Film Review: Face cachée de la lune (Far Side of the Moon) by Robert Lepage

The Far Side of Moon Film JacketThe 2003 Québécois film, “La Face Cachée de la Lune,” — or “Far Side of the Moon” — by Robert Lepage (ingenuously written, directed, produced and headlined with dual lead roles) is a fabulous film that I highly recommend. Having just watched this film in the wake of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Mission, I thought I’d try to incite you to go out and rent it/download it…

Things I loved about this film:

  • the at-time very Gary Larson-like “far side” humour.
  • a reminder of the serendipitous nature of life and the many paths and voyages resident in one’s life.
  • how it showed the importance of your childhood in forming who you are.
  • the allegories played out by the different professions of the two brothers (Philippe and André): selling the Sun on the one hand and selling the weather on the other, all the while focused on the US-Russian race to the moon. Also notable: the links between the baby in the womb, the child in the washing machine, the goldfish in the bowl, and the astronaut floating outside in space attached by a technological umbilical chord.
  • the film within the film as Philippe, the missed Mad Scientist, records life on Earth for Extraterrestrials.
  • last, and probably least, the credits written with trompe l’oeil Russian Cyrillic characters (as in the jacket).

I found the text brilliant (I must own up that I watched the film in v.o. which actually means the version française) in the way that it treats the challenges of life and parallel universe of our thoughts. The film dances in and out of reality, playing with gravity and gravitas, Lilliputians and hallucinations.

Robert Lepage is a man of many talents, not least of which is that he also created the Cirque de Soleil permanent production of KA at Las Vegas. Here is a fittingly positive review of the film by Culture Vulture.

My final commentary on the film regards the “thesis” that Philippe develops in the film to explain why the Russians wanted to get to the moon. Philippe’s theory posits that narcissism was the driving force. The character Philippe says, “Before Galileo turned his telescope toward the heavens, we believed that the moon was a polished mirror whose darks scars and mysterious outline were in fact the reflections of the mountains and seas on Earth” [in French: “Avant que Galilée ne tourne son télescope vers le ciel, on croyait que la Lune était un miroir poli dont les sombres cicatrices et contours mystérieux étaient en fait le reflet des montagnes et des mers de la Terre.”]. In his foiled thesis, Philippe explains how the brilliant Russian scientist Constantin Tsiolkovsky came up with the concept in 1895 of an enormous elevator building — inspired by the Eiffel Tower — which would take people up into space and where the cost would be $40/floor rather than $400 billion for each person to go into space. Tsiolkovsky was a remarkable man and, despite being closed off from the advancements outside Russia, came up with much ground breaking work including the multi-stage rocket and air cushion vehicle.

For me, however, the film sent me back to my days at Yale, when my wonderful Russian lit teacher, Professor Victor Ehrlich (1914-2007), justified that the evident jumpstart the Russians had in the race for the moon. Mr Ehrlich’s thesis was anchored in the “enlightened” thinking, promoted in the middle of the 19th century by Russia’s intelligentsia, surrounding the Philosophy of the Common Good (всеобщее благо). Initially introduced into Russia in the early 18th century, the cause of the Common Good stimulated the 19th century intelligentsia to galvanise scientific research and to dedicate themselves to finding a way to bring back to life their much respected ancestors. Ehrlich recounted how Alexander Bogdanov, the physicist, philosopher, economist and revolutionary, came up with a pioneering blood transfusion theory which, put into practice by himself, gave life to one of his own terminally sick students and subsequently caused his own death. In paralllel to this research to unlock the miracle of bringing back the dead to life, another branch of Russian thinkers considered the challenge of where to put all the resuscitated ancestors, should such a solution be found. The logical lebensraum was the moon. Consequently, a number of Russian scientists began to theorise on how to propel a man-inhabited rocket into space. Prior to the work done by Tsiolkovsky, Ehrlich refered to the pioneering work of the ill-fated Nikolai Kibalchich, who was an explosives ‘expert’ and, just before being hanged in1881 for his part in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, wrote a letter in which he described in some detail a rocket propelled aeronautical system for the transport of men. It was not until 1918, however, that Kibalchich’s letter was published. His 1881 theory predated by 10 years the “groundbreaking” research of a similar nature by the German engineer, Hermann Ganswindt. Between Kibalchich and Tsiolkovsky, to mention but two, clearly the Russian scientists were truly ahead of the times in figuring out how to get man into space. [Incidentally, Alexander Bogdanov also wrote an utopian novel, Red Star, in 1908, in which the protagonist travels to Mars.]

Sputnik Space ProgrammeThus, Ehrlich’s thesis was that Sputnik and Soyuz were merely the logical conclusion to the century long obsession of how to get man (albeit in the form of resuscitated ancestors) onto the moon. Without doubt, we owe much of our knowledge of the Moon to the Russians. So, even if La Face Cachée de la Lune (Far Side of the Moon) did not refer to Kibalchich and Bogdanov, it is a very worthy film, especially for those of you who enjoy astronomy and astrophysics.

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