Tectonic Plates

UK/Canada / 1992 / 104 minutes

In Tectonic Plates, the image of plate tectonics – the inexorable shifting of the landmasses which support the earth's continents – becomes a metaphor for the evolution of human life and culture, of the forces and restraints that shape the way we think, act and feel.

The story criss-crosses the globe, following the seemingly random yet intricate interaction of events and individuals that shape the life and art of a French Canadian painter. As her memories, visions and collisions with other lives shift through both time and space – from continent to continent, epoch to epoch – the film explores the relative and ephemeral nature of our political, cultural, sexual and personal boundaries.


Tectonic Plates is a complex and evocative voyage into the geology of human behaviour which explores, explodes and cross-fertilizes theatrical and cinematic forms.

Conceived as a continuously evolving international project, Théâtre Répère and Robert Lepage presented the play Tectonic Plates time and again in stunningly fresh and astonishing ways. Spawned from the images of plate tectonics, the geology of continental drift serves as a powerful metaphor for themes of merging, collision, influence, passage, developing creativity as manifest in the natural world, art world, relationships and sexuality. Mettler felt a strong kinship with the play's content and the company's fast and improvisational working method, which gave expression to multi-layered levels of a central idea. After watching the play evolve through this collective process, Mettler then wrote a filmic adaptation.

Tectonic Plates recalls the events and individuals that shape the life and art of the painter Madeleine. She, and aspiring art student, and the deaf-mute librarian Antoine are both unhappily in love with the art instructor Jacques. When Jacques disappears without a trace, Madeleine decides to travel from Montreal to Venice to commit suicide in this romantic place. There she meets the young heroin addict Constance. They spend the night together, and Constance lures Madeleine into her first heroin-enhanced experience and unknown erotic territory. Deeply troubled by her unresolved relationship with her father, Constance drowns herself, leaving Madeleine to continue her search for a way of life. Twenty years later, she encounters Antoine again. He has discovered that, in the meantime, Jacques has assumed a female identity as a transvestite named Jennifer. Spontaneously, Antoine travels to New York to look for Jacques/Jennifer, where his visit sets off a new series of revelations. Against the background of these associatively narrated stories, spirits of personalities of the past are relived, including Frédéric Chopin, George Sand, Jim Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, Shakespeare's Ophelia, and the Nordic goddess Skadi.

Combining original theatrical elements and cinematic invention, Tectonic Plates acts as a freezing in time of both the theme and process of the play. The camera takes the spectator out of the theatre seat, allowing new and different viewing perspectives. Rear projections, nearly imperceptible dissolves, and surprising superimpositions create a dense visual web uniting the fates of different characters and simultaneous events with cultural, emotional and sexual contrasts.

Best Film, International Film Festival of Mannheim
Grand Prize,
Columbus International Film & Video Festival
Grand Prize,
Figueira Da Foz Festival
Nominated for Two Genie Awards


Tectonic Plates is the most aesthetically sophisticated film of the festival... a convincing synthesis of differing art forms with brilliantly flowing transitions between theatre and cinema. It is a film which demonstrates new possibilities for looking at life and at art.” – Jury Statement, Mannheim International Film Festival 1993

“Peter Mettler is a visionary in the purest sense. His debut feature, The Top of His Head, was an audio-visual experience that placed him in a class of his own. An innovative adaptation of Robert Lepage's drama, Mettler offers a complex and challenging investigation of human behaviour.” – Martin Siberok, Montreal Mirror

“It is a bizarre understatement to call Peter Mettler's film Tectonic Plates merely unique. No other film in history has created a visual and emotional parallel between a planet-sized geological concept and a person-sized romantic trauma… The image drift is so hypnotic that my own little continent keeps bumping into the film, creating interesting seismic disturbances… Mettler's command of lyrical images is staggering.” – Bruce Kirkland, The Toronto Sun 

“A terrific rendition of Robert Lepage's play.” – Margaret Borschke, Eye Weekly

“A unique collaboration between two of Canada's most highly acclaimed artistic visionaries. Tectonic Plates – the film – is much more than a simple adaptation of Robert Lepage's original stage version, as it explores, explodes and cross-fertilizes the conventions, abstractions and illusions of theatrical and cinematic forms.” – David MacIntosh, Toronto Festival of Festivals (TIFF)

“The mix of stage and screen is magical. It is as if one is witnessing a one-of-a-kind performance with all the visual effects of the cinema… Its characters are moving, its images unsettling. Tectonic Plates drifts mesmerizingly across the screen and is not easily forgettable.” – Beatrice Van Dijk, McGill Daily

