Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991
SOURCE: “Unhappy Families,” in New Statesman and Society, October 7, 1988, p. 46–47.
[In the following review, Moore praises Egoyan's exploration of the nature of family in Family Viewing, but finds fault with his use of prostitution to suggest alienation.]
All is not well in the heart of that most sacred bastion of society—the family. If you believe what you read you will know that this most fundamental institution is under attack from a multitude of directions. Promiscuous single parents, campaigning homosexuals, morally-irresponsible television programmes and, of course, feminists who claim that the family is the site of woman's oppression par excellence, are all seen to threaten normal family life. You might wonder how something as supposedly natural and institutionalised can feel itself to be so fragile and flimsy.
This week's films may in part provide the answer. For although they are “about” families, they all point to the emptiness of traditional family life.
Family Viewing is an extraordinary film from a Canadian director, the wonderfully-named Atom Egoyan. As far as video technology is concerned it would appear that the family that plays together is erased together. At the centre of this blackest of comedies are father and son, Stan and Van. Stan is a semi-catatonic video salesman who can only be turned on when the camera is switched on or by second-hand telephone sex. Sandra, his hapless mistress, is instead preoccupied with 17-year-old Van who is increasingly worried about “not feeling connected.”
As his father erases home movies of Van's mother who has “run away” with home-made remote control porn, Van visits his Armenian grandmother who has been put into a seedy nursing home, in an effort to retrieve his past.
Egoyan cleverly mixes different kinds of film—the authentic looking jumpy home-movies providing another texture to the stilted apartment scenes which he shoots on video. Using the inane laughter of sit-coms on the sound-track, he flattens out these traces of family life so that we are always reminded that they are in Godard's famous words “just an image.” With ridiculous anti-naturalistic dialogue the film is in turn hilarious and desperately sad.
In the midst of all this alienation Van conspires to construct another kind of family with his grandmother and Aline, the young women who works for the telephone sex service patronised by his father. Pursued by the obsessive Stan, they become once more the objects of surveillance. Throughout the film we are aware of the presence of video cameras—in shops, lifts, hospitals and hotels—and of the way that this everyday surveillance coerces us all into behaving “properly” wherever we are.
Family Viewing succeeds in posing all sorts of questions about memory—about a culture that records everything but remembers nothing, in a brilliantly haunting way. But why, oh why, do all these arty directors from Wenders to Godard, and now Egoyan, have to resort to that tired old metaphor of prostitution whenever they want to conjure up a bit of alienation? Why couldn't Aline have worked in a shop instead of selling sex to pay her mother's nursing-home bills? My own suspicion is that while parading as some kind of critique, prostitution is vaguely titillating to male directors and audiences. All those screen whores service the fantasies of thousands of the right-on men who sit there believing that, come the revolution, they could take them away from all this.
What is interesting about Family Viewing is that the nuclear family looks so perverse and sinister by comparison with Van's self-created family who actually provide love and care.
Yet we all know where “pretend family relationships” can lead to, don't we? For it is homosexuality that is perceived to undermine the very basis of familial life. As usual, no amount of theorising can express the stupidity of this idea as eloquently as the words of an “ordinary person.” In the American documentary about gay rights, Rights and Reactions, an elderly gay woman says: “When people say I'm a threat to the family—I think of pay kids, my grandchildren, my son-in-law.” In the background protestors who believe that “we should do away with gays if possible” hold banners that say it all: “Tradition, Family, Property.”
Which is why a short New Zealand film, A Death in the Family, should be compulsory viewing. Andy, dying of AIDS, goes back to New Zealand to be looked after by his friends. Unlike the British television dramas Intimate Contact and Sweet as You Are, which presented AIDS as essentially a crisis for the heterosexual family, A Death in the Family puts Andy's dying and its effect on his gay friends at the core of the film. When his conservative family, who have never accepted his gayness, come to visit, it is once again the real family that appears emotionally impoverished.
The film never glosses over the realities of an appalling loss. Andy says himself, “This is one bitch of a death.” I, for one, don't subscribe to the idea that learning to die is somehow good for you. When it comes to AIDS, tears are not enough. Many people dying of AIDS will not get a place in a hospice, let alone have a network of friends to care for them. A Death in the Family is an elegant and quietly intense film that should be shown on television immediately.
It seems that those who portray the family as under siege from pernicious outside influences have got it (deliberately?) wrong. What is tearing the family apart is the eruption of tensions that have always existed within the family. What these films suggest, in quite different ways, is not that we should all go off and live in communes, but that it is possible even in the midst of the fallout from the nuclear family, to make new kinds of families, new kinds of communities.
In the light of Cleveland and the Clause, “pretend family relationships” have never seemed like such a good idea.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2318
SOURCE: “Memories of Overdevelopment: Up and Atom,” in Film Comment, Vol. 25, No. 6, November–December, 1989, pp. 27–29.
[In the following essay, Taubin explores Egoyan's use of technology as a metaphor in Speaking Parts and Family Viewing.]
The very voluble Atom Egoyan is hesitant to say how small the budget was for Speaking Parts, his third feature. He has a theory about recent independent films—that by conforming to Hollywood production standards, they've begun to attract a broader audience. Broader, that is, than the audience for grimy, grainy 16mm. With its gracefully arcing camera movement, spookily luminous interiors, and arresting, though totally unknown, actors, Speaking Parts looks a lot more expensive than its “well under a million dollar budget,” which is as close to specific as Egoyan's willing to get now that the film is making the festival circuit and a U.S. opening is likely around the New Year.
