Canadian Robert Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon (Le face cachée de la lune) is a marvelous alchemical stirring of science, history, myth, and philosophy. It’s refreshing in that, rather than portray integration as occurring between a man and woman, Lepage’s polarized human psyche is characterized by two brothers played by Lepage.
As opposed to frequent philosophizing from Philippe, we know nothing of André’s internal life. He is indeed the dark side of the moon, Philippe’s shadow. Popular film often portrays the integration drama from the standpoint of the worldly one. Materially successful protagonist discovers the depths of soul and feeling hidden beneath a restless seeking after socioeceonomic power; it’s the Scrooge portrait. Lepage gives us the flip of this cinematic norm; artist and visionary with Scrooge-like shadow-brother longs to experience his creative gifts reflected back to him in the form of socioeconomic success.
As the title implies, the moon is mistress of this metaphorical montage. The film’s narrated introduction features an image of the moon, and explicable only symbolically, the image of a castle alongside. Lepage’s prefacing narration instructs us intriguingly, “Before the telescope, people thought the moon was a huge mirror, and the mountains and oceans on its luminous surface were merely the reflection of our own mountains and oceans.” Here he sets up his film’s fundamental perspective. He’ll be explicating, as symbolic film often does, that most basic of human imaginative functions, known in psychology as projection. We see Me in the world as reflected by Other, perhaps particularly any shadowed aspects, Moon’s “far side”. Only cosmonauts and astronauts ever see the physical moon’s far side, and Lepage intends these men as metaphor for all those humans willing to step away from Sun’s daylight domain to discover their inner lunar landscape, their shadowed side.
The castle image is visual adjective to Moon, then. The castle as inner sovereignty, so ubiquitous in fairy tales with alchemical bones, is linked with the moon because Moon is Queen of the Night, the time for inward-turning human experience. The inner castle houses the soul’s authentic self, the whole self, and it is this which we often seek in our inner journeying. That Lepage’s moon is usually seen rotating metaphorically suggests the soul’s innate timeless turning towards healing. The spin describes Circle’s love of completeness, for discovering and rejoicing in all our “sides”. In truth the moon does turn in synchronous rotation; it rotates about its axis in about the same time it takes to orbit Earth. In such a manner do we humans revolve through our days, satellites presenting conditioned persona’s faces for daily view while the unknown and unredeemed haunts us from behind.
Lepage employs the moon’s shapeshifting nature to glide from one scene to another. Though Moon presents to Earth always the same side, still the shifting play of Sun’s light upon that spherical face gives her a reputation of instability and change. Humans project onto her shadow shifts their own experiential changes of mood, of consciousness, their altered states. The introductory narrative’s visual first uses this scene shifting device when the moon transforms into the window-frame view from inside a washing machine. Protagonist Philippe in the laundromat walks over to peer through the circular washing machine window. The camera pans away from the face in the window, and the window fades back until it’s a small feature on a satellite hovering over the moon.
This bit of symbolic zoom-out cleverness not only makes rather blatant the film’s connection between moon, reflection, and our protagonist, but Philippe is here portrayed as that old slang term we used in the 60’s; he’s a space shot. An online dictionary defines it thus; “a person who is eccentric or out of touch with reality, as if affected by drugs.” Here we have perhaps the dominant psychological polarity FSM treats; the polarity between the visionary, the artist, “out of touch with reality”, and our materialistic cultural norm as grounded in physical reality and/or consensus reality. The English dictionary, in entries such as that above, assumes this narrow definition of “reality”.
Lepage expands on the visionary end of this visionary-realist polarity with two historical Russian characters. Introduced in the opening narrative monologue, visionary scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky haunts the entire film. As Philippe narrates, Tsiolkovsky “originated the formula that allows us to break free of Earth’s gravity” . Here we have the typical air element desire to avoid earth element’s entanglements and suffering, a masculine tendency sometimes portrayed in alchemical fairy tales. Tsiolkovsky also invented the three-stage rocket. In good fairy tale fashion Lepage does proffer his audience several symbolic sacred threes, including this rocket example, and mentions both fairy tale and castle in his thesis presentation.