Tectonic Plates must be seen to be fully appreciated or understood. To detail the ‘plot’ and images of Tectonic Plates is to radically reduce its unusual, imaginative kaleidoscope elements.” – Sid Adilman, The Toronto Star

“Charting a course between two conventional and opposite approaches, Mettler neither opens the play up to the point of eradicating its original stage context, nor does he merely plunk the cameras down in front of a theatre performance and start shooting. The result is an intriguing and visually tantalizing collage that bridges the two media in a way that structurally underscores Lepage's themes of convergence, separation and transformation.” – Vit Wagner, The Toronto Star

“In this unique collision of characters and cultures, narrative and metaphor, memory and myth, theatre and film, Mettler and Lepage have woven an evocative and challenging filmic tapestry." – Jeremy Podeswa, Festival Magazine

“The play was from inception, a lyrical, thematically dense and highly theatrical work about memory, identity, art and evolution. Over time, it acquired an epic richness that has since been developed and exploited to maximum effect in Peter Mettler's remarkable film treatment… In his eloquent and richly satisfying treatment, Mettler demonstrates once again that he is arguably the most versatile and intuitive of contemporary Canadian filmmakers. A master of formalism, his idiosyncratic and highly personal approach to composition, movement, montage, and soundscape are evidence of a fresh, distinct, and highly articulate film language. Call it ‘Mettler-vision’ or ‘Mettler-ama.’” – Jeremy Podeswa, Festival Magazine

"Mettler offers a unique audio-visual interpretation of this fascinating play without sacrificing its complexity… Mettler's adaptation is not a straightforward narrative. Instead, he weaves theatrical and cinematic elements into a tapestry of changing images, characters, and situations. The result is a story that seamlessly shifts between languages and cultures.” – Martin Siberok, Montreal Mirror

“Mettler carries off the film with a combination of unforgettable images, artful performances and a kind of inexorable intelligence that guides his working out of the theme.” – Cameron Bailey, NOW Magazine

“The ensuing randomness of encounters and their almost violent intensity are stark in the beauty of their depiction and deeply moving in the relentless progress of their occurrence. Peter Mettler has managed to communicate profoundly intimate yet universal sentiments in a radically transforming cinematic style.” – Alison Vermee, Vancouver International Film Festival

“Dualities – body and soul, hearing and sight, man and woman, French and English – are masterfully explored, and the story's lesson is clear. The barriers are arbitrary; crossing them, accepting them and, finally, integrating them, is the business of art.” – Liam Lacy, The Globe and Mail

“Partout ou passe Lepage, l'herbe repousse, reassurez-vous… Cette façon qu'il a de marier à la scène une imagerie d'ordinaire cinématographique fait de lui un auteur-concepteur et un metteur en scène à part." – Franco Nuovo, Le Journal de Montreal 

“Ceux qui ont vu la pièce ne seront pas déçus par le travail de Peter Mettler. On a souvent vu des captations de pièces de théâtre ou des adaptations qui dénaturaient souvent l'oeuvre. Cette fois-ci la démarche est nouvelle. Ce n'est pas du théâtre ni du cinéma mais presque un nouvel art qui se situerait entre les deux. Dans la pièce on parle des grandes villes du monde, on les invente sur scène, dans le film on y est... L'entreprise est révolutionnaire… Un jour, les meilleures pièces demeureront et on pourra mesurer le cheminement des grands auteurs. S'il était impossible de rendre justice au théâtre et a ses comédiens en utilisant les moyens cinématographiques dans le passé, il en est tout autrement aujourd'hui... Et c'est dans ce sens qu'on peut parler d'un art nouveau... On peut déjà voir ce qui s'annonce pour l'avenir avec Les Plaques Tectoniques.” – Jean Beaunoyer, La Presse

“Si vous n'êtes pas alles voir Les Plaques Tectoniques, accrochez-vous! C'est maintenant Les Plaques qui vont venire à vous.” – G. Privet, Voir



To begin – there is an image.
A catalyst leading to the discovery of untold stories.
Our own stories, waiting to unfold – horizontally – vertically...

These stories have emerged as performances
in rehearsal halls and theatres across Canada and Great Britain,
each offering a different arrangement of elements.

This filmic adaptation has become part of an evolving process,
freezing in time a living work that has been shifting throughout the last five years.

Conceived in 1987 as a continuously evolving international stage project, the first Tectonic Plates were formed in June 1988 by Robert Lepage, his regular core of author-performers in Theatre Repère and the Canadian designer Michael Levine. The result – a work in progress – was shown during the World Stage Festival at Harbourfront, Toronto, in a former ice-house.