It's questionable whether your average viewer will find attractive visuals and subtle acting a sufficient reward, given Speaking Parts evasive, fragmented narrative, shifty-eyed, narcissistic characters and morbidly chill tone. Actually the film's most appealing quality is its gallows humor, to which the New York Film Festival audience made frequent, audible response. In short, Speaking Parts is not exactly sex, lies, and videotape, although it's hard to imagine a more appropriate title for not only this film, but Egoyan's entire oeuvre. Speaking Parts was screened in the Director's Fortnight at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival where sex, lies, and videotape won the competition; Egoyan admits that he was so upset by Soderbergh's title (i.e. that he hadn't thought of it himself) that he's yet to see the film.
Egoyan was born in 1960 in Egypt of Armenian parents. His family emigrated to Canada when he was three years old, but he didn't learn English until after his grandmother was placed in an old-age home four years later. “I resented her being sent away but that's when my assimilation began,” Egoyan remarks, savoring the contradiction. It's tempting to relate Egoyan's insistence on holding back verbal information at the openings of his films to this childhood experience of alienation. In Speaking Parts, eight minutes lapse before the first bit of dialogue occurs, and it's twice that before one begins to grasp the situation. The beginning of Family Viewing, Egoyan's previous film, is equally enigmatic and disorienting. Egoyan ascribes his idiosyncratic expositions to his desire to break “the Hollywood rule about needing to grab the audience in the first ten minutes.”
While majoring in international affairs at the University of Toronto, Egoyan made several short films, one of which was broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). He used the TV sale to partially finance Next of Kin, his first independent feature, which CBC also televised, leading to his being hired to direct In This Quarter, a one-hour TV show about an IRA terrorist who becomes involved with an Irish-Canadian boxer. “The action sequences in In This Quarter caught the eye of some commercial producers and I was hired to direct episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, two American TV series shot in Toronto,” Egoyan explains, adding that at this point his career became totally schizophrenic.
“My exposure to Hollywood filmmaking taught me what I was up against and clarified my direction. In mainstream production, what's onscreen is the budget—you know that Hollywood expression, ‘The money's all on the screen.’ What's on the screen in independent filmmaking is spirit, an idiosyncratic vision. So instead of coming up with a more mainstream script, as most people expected, I wrote Family Viewing.”
Budgeted at ＄160,000, Family Viewing was financed with private money and state-funded arts grants. Egoyan stayed away from Canadian film production entities like Telefilm because he wanted to retain complete control. Family Viewing was Egoyan's first film to win recognition outside Canada and in a well-publicized incident at the Montreal Film Festival, Wim Wenders asked the jury to turn over his first prize for Wings of Desire to Egoyan.
Relentlessly claustrophobic and intentionally ugly, Family Viewing is about the oedipal struggle between Stan, a video equipment salesman, and his son, Van. Having driven his wife (Van's mother) away and placed her mother (Van's grandmother) in a nursing home, Stan is dedicatedly taping over treasured home video recordings—replacing idyllic images of young Van and his mother romping in the grass with clinically-depicted sexual encounters between himself and his live-in girlfriend, who not-so-secretly also has the hots for Van. With the help of a young woman who works in a telephone sex establishment (where Stan is one of her clients), Van rescues the tapes from Stan's clutches, his grandmother from the nursing home, and his mother from a homeless shelter. He sets up a new household with the three women, while Stan, in frantic pursuit, collapses of a heart attack.
Family Viewing is remarkable, not only for its multiple layering of satire and creepily intimate realism, but for its use of video technology. Stan's bedroom diary and Van's baby pictures were recorded on consumer VHS: the living room scenes involving Stan, Van, and the girlfriend were shot TV sitcom-style with three studio cameras linked by a switcher. Broadcast images from omnipresent TV sets and surveillance camera footage are frequently intercut with the action. Transferred to film, the degraded, degenerated video images function both expressively and metaphorically and depart from the usual 16mm look.
“Video images are suggestive of the images that go on inside people's heads,” Egoyan remarks, adding later that, “there's a profound difference in attitude toward the two mediums video and film. In terms of home movies, everyone using film knows in the back of their minds that they are going to have to pay for a roll. That means no matter how obsessive they are about recording, they have to chose. With video, the process can be indiscriminate. You can record an entire day in real time without any form of selection. That experience of time is extremely dangerous. Some people never look at what they record but by recording something, they make it a possession. It has an effect on the process of memory. We give away responsibility for memory to a piece of technology. I don't think film was so insidious.”
The phrase “family viewing” evokes both the 6pm-8pm broadcast time slot and a funeral parlor ritual. Speaking Parts opens with a video image of a woman wandering through a cemetery. Several shots later, we see the same woman sitting in a mausoleum watching a videotape of her late brother walking toward and away from the camera, home movie style. In both films, video is associated with desire (incestuous and therefore guilty) and loss (abandonment or death).
“In terms of the technology—video mausoleums, videophones—Speaking Parts is set about five years in the future,” Egoyan explains adding that he's heard that they already have videotape mausoleums in Japan.