Tsiolkovsky’s love of weightlessness operates symbolically in the film on more than one level. I do associate this air element desire to leave gravity with the Visionary archetype. Human visionary imagination allows us to enter other realities “as if affected by drugs”. Tsiolkovsky was certainly a visionary who was “eccentric or out of touch with reality.” His Wikipedia entry states he really did quite seriously envision weightless life on the moon as an idealized future for mankind, a future free of even mortality. I do recall that the early days of space exploration spurred men’s imaginations in ways that seem merely ridiculous now that we have more experience. But who knows what the future holds?
Tsiolkovsky was so visionary, so lacking gravity, that he “lost face” for a period of his career, because people figured he was nuts, among other matters. André’s boyfriend Carl agrees with Tsiolkovsky; earth element gravity is obstructive. A man with physical fitness ideals, Carl comments that “Gravity is my greatest enemy”, in reference to the manner in which it pulls his ideally smooth flesh downward as youth recedes. Similarly perhaps, the ending scene where idealistic Philippe drifts up weightless to the moon implies he has freed himself from some inner weight, some earthly limitation, in accord with Tsiolkovsky’s vision of “breaking free”.
Though our inner urges to wholism often utilize imagination’s Visionary power, from another perspective Philippe’s weightlessness is symbolic symptom of an integration. He’s becoming intimate with the more earth-bound “Other”, André. Philippe speaks, in the bar scene, of this sibling polarity, when Phillipe waits for hours to question cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. Though Leonov never shows, Philippe tells the bartender he wanted to inquire concerning the integration of visionary cosmic experiences with “personal ones…How do you manage to reconcile the infinitely banal with the infinitely essential?” How do you integrate the grave life of the flesh (André’s seeming specialty) with that of Philippe and Tsiolkovsky’s gravity-averse, idealistic, visionary soul-and-spirit?
In parallel to this question, unsuccessful but introspective Philippe is haunted by the knowledge that something needs to shift in his filial relationship. André is portrayed as a character lacking depth and authenticity, both primary qualities of lunar-linked soul. Like the extrovert, radiating sun, André does not self reflect, an activity portrayed symbolically in the film not only generally by mirrors and moon, but specifically in Philippe’s video recording. Both brothers are aware that Philippe considers his brother an asshole; André is most obviously the rejected in need of redemption. André’s boyfriend Carl tentatively agrees with Philippe’s asshole assessment when quizzed by André; we saw Carl being ordered about by André throughout the film. Carl’s admission to his lover is the turning event for André (and Philippe, of course), who decides then not to lie to his brother concerning the frozen goldfish. This scene was pretty funny for me; my only brother did indeed surreptitiously replace his daughter’s dead goldfish(es) a number of times.
The historical perspective of Philippe’s sibling inner dichotomy is cleverly portrayed in a flashback scene. André, as a child of perhaps ten years, in his brother’s absence avails himself of Philippe’s record player, marijuana, and porn. The child André plays Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”, pulls Philippe’s dope can from a high shelf, tokes on a joint, opens the window to vent smoke, pulls a porn magazine from under Philippe’s pillow, opens to a centerfold, plops himself down on the bed and mechanically kisses the picture. André’s actions are perfunctory; he is merely imitating his brother’s previously observed actions. We assume this mimicking of what he sees is André’s modus operandi; indeed it is the basis of much personality conditioning.