Through the collaboration of Montreal's Festival de Thèâtre des Amériques, a restructured version of Tectonic Plates, the play, was presented in November 1989 at Theatre Repère's Quebec home base – a one time synagogue where the Company still seem to share offices with the local Rabbi. This version of the work, whilst rooted in similar emotional and narrative concerns, had undergone a radical re-edit. What Lepage and company had created was a flexible, modular structure which allowed Tectonic Plates to be taken apart and put back together in different ways so that it could easily incorporate the integration of performers and ideas from other cultures.

In January of 1990, Lepage and Theatre Repère mainstay Marie Gignac arrived in Glasgow. A mixed group of Scottish and Welsh performers were chosen from a great many interviews, to be lead in a week-long workshop. Day One began with each participant randomly selecting a piece of the world from a cartographic jigsaw puzzle and improvising from it. Day Six ended with a short presentation where an invited audience watched an intriguing series of sequences (or "plates") delivered by an ensemble that looked as though it had been together far longer than a week.

From this process a small group of performers were chosen and invited to join the Tectonic Plates company on its next adventure. These five travelled to Montreal in April 1990 to see the third version of the work which took place in the disused waiting room of the Gare Jean Talon. During the day, Lepage led a series of workshops on set and began the process of integration which would lead to the Glasgow version of Tectonic Plates which was presented at the Royal National Theatre, London, in November/December 1990. In the Summer of 1991, this version then skipped continents and was presented at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. In 1992 Tectonic Plates, the play, settled in Barcelona where the Celtic/Quebecois mix is further enriched by the addition of a group of Catalan performers.

Peter Mettler's filmic version of Tectonic Plates preserved the essence of this evolving project by using the performers of the final stage versions, but also charted its own course while charting the final stages of this work's intercontinental drift.


Tectonic Plates has the quality of a modern epic... the clash of personal, national and cultural identities has a symphonic breadth, an intellectual playfulness and an emotional lyricism which creates a masterpiece.” – James Mavor, The Independent

“It's like blindly picking out a series of pictures from a children's lotto. You pick a cow, a sun, a house, a map of France. Now try telling me a story that connects all four images. You'll see how easy it is. And what's more, each person will compose a different story...” – Marie Gignac, Thèâtre Repère


“It is a matter of interrogating a chosen object on the assumption that it contains hidden links with other objects across space and time. It is like digging into the Earth's crust, through successive strata of history, myth and archetype; so that individual characters emerge as Matrioshka dolls, and a hippie suicide merges with Delacroix's portrait of the drowned Ophelia and the fate of that picture in the auction room (‘Going, going, gone!’).” – Irving Wardle, The Independent

“Drifting does not only mean being lost, it also means colliding into other drifters... It's about breaking up, it's about getting together. On a personal level it can be about meeting somebody, on a universal level it can be about one culture meeting another. It is also the psychological movement that can occur inside of one character.” – Robert Lepage

“The last thing is simplicity. After having gone the difficulties, having played an endless number of notes, it is simplicity that matters, with all its charm. It is the final seal on art. Anyone who strives for this to begin with will be disappointed. You cannot begin at the end.” – Frederic Chopin


When, early this century, the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener proposed that all the continents were once joined in a single super-continent (Pangea), that the super-continent had broken up about 200 million years ago and that the continents have been drifting over the surface of the globe ever since, the geological establishment was aghast. For over a hundred years, geologists had been building a vast edifice of knowledge based on the assumption that the landmasses had been fixed in the same positions since they had formed billions of years ago. To see this intellectual construction collapse – and at the hands of a non-geological outsider at that – was more than they could contemplate. Wegener was branded a crank.

This remained more or less the position for about 50 years until, around 1960, something remarkable happened. Scientists from quite a different discipline (physics), who for reasons of their own were studying the magnetic properties of rocks, suddenly discovered that they could use their data to demonstrate that the continents had indeed drifted. Within a few years the geological community could no longer ignore the truth.

Other discoveries rapidly followed. It soon became clear that not only were the continents in motion, the ocean floors were moving (spreading) too. Indeed, the ocean floors were the prime movers, pushing the continents along. Landmasses are merely passive rafts, going where the spreading ocean floors choose to direct them.

By the late 1960s, Earth scientists had come to realize that continental drift and ocean-floor spreading are themselves only part of a much wider pattern, now known as plate tectonics. The Earth's hard outer shell, the lithosphere, is not a single world-embracing unit but is divided into a dozen or so independent rigid segments ("plates") of various sizes. Within each plate (except for the Pacific plate, which is entirely oceanic) there are spreading ocean floors pushing along continents, changing the sizes and shapes of the plates as they do so.