His insistence on a medicalized, mediated body and a nightmarishly technological future/present environment connects Egoyan to filmmakers like David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, and his fellow Canadian, David Cronenberg. Speaking Parts is, to state the story in the crudest terms, about the making of a movie about organ transplants which takes the form of a TV talk show. “It's preposterous,” he shrugs.
The main setting of Speaking Parts is a hotel which also functions as a movie production office. Lisa (Arsinee Khanjian) a zealously truthful, mopey chambermaid is in love with Lance (Michael McManus), an aspiring actor and Rob Lowe look-alike who also works in the hotel as a steward-cum-hustler. Every night, Lisa rents videotapes of the films in which Lance has been an extra and watches his scenes on a kind of TV shrine. Lance and Lisa never touch or make eye contact. When they cross paths, they look as furtive and guilty as actors in a Bresson film. Occasionally Lisa begs Lance to let her love him.
Lance discovers that Clara (Gabrielle Rose), one of the hotel guests, has written a film. Clara is obsessed with her brother who died after donating his lung to save her life. Her script is about their relationship. She's struck by Lance's resemblance to her dead brother and angles to get him the part. Clara and Lance begin an affair and when Clara goes out of town, they engage in mutual masturbation via videophone.
Egoyan says that while Family Viewing was about the absence of familial love, Speaking Parts is about the withholding of romantic love. Which doesn't mean that it's any less an Oedipal story. The Producer (David Hemblin, who also played the father in Family Viewing) is Speaking Parts' evil genius. His beefy face, with its congealed expression of self-aggrandizement, spreads across the videophone screen, as he supervises the proceedings from some remote location. The Producer has secretly written Clara out of her own story, so that now the film's about two brothers rather than a brother and sister.
Arresting though they are, the characters in Speaking Parts are too self-absorbed to invite identification. Nor does Egoyan intend for them to do so. His basic editing design (repeated throughout the film) involves subverting what at first appears to be a point of view shot—the traditional device for creating audience identification—by following it, not with the usual 180 degree reverse angle, but with a moving camera shot, 90 degrees off to the side. The second shot is not identified with any character. Rather it functions as an intrusion in the scene, as if the camera were not only coming between the characters, but going out of its way to make the audience aware of its gaze. This moving camera, in Egoyan's terms, “is a character”—the absent presence of the filmmaker.
While encompassing the Producer's film, Speaking Parts is also its dreamlike subtext. “A movie that takes the form of a talk show is very original,” the Producer says. “I'd watch it and people have always watched what I like to watch.” Speaking Parts gleefully satirizes the Producer's (mainstream films') banality and also offers another way of telling a story.
The lynchpin in the film's construction is a sequence toward the end in which the suicidal Clara revisits the mausoleum to, once again, watch the video of her brother. One has, until this point, tacitly assumed that Clara shot the tape—that when the brother smiles at the camera, he is, or rather, was, on that happier occasion, smiling at Clara. But this time, the tape runs past its usual cut-off point, and as the shot widens, we're surprised to see Clara, herself, in the upper right corner of the frame, filming her brother with a super-8 film camera. A cut to a head-on close-up of Clara's camera lens adds to the disorientation. Should the shot be read from the brother's POV or from the POV of the mysterious second camera which has taken over the scene? Then Clara slowly lowers her camera to her side. (Egoyan says that for him, this is the most moving moment in the film.) Sister and brother gaze directly at each other in what, for a split second, we naively believe is unmediated intimacy. Then the presence of the camera reasserts itself, and we understand that, like the characters, we've been set up.
It's telling that when Egoyan discusses technology, he focuses so heavily on its domestic use. In both Family Viewing and Speaking Parts, the social structure is imploded so that the family becomes the only operative institution. A claustrophobic immigrant culture is displaced onto a technological one. The recording apparatus is the object of a tug of war between the younger generation who need it to preserve childhood memory (incestuous yearnings) and the bad fathers who employ it to display and extend their power, rewriting personal history in the process. The VCR is a sex toy which fuels forbidden fantasies. All the characters in Family Viewing are bound by blood or marriage, except the two women who function as concubines for the father (one of whom is rescued and then claimed by the son). Sexuality is either incestuous or venal. In Speaking Parts, parental relationships are superimposed on the workplace. The Producer, who's away on business, asserts his authority via a closed circuit TV image, dominating not only production meetings, but the wedding of one of his employees, over whom he also exercises droit du seigneur. Similarly the hotel's head housekeeper is also the madame of its prostitution service, in charge of scheduling and regulating the sexual activities of both staff and guests.
The festishized scraps of home video (of Van and his mother/Clara and her brother), inscribed with incestuous longing and the pain of loss are not only “felt” images, they are the springboard for narrative. Interestingly, they also are the place where the son emerges as leading man. In that sense, Family Viewing resolves positively—Van saves both the women of the household and the tapes (cultural history.) Speaking Parts is a much darker film. Clara's brother, in saving her life, has abandoned her to the whims of the Producer. And Lance, the brother substitute, has no investment in the integrity of Clara's story; he's only too willing to betray it (and her) for the advancement of his own career.
Egoyan comments that, although Van seems like a savior, “he's still his father's son.” Speaking Parts' ironic hall of mirrors suggests a similar complicity between Egoyan (the absent presence behind the camera) and the Producer (who “phones in” his picture.) Both derive power from the manipulation of images.
