result is as much Lepage's creation as it is Mighton's or Brooks'. "In Daniel's production, there was more emphasis on George's terror and disorientation," says Mighton, "while Robert's version is much more like a dream or reverie, and I'd never imagined it that way. It's very much his style, and it suits the piece. It's something you can watch again and again. It's more like a poem or a reverie about existence. And because he's such a brilliant visual filmmaker, it's very deep visually."
An open-minded fellow (my last pun -- I promise), the playwright-cum-screenwriter of Possible Worlds is happy to see it take on nearly as many different incarnations as George and Joyce do. "It's very tempting to be a novelist or try to exert total control," says Mighton, "but I do like the collaborative side to filmmaking or playwriting. It can be painful, but when it works, a good film or play is a collective work of intelligence.
"Even once the text is written, like Shakespeare, it takes on depth over the years because it gains layers of meanings from having really good people work on it, to the point where it's hard to tell whose text it is anymore. It becomes a collective work of art."