Meanwhile, Philippe is on an acid trip, gazing at the full moon, exploring her altered consciousness and self reflective power. A grayscale, nighttime, snow covered winter landscape before him mimics Moon. Philippe’s spaceshot psychedelic trip is thus equated with moonwalking. In perhaps a nod to Alice in Wonderland and/or Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (“One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small”) he experiences himself as larger than his apartment building. Peering inside his bedroom window is metaphorically akin to introspection. Philippe is dazed and confused; he puts his sleeping brother to spin in the dryer, unable to reconcile his expanded consciousness with the “infinitely banal”, André’s specialty. At the same time the scene gives us an inner landscape metaphor, of André as Philippe’s rejected psychic aspects. Relegated to inner “space” (the metaphor of spinning washing machine/dryer as space vehicle was very early presented), André symbolically enters Jungian shadow status as he spins in the dryer, introspective Philippe watching meditatively, just as he had peered in through the bedroom window.
With this childhood bedroom scene Lepage invites us to consider André’s lying, his lack of empathy, and his materialistic or narcissistic focus as Euro-Western norm of disconnection with authentic soul and spirit. André’s imitating, going through the motions. He will not experience authentically, deeply, until he moves below the busy, ambitious façade and perceives its conditioned, reactive foundation. André initiates the switch towards truth and its ability to connect in the crucial dead goldfish conversation with his brother. After Carl leaves, Philippe calls from Russia. André slows his extrovert weatherman hustle, sits down in the hallway of the frozen apartment which was once the family home, and communicates for the first time with Philippe on emotionally charged matters of Mom’s death. We feel there is a person capable of intimacy sitting in that chair now, unlike the hustling, self important weatherman “standing there every day by his satellite image”, as Philippe puts it.
There are a few healing suggestions made earlier in the film regarding redemption of this shadow brother and his banality. Uncharacteristically, André is first to extend the hand of reconciliation from the far side of Philippe’s moon. He proffers socioeconomic gifts, the bounty which eludes our protagonist; he prods Philippe to take the money their deceased mother left to André. Philippe, seemingly as a matter of ideals, refuses, though André offers kindly and has no need of the money. Philippe’s reaction proves that he is actually resistant to abundance, for he stubbornly refuses. His habituated self identity is polarized to André’s worldly success and bounty.
In regard to success, André advises Philippe to change his self concept, specifically “how you present yourself”. André advises a radiant sun-power mantra; “I speak loudly and I am not ridiculous!” When Philippe takes this advice in the bar, he swings away from introspective lunar orientation towards Sun. The overall persona-changing theme is ubiquitously symbolized by frequent scenes and references to clothing; laundering, ironing, and more. A clothing reference from this abundance scene finishes up one of my favorite symbolic bits. André tells his brother “There’s this amazing woman…a financial medium” who “reads wallets like tarot cards. To see if you respect money. Otherwise, it won’t respect you.” This magical bit of manifestation advice on the matter of money proves that, when it comes to worldly abundance, André is the one who holds deeper insight. Philippe is conditioned to the stereotypical inward-focused visionary’s perception of money as “thing”, as object. The result of Philippe’s objectifying orientation is the same banal, unimaginative relationship with money which André has with human beings.
Symbolic of childhood conditioning, Philippe is hanging onto his recently dead mother’s stuff, which André, despite his materialistic focus, has no interest in whatsoever. André insists Philippe, just like an overstuffed wallet, has no room for money to come into his inner space, into his psyche; “you don’t make room in your life for new things to happen.” The scene ends with André going to a closet which is jam-packed with men’s shirts. He switches on the light, and offers “If I were money I would never fit in this.” Philippe needs to clear out old identifications, open up to new ways of orienting to success and abundance, in order to achieve his worldly objectives.
The other solution offered to the great disparity between Philippe and his shadow-brother comes in the monologue Philippe offers to the hotel bartender. Philippe says that he wants to talk to Leonov because he is an artist, and indeed Leonov is a graphic artist and writer. However, Philippe’s life correlates Leonov’s in another way. Leonov’s Wikipedia biography is a litany of cancellations, of training for missions which were aborted, until the successful event which Philippe highlights in this hotel bar scene. In 1975, Leonov headed the two man crew of Soviet cosmonauts on board the Soyuz spacecraft, symbolically ending the Space Race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. with the Soyuz-Apollo mission.