“If I have a set of concerns and a set of conflicting attitudes, then I have a film,” Egoyan says. “I don't subscribe to a messianic view of filmmaking and I don't disguise the fact that I haven't reached a conclusion. I encourage the audience to be aware that I am photographing people and to be deeply suspicious of my reasons.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1039
SOURCE: A review of The Adjuster, in Sight & Sound, Vol. 2, No. 2, June, 1992, p. 38.
[In the following review, Romney praises Egoyan's work in The Adjuster, particularly his skillful use of repetition.]
[In The Adjuster,] Noah Render, an insurance loss adjuster, lives in the only occupied house on an uncompleted estate with Hera, her sister Seta and their son Simon. Called out to the scenes of fires, he arranges for clients to be lodged in a motel while they wait for their claims to be sorted. On the subway, Hera witnesses an incident involving Bubba and Mimi, a rich couple who stage elaborate sex charades for Mimi to star in. Hera works as a film censor, classifying acts in pornographic films and videotaping them for Seta to watch at home.
At the motel Noah reassures an anxious client Tim, with whose wife he is having an affair. He also embarks on an affair with his latest client Arianne, who has allowed her house to burn down because “something had to change.” Bubba visits the Renders posing as a location scout and persuades them to allow him to use their house for filming.
Hera is caught videotaping by Tyler, a young censor, who reports her to their boss Bert. The latter is delighted to hear that Hera shares their excitement at watching the films, but is disappointed when she explains that she does it so that Seta can learn about her work. Noah suggests that the family move to the motel while the ‘film crew’ use the house. Bubba and Mimi move into the house to film a sex scene in which she plays a mother at a children's party.
During a private screening arranged by Bert, Hera allows Tyler to fondle her. While Noah is in the bedroom of Matthew, a gay client, Hera, Seta and Simon leave. Driving home to look for them, Noah finds Bubba dousing the house in paraffin before setting it alight. As the house burns down, Noah remembers meeting Hera for the first time, as her house was burning …
In the past, Atom Egoyan seemed to have one thing to say and a number of elegantly complex ways to say it. Dispensing with the more mannered aspects of his earlier features, and adopting a more downbeat realism in his visual tone, Egoyan here manages to spread his thematic net considerably wider. His main insight has always been a fairly conventional one—into urban alienation in the video age, and into the aridity of interpersonal relationships entailed by the arrangement of the world into categories and representations.
In Family Viewing and Speaking Parts, the point was overstressed with a rather too insistent interplay of film and video media. Here he jettisons that device—so much so that, even though film and TV are omnipresent, we only hear their soundtracks, whether the banal jingles of children's TV or the all too eloquent grunts and gobbles of hard porn. Instead of television per se, Egoyan shows us TV-style spectacle enacted in the real world, like the sexual performance art staged by Bubba for Mimi's benefit (unless it is the other way round).
Noah's social role is one such spectacle: he could be the friendly insurance man in a TV ad, or at least tries to play the part. He is an adjuster before he is Hera's ‘husband,’ and their relationship is strained all the more because Hera herself is not satisfied with the constraints of her job description. As a sexual being, she finds that looking is not enough; an exchange of glances on the subway with a dashing chiropodist has to turn into direct physical contact, if only between his fingers and her feet. Noah's sexuality, on the other hand, is subsumed entirely into his role as consoler of fire victims, and if he embarks on affairs with them, we can only suppose that it is as an extension of his good services.
The film's dislocation—very short scenes, implied relations between characters that only become clearer as the film proceeds—traditionally goes hand in hand with themes of alienation. But Egoyan's particular achievement here is to hint at the possibility of some underlying order beneath the fragmentation. Noah, who is at least a semi-benevolent manipulator, is seen by his clients as an angel of infinite goodwill, ensuring them a continuity of life even after disaster has struck. His counterpart among the censors is Bert, who sits in the screening room like an impassible god, guaranteeing the possibility of sexual pleasure by reducing it, classifying by letter the manifestations of its excesses (“No Gs,” he says after one film, “surprising”).
The Adjuster works brilliantly as a layering of repetitions and parallelisms. Egoyan rings his characteristic changes on the theme of voyeurism—Seta watching porn in order to experience Hera's life at one remove; a passing masturbator watching her watching; Hera seeing Mimi's exhibitionistic subway charade; Bubba taking photos of a pornographer's most perverse delight, the spectacle of the ‘happy home.’ The repetition works, too, at the level of the way people keep a record of their lives, most simply in the photographs which enable Noah to value their life style. The point that the photos establish the life, rather than vice versa, is neatly made when Matthew's naked body on the bed—after he and Noah have presumably slept together—duplicates a pose in the portraits he had shown Noah previously.
Egoyan is often accused of not having real characters, but that is precisely the point. ‘Real’ life, ‘inner’ life, is only alluded to here through its absence, which shows as a glaring void behind the characters' neurotic manoeuvres and empty verbal equivocations. In this sense, two touches of performance stand out—the tension between Elias Koteas' twitching, panicked features and the codified banalities he speaks; and the telling scene in which Bubba, explaining the ‘film’ he is about to make, ends up desperately communicating his own impasse as a character in a film—in this film, in fact. The film's self-reflexivity points towards a rather desperate moral realisation—Egoyan's characters may be just characters in a movie, but they also know with increasing anxiety that they can never be characters in that elusive domain, the real.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2002
SOURCE: “Burning Down the House,” in Sight & Sound, Vol. 2, No. 2, June, 1992, pp. 18–19.
