Police thrillers traditionally set the cops out on a chase to catch criminals. They cut through lies and deceptions, elude dangers and get their man, woman, monster, whatever. In Robert Lepage's complex Possible Worlds, which begins with a horrific murder scene, the conventions of the policier are inverted, warped and re-made with a daring verve. The story veers into a surrealistic world of dreams, memories and futuristic science. Catching a criminal seems the least of the worries the cops face at the end, despite other shocking deaths leaving mutilated corpses, each missing its brain. Finally, this intriguing and provocative film inspires its protagonists and its audience to ask existential questions about our time here. Do we exist but once? Are there parallel universes? How do we define our existence? Are memories real or subconscious dreamscapes? Is the film going to solve any of the challenging questions it raises?
The answer to the last question is no, not really, although there is a crass mad science conclusion to the piece. This is the weakest element in an otherwise masterful film that is both mentally rewarding and exquisitely beautiful.
Based on the stage play by Canadian writer-actor John Mighton and adapted to the screen by the author, Possible Worlds also -- significantly -- marks the English language filmmaking debut by Lepage. He has already worked extensively in English in the theatre, but his prior three films -- work which Lepage still considers a hobby despite his skill and unfettered imagination in the medium -- have all been in French. Sadly, this will probably not dramatically increase his audience. The film is too weird and too esoteric to appeal to the mall crowd. But it doesn't hurt that Possible Worlds is so skilfully acted. Canadian Tom McCamus is the man found murdered -- and brainless -- at the beginning of the story. In flashback, we find out how he came to be in such a state.
The regression into his memory produces a series of possible worlds, quite literally, but also poetically. In each, we find the mysterious English star Tilda Swinton playing the alluring object of McCamus' affection.
In each world, our hero is the same man. He is also 'conscious' of each of those other parallel universes. In each world, however, the heroine is transformed and has no connection or memory of her other selves. So Swinton plays four versions of herself. The possibility exists that there are an infinite number of others. Each may (or not) exist only in our hero's brain, the one removed at the murder scene. McCamus, serious and sober, and Swinton, sensual and yet remote, are both splendid, utterly convincing in making the material flow naturally. In lesser hands, the story might otherwise be just absurdist or even ridiculous.
As it is, Possible Worlds may well be the most bizarre and beautiful police thriller you have ever seen.