Atom Egoyan Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Atom Egoyan 1960-

Canadian screenwriter and director.

The following entry presents an overview of Egoyan's career through 1999.

Egoyan is a Canadian screenwriter and director known for his innovative, postmodern dramas that focus on the nature of family, assimilation, identity, and alienation. His films typically feature fragmented, nonlinear storylines with characters who are isolated and emotionally paralyzed. A contemporary of Canadian film auteur David Cronenberg, Egoyan often uses video as a metaphor for memory and technology as a social filter through which his characters relate. He is best known for Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), an adaptation of the Russell Banks novel, which received two Academy Award nominations. Several film critics have included Egoyan among the best directors of his generation, applauding his experimental style and his refusal to compromise his personal vision.

Biographical Information

Egoyan was born on July 19, 1960 in Cairo, Egypt, to parents of Armenian descent. His parents were both formally trained artists, and his father owned a successful art gallery. They named their son Atom after atomic energy. In 1962 the family immigrated to Canada, where Egoyan's parents managed a furniture store in British Columbia. Egoyan faced difficulties assimilating into a community with few Armenian families. During this period, he rejected his native culture, refusing to speak Armenian altogether. Egoyan eventually became interested in theatre and began to write experimental plays. He attended the University of Toronto, graduating with a B.A. in international relations from Trinity College in 1982. While he was in college, Egoyan's creative interests expanded into the world of filmmaking. He produced his first short film, Howard in Particular, in 1979, and it won a prize at the Canadian National Exhibition's film festival. Through the 1980s Egoyan directed television episodes and made-for-television movies for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as well as American television programs filmed in Toronto. He used his salary from his television work, along with private money and government grants, to produce several independent films that he wrote and directed. His first full-length feature film was Next of Kin (1984). As Egoyan's body of work expanded, his films became increasingly popular with critics and audiences in Canada and Europe, and he won the Moscow Film Festival award for The Adjuster (1991). Egoyan used the prize money from the award to fund his next film, Calendar (1993). In 1994, he received considerable praise for Exotica, which earned the International Film Critics Award at Cannes and numerous Genie awards. His next film, The Sweet Hereafter, brought Egoyan both critical and commercial success, including Academy Award nominations and several Cannes Film Festival awards. Egoyan has continued to direct short films—including one starring famed cellist Yo Yo Ma—and has directed and written the scores of several operas. He is married to Armenian actress Arsinee Khanjian with whom he has one son.

Major Works

Throughout a career spanning more than two dozen films, Egoyan has created a highly recognizable visual and narrative style. He often revisits themes of alienation, estrangement, and dysfunctionality, particularly in family relationships. In Next of Kin, the main character flees his birth family and pretends to be the lost son of a local Albanian immigrant family in order to receive the emotional support that has been lacking in his life. The father and son in Family Viewing (1987) are engaged in a bitter power struggle: the son, Van, wants his father, Stan, to help take care of his grandmother, but Stan is content to leave her in a retirement home. Van's mother left them several years earlier, and Stan is methodically recording over their old family videos with scenes of him having sex with his mistress. Egoyan has consistently used video as a metaphor for memory, exploring the ways in which characters attempt to shape and possess their past. He portrays recorded images as a tool that his characters use to communicate with each other. In Speaking Parts (1989), one of the main characters is a screenwriter who “visits” her dead brother through a video mausoleum. The characters in Egoyan's films are often emotionally distant and unable to make personal connections. The Adjuster features a couple who live together in the same house, but who are emotionally isolated from each other. The husband, Noah, is an insurance adjuster who experiences a voyeuristic thrill in getting involved in the personal lives of his customers. His wife, Hera, works for the National Film Censor Board and secretly copies the pornographic films that she classifies. Exotica focuses on five characters whose lives center around the erotic dancers at a local nightclub. One of the characters, Francis, is a father who cannot find closure after his daughter's death. His daughter's former babysitter, Christina, is a dancer at the club, and Francis becomes emotionally dependent on watching her dance. Even while interpreting the work of others—such as his adaptations of Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter and William Trevor's Felicia's Journey—Egoyan consistently revisits his recurring themes and crafts his plots in a unique style. Egoyan's narratives often recount events in nonlinear order, mixing incidents from various time frames and omitting essential details about characters and plot events until the conclusion of the film.

Critical Reception

Critics and peers alike consider Egoyan one of the leading independent filmmakers in Canada and have compared his unusual style to those of Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Peter Greenaway. Reviewers have noted that audiences either seem to love or hate Egoyan's works, with little room in-between. His critics have argued that his films are too fragmented and that his characters lack emotional depth or passion. Other reviewers have criticized his adaptations—such as The Sweet Hereafter—for being too focused on Egoyan's own agenda and not doing justice to the source material. However, even his harshest critics have complimented Egoyan's films for their complexity and thought-provoking material. Many reviewers have applauded Egoyan for his careful attention to detail, skillful use of editing, and continuing development of his recurring cinematic themes. Egoyan has been commended by critics for his rejection of false sentimentality and his refusal to emotionally manipulate his audiences. While some reviewers judge his characters as cool and detached, others consider them realistic and unexaggerated. Characterized as an “uncompromising” filmmaker, Egoyan and his body of work have developed a strong cult following in Canada and abroad.