[In the following review, Taubin explores the recurring themes common in The Adjuster and Egoyan's earlier films.]
The protagonist of The Adjuster, Atom Egoyan's discomforting fourth feature, is named Noah Render. “The allusions are so obvious, they're hysterical,” says Egoyan during an interview. “What satisfaction could there be in analysing such a name?,” he scoffs. “So what if you realise that the motel where Noah boards his clients is like his ark?” Without pausing for breath, he does an about face and gleefully runs through dictionary definitions of the word ‘render’: “to represent, to break down into simple forms … What I like about ‘render’ is that it has so many contrary meanings.”
Or, as he remarked on another occasion: “If I have a set of concerns and a set of conflicting attitudes, then I have a film. I don't subscribe to a Messianic view of film-making and I don't disguise the fact that I haven't reached a conclusion. I encourage the audience to be aware that I am photographing people and to be deeply suspicious of my reasons for doing so.”
With its wide-screen format, velvety lighting, and speaker-taxing, low-frequency musical effects, The Adjuster (1991) is more sumptuous than Egoyan's earlier features. Next of Kin (1984), Family Viewing (1987) and Speaking Parts (1989). Nevertheless, all four films probe the same dilemma—the relationship between so-called family values and a sexual desire which is defined as either incestuous or promiscuous (in other words, as guilty). Always reflexive, the films are littered with references to home movies and pornography; often they're one and the same. Egoyan is as attracted to hardcore as his fellow-Canadian David Cronenberg is to horror. But unlike Cronenberg's films, which pay off in genre terms, Egoyan's evade the ‘money shot.’ Here, it's the scene of pornography, rather than the mechanics of the body, that's delivered.
Like their director/writer, whose characteristic nervous gesture is to wrap the five fingers of his right hand around the middle fingers of his left and hang on for dear life, Egoyan's films fling their Oedipal castration anxiety in our faces. It's what makes this otherwise chilly work both touching and terrifying.
“On New Year's Eve, 1989, my parents' house was devastated by a fire,” Egoyan explains. “We worked with an insurance adjuster and I was struck by the power he had over the rematerialisation of our lives. He had to assign value to objects and decide what our standard of living was. He was very professional, an ordinary guy, but I began to think what if he was going through a bad period and he didn't know how to evaluate his own life. The Adjuster came out of that experience.”
The Adjuster's Noah Render (Elias Koteas) is a compassion junkie; he wants to be indispensable to his clients. He arranges temporary motel housing, pays them daily visits, coaxes lists of lost objects from them, pours over family photographs in search of evidence to support a claim. “Is that a purebred?,” Noah gently enquires of a gay couple who've just shown him a picture of themselves with their dog. They look at him with disgust, but he's not deterred. “What did you pay for it? ＄500? What was the approximate value?”
Later one of the men seductively offers Noah a set of porn photographs taken in his former apartment. “You can't see much of the background,” comments Noah perplexedly. Then he has sex with the man, as if, by recreating the images in the photograph, he will be able to assign them a value. Noah is also sexually involved with two women clients. He offers his body to alleviate their anxiety and boredom. “You're in a state of shock,” he tells each of them, although his monotone voice, robotic gestures and guilt-stricken face suggest that he's really talking about himself.
Noah's domestic life revolves around Hera (Arsinée Khanjian), a film censor who lives with her sister and son in a model home in an otherwise abandoned housing tract. The film encourages us to assume that Noah and Hera are a couple. Noah is frequently in Hera's bedroom, but never in her bed. She treats him with a familiar contempt bordering on hatred. Hera knows that Noah's solicitousness is both paternalistic and narcissistic; nevertheless, she remains passively under his protection.
At work, Hera functions as errant daughter to the head of the censorship board (played by David Hemblen, the beefy-faced pater familias of Speaking Parts and Family Viewing). We never see the porn films the censors are rating, but we hear their moaning and groaning soundtracks. Hera's face remains inscrutable as cries of “do-me-Daddy” fill the auditorium. Secretly, she's been videotaping the juiciest bits to show to her sister. A recent émigrée from Armenia who speaks no English, the sister becomes addicted to the tapes. They're her primer in the language and customs of North America.
Noah and Hera function as mediators, classifying and assigning value to objects. Unlike Noah, Hera is aware of her alienation. Copying the films is a subversive act; as punishment, the head censor's assistant traps Hera in the screening room, and while his boss watches from the projection booth, he tries to rape her.
The Adjuster's third ‘family’ unit is a rich couple—Bubba (Maury Chaykin) and Mimi (Gabrielle Rose). “They have the means to have everything they want, but they don't know what they need, so they try different things,” Bubba explains to Noah, describing himself and his wife in the third person as if they were characters in the ‘home movie’ he plans to make using Hera and Noah's model home as the principal location. Among the “things” Bubba and Mimi have tried is a performance in which an entire football team lines up in an empty stadium to watch Mimi cheerlead to the rhythms of ‘High School Confidential.’ As the team captain prepares to reward Mimi for her efforts, Bubba turns his back on the scene and stares straight into the camera, protecting his wife from our gaze and reminding us of our complicity with his voyeurism.