Elusive worldly success ties Philippe and Leonov, then. Since the Space Race and its end is an overarching event of the film, the meeting between the two spacecraft is also a clear allegory for sibling competition’s end, for redemption and integration of Philippe’s polarized “far side”. Leonov could theoretically offer Philippe mentoring in regards to this integration matter due to his having met with equanimity professional disappointment and discouragement over and over on his life journey. Philippe says “Can you imagine how bitter he could be?…you gotta be Zen to transcend that” and go on to shake the hand of your “enemy” in space. “Although you’re the loser, you carry on and get over it”, he says. The common term for this act of releasing bitterness would be forgiveness, of self in the internal sense. Forgiveness often indicates an integration experience.
Philippe raves bitterly on, criticizing André (“He’s not aware of how complicated things are”; complex moon criticizing confident sun), but then shifts focus from André’s faults to admit André’s simply radiant solar perspective on life has its uses. Philippe is “jealous of his lack of conscience…(and) compassion…(that which) makes my life hard and makes me suffer…” This particular brand of bitterness- “I suffer more than others”- is all too familiar to many folks who self identify as sensitive, creative, introspective. We may imagine it’s the fault of “Other” that the world is so heavy, so full of suffering. We don’t own up to the ways in which the internalized stories we’ve plumbed, their polarizations, and our negative self talk cocreate and then fertilize the suffering we experience and reexperience. We don’t understand the purpose behind our mining of lead; its transformation to inner gold.
The sun’s extrovert, shining power is, of course, along with its gold, the most fundamental of alchemical symbols. The sun shows up in Philippe’s employment as phone solicitor for a periodical, Le Soliel. There’s a symbolically droll reference to Sun’s expansive extroversion in a one sided call shared with us. A woman declines to subscribe to Le Soliel because its format is too big; it does not fit in her mailbox. Just so does the yang quality of André’s “I speak loudly” have trouble squeezing into the cold, contracted yin of the introverted moon. Phillippe’s interactions in the call center are all with females, and all disastrous, as he strives unsuccessfully to manifest abundance by squeezing the sun’s expansive nature into his dominant reflective lunar orientation.
Alchemical gold shows up also in the mother’s goldfish, an animal that ties Sun with lunar water element for us. In one of many deft visual metaphors, Philippe reaches his hand into the goldfish’s bowl to extract one of the stones he was given in his childhood. It’s the blue one with which he will later represent planet Earth, with its gravity and suffering; plunging his hand into the fishbowl neatly symbolizes introspection. The stone was given to him when recovering from surgery, and represents, as rocks can, his memory of that event. He endured a life threatening (pubescent?) illness of a one-sided nature; a tumor which occluded his optic nerve on the right (solar, masculine) side. Extracting the stone, adult Philippe traces his fearful, polarized adult experience to that youthful illness and its threat of death. When he receives the stone in the hospital scene, a nurse says he should be an astronaut, for “That’s all they do up there; pick up rocks.” This derogatory remark thread weaves neatly into Philippe’s metaphorical spaceshot proclivities, while voicing the social consensus on lunar-oriented introverts.
There’s loads of symbolic nuance to be had in Lepage’s water and fish. Water as universal symbol of unity consciousness would be one association; the human soul’s experiential “depth” is often associated with archetypally feminine water. Fish, as denizen of the water, takes on the same soulful caste. Both the act of fishing and being a fish signify “going deeper” for the retrieval of wisdom, connection, and authenticity. The fish’s symbolic seeking of unity and wisdom is obvious in the image where the fish swims against the sea of stars, and we hear the question “Are we alone in the universe?” Lepage is quite generous with his symbolic pointers.