But these within-plate processes are comparatively gentle; the continents and ocean floors move at rates of just a few centimeters a year. The zones crucial to life – and death – are the boundaries between plates, where the plates jostle against, and interact with, each other. These are the regions in which molten rock from the deep Earth rises to the surface, or where cold spreading ocean floor plunges back down into the interior, or where continents collide to throw up mountains, or simply where the plates slide past each other on giant faults. These are the violent places of Earth, scenes of most earthquakes and volcanoes. 

Mettler and Lepage have used plate tectonics as an extended metaphor for human relationships, but in reality it's much more than that. It's the very condition upon which life itself exists. Without the vast mobility it brings, the Earth's surface would be as barren and lifeless as that of our sister planet Venus. Without the escape routes it has provided for fluids from the Earth's deep interior, there would be no ocean waters and no atmosphere, and hence no flora and fauna – no us.

Excerpted from a piece by Dr. Peter J. Smith, reader in Earth Sciences at the Open University, editor of Geology Today Magazine.


Quebec City, Canada. 16 November 1989. Auberge du Quartier. Tectonic Plates, the play, viewed for the first time. The residual feelings are those of movement. As I awake in the middle of the night the passing vehicles outside the window remind me of the plates. My senses only feel the cars moving towards each other –  yet I've been made aware of the subtle movement of our earth. The characters on the surface mix much faster than their ground does. Cultures clash; indentities blur; people struggle to keep them while past lives become articulate – in memory – in the present.

Glasgow, Scotland. 1 November 1990. 52 Charlotte Street. Here, a year later, I've hopped the Atlantic, which now separates what used to be the same place – the same plate – to arrive in Glasgow. These days mark the beginning of an exploratory process to translate this magnificent and elusive theatre piece into cinema. I don't picture a film that will document how Thèâtre Repère operates, nor do I see a traditional filming of the piece as it appears on stage. Instead I would like to follow the system belonging to the theatre piece itself – using improvisation and the often irrational parts of our being to construct, or sculpt, the cinematic version.

If the film can add another dimension to this work, I feel it lies in the ability to take the eye – the camera – the audience – out of the theatre seat into some further layers to view parts of the drifting people, places, times and dimensions that make up the play. Underwater in the canals of Venice, through the old stones of Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and into the memories and visions of the characters that populate these places. Today, again, I awake in the middle of the night – dreaming a way to converge yet two more masses – theatre and film.

– Peter Mettler


Director, Adaptation: Peter Mettler
Camera: Miroslaw Baszak, Peter Mettler
Sound Recording: Jack Buchanan, Catherine v.d. Donckt
Picture Editing: Mike Munn
Sound Editing: Jane Tattersall, Marta Nielson, Peter Mettler
Music: Michel Gosselin, Frédéric Chopin, Yuval Fichman
Sound Mix: Lou Solakofski, Peter Kelly
Producers: Debra Hauer, Niv Fichman
Production: Rhombus Media and Hauer-Rawlence Productions. Commissioned by Channel 4 Britain, CBC and Société Radio Canada. With the Participation of the National Arts Centre, TVO, Telefilm Canada and the Ontario Film Development Corporation

Cast: Michael Benson (Waiter), Normand Bissonnette ( Kevin/Chopin), Céline Bonnier (Constance), Boyd Clack (Rhys), John Cobb (Auctioneer), Lorraine Côté (Skadi/George Sand), Richard Fréchette (Antoine), Emma Davie (Psychoanalyst), Marie Gignac (Madeleine), Robert Lepage (Jacques/Jennifer), François Pick (M. Bourbon), Jim Twaddle (Sailor)

Shooting Locations: Toronto, Montreal, Venice, Paris, New York, Isle of Skye (Scotland)


Jury Prize, “Best Film of the Festival,” International Film Festival of Mannheim, Germany, 1993

Grand Prize, “Most Creative or Innovative Film of the Festival,” Columbus International Film & Video Festival, Columbus, Ohio, 1993

Grand Prize, “Most Innovative Film of the Festival,” Festival International de Cinema de Figueira Da Foz, Portugal, 1993

Two Genie Award Nominations, Academy of Canadian Cinema, 1993
Best Supporting Actor, Céline Bonnier
Best Art Direction, Curtis Wehrfritz

Screened at many festivals including Rotterdam, Jerusalem, San Sebastian, Toronto, Montreal, Vienna. Theatrical and TV release.