Bubba's invasion and recreation of other people's lives is a more perverse version of what Noah does. Noah acquiesces to Bubba's desires—he rents the model house to him and moves Hera and the rest of the family to the motel where he keeps his other clients. Bubba's home movie climaxes with him burning down the house. As Talking Heads puts it, “He fights fire with fire.” Noah catches Bubba spreading gasoline on the floor. “You've come in just when the person in the film who's supposed to live here decides it's time to stop playing house. So are you in or are you out?,” Bubba bellows, shoving his face into Noah's. Noah flees and the house goes up in flames with Bubba and Mimi inside.
By destroying Noah's sham domesticity, Bubba proves that he is the real adjuster. The flashback which closes the film confirms what should have been obvious all along. Noah is not a man who leads a double life, cheating on his wife with his clients. Noah has no wife. Hera is just another client who was burned out of her house and whose claim was never settled. Noah hasn't lost his home because he never had one.
Although Noah is the only leading character not directly involved in film-making, he's the one who acts most like a director. Rushing from motel room to motel room, and from location to location, he desperately tries to keep everything under control. Named after a biblical patriarch, his position is that of a son struggling against his father's power. He resents the authority of the insurance company, which uses him “to clean up their messes,” and allows the rapacious Bubba to rewrite his life.
Egoyan edits the film to Noah's rhythms, breaking the operatic flow of the narrative by compulsively shifting the scene just when the action starts to heat up. The editing not only represses the erotic fantasies the film threatens to unleash, it also heightens our awareness of our own voyeurism by refusing to allow us to see. Add to this the interlocking power struggles in which the only allowable positions are parent or child, and the entire film takes on the repulsive allure of the primal scene.
The Adjuster is an elaboration of the material Egoyan laid out more brutally in Family Viewing. Relentlessly claustrophobic, Family Viewing is about the Oedipal struggle between Stan, a video equipment salesman, and his son Van. Having driven his wife (Van's mother) away and placed her mother (Van's grandmother) in a nursing home, Stan is dedicatedly taping over treasured home video recordings—replacing idyllic images of young Van and his mother romping in the grass with clinically depicted sexual encounters between himself and his live-in girlfriend, who not-so-secretly also has the hots for Van. With the help of a young woman who works in a telephone sex establishment (where Stan is one of her clients), Van manages to rescue the tapes from Stan's clutches, his grandmother from the nursing home, and his mother from a homeless shelter. Van establishes a new household with the three women, and Stan, who's been frantically pursing them, is wiped out by a heart attack.
Family Viewing is remarkable for its use of video technology. Stan's bedroom diary and Van's baby pictures were actually recorded on consumer VHS; the living-room scenes involving Stan, Van and the girlfriend were produced sitcom-style, using three studio television cameras. Surveillance camera footage and broadcast images were frequently intercut with the action. Transferred for theatrical release to 16mm, the image has a degenerated look which functions both expressively and metaphorically in relation to the narrative.
Egoyan followed Family Viewing with Speaking Parts. In terms of its technology, the film is set about five years in the future. In one of the more memorable scenes, two characters engage in mutual masturbation via videophone. In another, a sister discovers something she never knew about her beloved dead brother by watching a home movie in a video mausoleum. Roughly described, Speaking Parts is about the making of a movie about organ transplants which takes the form of a television talk show. “If Family Viewing is about the absence of familial love,” says Egoyan, “then Speaking Parts is about the withholding of romantic love.” (And The Adjuster is about the confusion of the two.)
All relationships in both Family Viewing and Speaking Parts are mediated and transformed by video technology. The home video apparatus is a sex toy which fuels forbidden fantasies. It's the object of a tug of war between the sons or daughters who need it to preserve childhood memories (incestuous yearnings) and the bad fathers who employ it to extend their power, rewriting personal history in the process.
Excepting Godard and Cronenberg, no other film-maker has explored the connection between technology and voyeurism and between home movies and pornography so intensely or intelligently. “It's the difficulty of representing the self in a society completely obsessed with representation that interests me.” But if that's the problem Egoyan is addressing, then the 35mm wide-screen format of The Adjuster seems a bit of a dinosaur—cumbersome, irrelevant and outdated. Especially since Egoyan isn't using it to make ‘gloss’ Hollywood films.
If The Adjuster leaves Noah no choice but to start his life from scratch, Egoyan is in a similar position with regard to his film-making career. While The Adjuster has done well on the festival circuit, it's too unnerving a film to attract a large art house audience. And Egoyan openly admits that he doesn't want to be trapped into making more and more expensive films in order to placate audiences with mainstream production values. On the other hand, his relative fame makes him an unlikely candidate for arts council funding. Given the institutional constraints of film financing, it won't be easy for Egoyan to go back to using low-end technology. But nothing else will do.
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SOURCE: A review of Calendar, in Christian Century, Vol. 110, No. 7, March 3, 1993, pp. 227–28.
[In the following review, Wall discusses the central plot and thematic material in Calendar.]
Canadian director Atom Egoyan is a quiet man who avoided a press conference after the initial screening of his sixth feature film, Calendar. A few of us caught up with him just outside the theater where he willingly chatted about his picture, which deals with a photographer, played by Egoyan, who like the director is from an Armenian family but doesn't speak the language. His wife plays the role of Egoyan's movie wife, but she does speak the language—which sets up the film's drama of failed communication and experiences not shared.