He also gives us subtle, easily overlooked hints, as in the scene where Philippe irons and watches a talk show. After the television interview with the S.E.T.I. (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) lady (a real organization, I found), the interviewer mentions the next guest; a chef, cooking salmon. Water element salmon is perhaps the important wisdom animal in Germanic and Celtic mythic tradition, owing to its fighting its way back to the origin of its birth in order to both spawn and die, to complete the eternal spinning circle of life and death, an ouroboros (ouroborotic?) impulse. I love such subtly placed clues on my symbolic treasure hunts!
FSM’s goldfish symbolism naturally leaks into the lunar symbolism of “mother”. Though the moon does not nurture in the obvious way the Earth does, its watery influence experienced in the womb and its quiet inner connection with the dark creative void is essential, crucial, to earthly birth, growth, and development. The connection between moon and nurturing feminine is symbolically portrayed when Mom’s pregnant, fluid filled womb houses a spacewalking cosmonaut or astronaut, his oxygen cord mimicking an umbilical cord. The fact that Philippe has care of the goldfish (we find late in the film that he also had primary care of Mother) ties him into the nurturing female archetype, in accord with his other lunar tendencies.
Like that cosmonaut embryo, Beethoven the bowl-enclosed fish is also a creative aspect of Mom, the “last living thing Mom had”. I puzzled over Mom for a bit; her muteness, her slow loss of her lower limbs, her piano playing. Then it struck me; The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen’s allegorical making of a human soul! In the story, a mermaid longs for a human soul, and sacrifices her beautiful voice in order to obtain legs so that she might move about on land with humans, “swim” in their reality. Like the human soul, Little Mermaid is never quite comfortable with her human legs. They cause suffering, as Philippe’s (and Mom’s?) soulful lunar orientation does. Because the prince she desires loves to see her dance, Little Mermaid does lots of it, suffering all the while.
Andersen’s sea-woman attains a human soul when she sacrifices her life rather than kill the prince she loves. In this self-abnegation her soul is raised “up to the shining stars”, as Little Mermaid is told by her grandmother. Here is the space exploration theme of our film, and the goldfish amongst the stars. It turns out that Mother also committed suicide, overdosing on water. Little Mermaid drowned as well, for in air-breathing, belegged human form, she jumped into the sea and became air-and-water sea foam.
During one of Philippe’s videotaping self-reflection sessions, he recalls a childhood day when he watched his Mom slip on her high heels (always painful in my opinion!) and sashay down the hall with trays of food for her guests. Since there’s little direct sexual reference in the film (the porn magazine is about it), I wondered what was going on with that. Here, from an English translation, is a Little Mermaid answer:
“But if you take my voice,” said the little mermaid, “what will be left to me?”
“Your lovely form,” the witch told her, “your gliding movements, and your eloquent eyes. With these you can easily enchant a human heart.”
This quote describes Mom’s behavior at the party rather well, and hearts are obviously enchanted, starting with Philippe’s. After she gracefully moves with her trays among the “sea” of humans (Lepage uses a ceiling shot to imply the sea metaphor), guests beg her to play an electronic organ; she mutely and gracefully accedes. Visitors stand behind her, entranced, as she performs Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Mom’s goldfish is named Beethoven, implying her musical expression is “all that is left” to her, the “last living thing”. Music making and other arts are soul expressions, and soul is indeed what remains when we depart from physical existence.
Soul is also in another Mom detail Philippe narrates for his video; “She found it very important to have a pair of shoes for each dress.” Here’s the soul’s love of authenticity playfully symbolized. Feet, and therefore shoes, symbolize the manner in which we tread our psychospiritual paths of destiny; who we are while we are doing. Soul would like our personas and our individual ways of being in the world to match up, to be in colorful (or vibrational) alignment. When personas (clothing), our masks which fit the moment’s role, are in alignment with soul (sole, shoes), we are living authentically, as hostesses, weathermen, visionaries, musicians, or spaceshots. As within, so without.
Lepage adds to Mom’s Little Mermaid-mimicking demise an incremental loss of lower limbs and appendages. I assume this detail points to the symbolism of soul as legless fish. The bodily deterioration that leads to death can be experienced as a slow return to the “sea” of unity consciousness. Dying Mom’s loss of foot and limb signifies her soul’s journey away from embodiment, her shapeshifting into that goldfish-soul swimming in a sea of stars.