The couple travels to Armenia to take pictures of churches for a calendar. (The film is co-produced by the Armenian government, a German television company and Egoyan's Canadian company.) The film's premise is simple: a local guide drives the photographer and his wife to remote church sites and describes the significance of the architecture and history of the buildings. (In one delightful exchange he refers to a point of “energy” which determined the location of the structure.) The wife translates for her husband, but it soon becomes obvious that she is also developing a rapport with the guide; they share a love for the country and its churches, and they have a common language which the husband lacks. But more than the Armenian language is missing from this marriage. The husband is someone who observes but cannot participate. From the wife's first attempt to translate the deep feelings the guide has for country and church, it is clear that it is only a matter of time before their rapport will translate into love.
Egoyan tells his story of a disintegrating marriage on several levels, cutting from a subjective 8 mm segment, which he shoots as the wife and guide talk, back to the film's regular camera, which captures the increasing tension between husband and wife. The film also alternates between the period in Armenia before the marriage fails and a period in Canada a year later as Egoyan's character “conducts” a series of dates with women he seeks out because they speak different languages and because they will reject him after they finish a bottle of wine together. Tension is created by long sections in which only Armenian is spoken, which neither the photographer not the film's audience can understand. And always there is the countryside of Armenia, and the centuries-old churches, which stand as mute witnesses to the folly of a man who has removed himself from life by recording rather than experiencing what he sees.
When I asked Egoyan if the film was autobiographical, he smiled and said he and his wife are still married. But he acknowledged that as a director he fears falling into the trap of the photographer, an observer who records but understands very little of the inner meaning of what he sees. Unlike the Jost film, Egoyan's picture is humorous—though the laughter is tinged with sadness, as when the wife tries to translate her husband's increasingly aloof mood to the guide, and the guide can't understand a word the man says until he mentions “more money.” The musical score also enlivens the picture's good humor, alternating between Armenian folk music and Canadian pop songs. (One college-age German viewer told me later that Egoyan's script contains an amusing reference to a recent popular song about a young woman who can't be Egyptian because she doesn't “walk like an Egyptian.”)
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SOURCE: “Ruined,” in Film Comment, Vol. 29, No. 6, November–December, 1993, p. 73.
[In the following review, Chang describes the history behind Egoyan's Calendar and explores the film's major plot elements.]
Atom Egoyan won the Moscow Prize for The Adjuster in 1991. The award took the form of one million rubles in production funding and came with the stipulation that the work be done in the (then) Soviet Union. As location, Egoyan chose Armenia, his ancestral home—then saw his budget devalued, by secession and independence, to some ＄4,000 U.S. Last-minute assistance from German television allowed him to get on the plane with a limited budget, strict completion timeline, no script, and three ideas: 1) The film would be improvised. 2) A photographer on assignment shoots images of churches for a calendar. 3) A relationship disintegrates. As a friend of mine remarked, “All filmmakers should be forced to work this way.”
In Calendar, Egoyan himself plays the photographer, his onscreen wife is played by his offscreen wife, Arsinée Khanjian, and Ashot Adamian plays their Armenian guide. Landscape photography marks another stage in the Egoyan film canon's continuing fixation on desensitized voyeurs and sentient cameras, and playing the eye that looks through the camera makes a fitting acting début for this director. It also increases the waffled subjectivity that turns Calendar's pages.
Cutting back and forth between the hard-copy images of the completed calendar and the diaphanous events surrounding their capture, we revisit that old postmodern mechanism of inauthentic experience. The wife translates for the guide: “He wants to know if you want to touch it.” “Caress the church? No. …” “He wants to know if you'd be here if it weren't for your job.” “No.” Later, declining an offer for a walk while on location, Egoyan watches the two of them “disappear into a landscape I'm about to photograph.” She is becoming rerooted in her past; he will only come as close as the rootless image allows. Back home in Canada, the photographer turns to a sophisticated escort service that provides him with women who, when cued, make erotic phone calls in foreign languages (“Is Macedonian okay?”) to provide him with inspirational nostalgia for his estranged wife. What deters the film from falling into self-indulgent existential malaise are, among other things, his contrapuntal camcorder memories of his wife, dancing about a foreign landscape, shot in a way that reflects the true warmth and whimsy of roadtrips in love. She is a Mona Lisa smile in search of lost time, but nonetheless a phantom available only through image fragments of architectural landscape. The medium is the memory.
Memory and loss also dwell in Chantal Akerman's Moving in (Le Déménagement), a 37-minute crawling zoom in on and into a man (Sami Frey) who has just moved to a new modern apartment. He has left behind a melancholy space of relations, relations dominated by his former neighbors, a trio of female “social science students.” He now sits alone, he hasn't unpacked, he is unsure and not quite comfortable. His monologue is delivered to the camera as we move in on him. The mnemonic trinity, Béatrice/Elisabeth/Juliette, form a unified field of identity, a strength in numbers that only Sami truly understands. When the first of the trio encounters the “contamination of marriage,” he is puzzled why the groom chooses against tripartite consummation. That hurts. But there are still all the good times, the small moments: Elisabeth coming to his door for salt: “I'm out of salt” … “Darn,” “The way she said that, ‘Darn,’ I was exhilarated.” (This is very French.) A menu of the commonplace, the insignificant social niceties, the color of a dress, a pat on the head, the moment a photo was taken. “Where is that photo now?” It's the only baggage Sami is unpacking. When the camera achieves its closest point, when the lines of his face fill the screen, he stops talking, the eyes make contact, they are penetrating through, connecting in spite of absurdity, an empty man in an empty room. I think he tries to smile; the screen goes black. Somehow, he's still there.