In a broader stroke of Lepage’s metaphor, he opens his narrative with the term “narcissism”. It’s the psychological basis of the thesis Philippe is presenting in hopes of obtaining a doctoral degree. Briefly, Philippe states that “Space exploration in the 20th century was motivated by narcissism.” Lepage uses images of folks pumping up in gyms and looking at their reflections in mirrors to make the point that narcissism here refers to appearances, to surface concerns like those attributed to André. This is the mainstream understanding of narcissism; the pumping up of the colloquially defined ego, of our conditioned identities, relying on “Other” to reflect rather than self reflecting, rather than shining soulfully.
However, Le Page’s narcissim is later expanded. At the end of the film a more balanced, philosophical perspective on the matter of narcissism is offered Philippe by the conference chair in Russia; “I agree with you that since the beginning of humanity man has sought mirrors to gaze at himself. But he doesn’t do it solely out of narcissism, but out of a desire to know himself.” This last interpretation of reflection as inner activity is surely the soulful one intended by Narcissus’s enduring myth, and its appearance in the script signifies redemption for Philippe. While in Russia his resistance to, his bitterness about, humanity’s (and André’s) ego-building shifts to compassion, redemption, for this far side of his inner moon. Lepage’s narcissism-and-space-race metaphor is as complex as the moon. It’s woven of egoic worldly power, man’s search for meaning, the double sidedness of human polarized conditioning, and the making of a soul from suffering as expounded by Keats; “Some say the world is a vale of tears. I say it is a place of soul-making.”
Though Philippe’s foray to Russia is unsuccessful in furthering his career objectives, we are left with the clear understanding that the mission was evolutionarily profitable. Some bitter, resistant way of being in the world has been released to the stars with the freezing of the goldfish, and the new order is dramatized by the brothers’ heart-to-heart I’ve already addressed. To encourage our imagining of inner success, of redemption and dropping of bitterness, Lepage gives us the airport image of Philippe rising weightless, free of suffering (Tsiolkovsky’s weightlessness as an end to human suffering)- for now. He’s probably dazed and confused, but seems to be handling it in a Zen manner, calmly fascinated with his lack of bodily control as his feet rise over his head, as his body twists while some other force besides gravity (soul?) pulls it, arranges it and rearranges it, as a painter might arrange the limbs of a studio model. Is the mute spinning moon he drifts to orchestrating this compelling spaceshot experience?
The film’s got too many metaphorical moments for me to here address. There’s the “Wall of Shame”, a huge, heavy shelving unit that separated André’s and Philippe’s territories in their childhood room, symbolically a divider within Philippe’s psyche. There’s a clip from The Day the Earth Stood Still; silvery Klaatu saying “We come to visit you in peace, and with goodwill.” This classic sci-fi “day the Earth stood still” links up metaphorically with the redemption scene in the frozen apartment and its reconciliatory conversation. I have seen very few films as metaphorically rich as FSM.
I note that Lepage’s two devices of goldfish and videorecording were used to good effect in a 2009 French language film, Mona Achache’s Le hérisson (The Hedgehog). It’s based on a novel by Muriel Barbery; perhaps Lepage’s film inspired Barbery, or vice versa. L’elegance du hérrison was published in English in 2008, but Lepage is likely French speaking. In either case, I’m sure imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Lepage, R. (Writer). (2003). The far side of the moon. Canada: Max Films International.
Colleen Szabo, MA, is an artist and writer with a background in transpersonal psychology who loves alchemical symbolism and strives to spread its wisdom to whoever will listen. Her e-book Poetry in Motion: 19 Symbolic Reviews of Transformational Film can be viewed on Amazon.com. Her symbolism website Sorcerer’s Stone (http://www.sorcerersstone.net) offers more of her work.