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SOURCE: A review of Speaking Parts, in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 238–41.
[In the following review, Testa argues that the published script of Speaking Parts fails to support Egoyan's reputation as a leading postmodern director.]
The publication of scripts of English-Canadian films is regrettably a rarity. Coach House's Speaking Parts, the script of Canadian film director Atom Egoyan's 1989 film, is a model of how a script should be presented. In addition to the script, there is an introductory essay by Professor Ron Burnett of McGill University, an interview with the director conducted by film critic Marc Glassman, a short piece by the director, and a well-prepared filmography.
The appearance of the book raises several issues. The first is the necessity of its elaboration, which is a bit saddening. Since his mid-twenties, Egoyan, now thirty-three, has frequently been declared to be the leading English-Canadian director of his generation. However, no critic has come forward with a cogent account of why he is to be so highly regarded. The writing on Egoyan is little more than press publicity and, for a director of his notable intellectual and artistic ambition, this must be a disappointment. For those of us less impressed by the idea of Atom Egoyan projected by the press—and who have never been able to see that idea realized on the screen—the postponement of some substantiation of all the claims made for him seems inexplicably long. His films, and Speaking Parts especially, have become classroom fixtures and Egoyan has become today's object of Canadian film culture's desire for an ‘art cinema’ hero. The least question (though it is also a most polysemous question) we doubters might like to have answered is ‘What does Atom Egoyan mean?’
In this respect, appreciation of this volume must be limited to the merely ceremonial. Egoyan's interview with Glassman and Burnett's introductory essay are no help in answering our question. The interview strays away from Speaking Parts into comfortable chatter around the director's familiar media persona. Burnett's article is a little fatuous, the sort of thing academic critics can be depended upon to click on when they are unsure what to say and are grasping for ready-made assertions of aesthetic importance. Today, these are themes of disassociated subjectivity and narrative disjunctiveness. Here are some of Burnett's thesis paragraphs:
Egoyan is concerned with the relationship between image and identity: his film proposes that images have transformed the personal and public spaces between his characters. It suggests that there is no point of separation between image and identity, no ‘ground zero’ (as Jean-Luc Godard once called it) where reality and image can be posited as different from each other. As the opening shots of the film reveal, there seems to be a point of departure and no end point where this proliferation of images can be explained with the kind of depth for which Egoyan is searching. In other words, although the film seeks to explore how its characters grapple with the past, history is absent. …
This sense of fragmentation, bounded by questions of truth and morality, drives the narrative of the film forward. Although Egoyan remains faithful to the idea that a story must be told, he questions conventional strategies of storytelling through a dispersal of image and narrative.
The problem with such thematic claims is that Speaking Parts does not speak to them. In the film itself ‘history’ is uncovered. The source of the guilt that troubles the female protagonist, Clara, while enigmatic in ‘the opening shots,’ is revealed to be her past and it is dramatically exhausted by the last scene. Moreover, ‘history’ is re-presented throughout, for Clara has written it in the form of a television script. The male protagonist, Lance, has read it and grasped it, and it bears the mark of truth for both of them and for the viewer. Clara's true history is betrayed by the villain, the sinister TV producer, and that betrayal confirms its representation by making such an issue of deforming it. Similarly, image and identity are constantly asserted to be different in this film, and the script ensures that the drama of Clara's betrayal hinges on it. Visually, too, Egoyan's rhetoric sharply juxtaposes lower-fidelity video footage with film footage to express this difference.
Even a child, then, could recognize what Clara and Lance recognize, that truth has been written and is being bowdlerized. The confused one is Lisa, the somnambulistic hotel chambermaid in love with Lance. Lisa reveals that she has less savvy than a child and, as played by Arsinée Khanjian (Egoyan's wife and favourite actress) with her patented dazed naïvety, Lisa serves in an idiotic capacity as the slight, ambiguating pressure in Speaking Parts. But the accent should definitely fall on slight. As for ‘fragmentation’ and ‘dispersal’ of images, nowhere does Burnett, or the printed script, tell us why Speaking Parts seems so narratively fragmented. The reason is simple: Egoyan has broken up his plotting's straightforward linearity (Burnett's ‘a story must be told’) through a formal convolution. Stripped of normal transitional markers of ellipsis or simultaneity, or punctuating counterpoints, the film's editing is often arbitrary. The connections between narrative segments (written simply as numbered scenes in the script) seem to have been composed by a sleep-walker, hence the sense of disassociation. Nonetheless, before long, the viewer does catch on to the dramatic fact that the disassociative editing pattern is merely decorative.
Burnett elsewhere opens a door to what Egoyan's mannered decoration of Speaking Parts means. The TV set in the mausoleum where Clara conducts her seances probably does, for example, signify incest aping sacrality, as Burnett suggests. But the film's structure is anything but a denial of history, memory, or identity. If anything, Egoyan's films are about the maddening attachment to these things. From the start of his filmmaking, at least since Open House (1982) and Next of Kin (1984), he has gone on (and on) about how sentimentally wrenching the discovery of memory and identity within the family can be. Clara possesses them already and it is their enactment—through ‘art’ (a TV movie!)—that promises her some confessional release from her private guilt.
However, all this hardly validates Burnett's ‘transformation’ of public and private. This cannot be exactly what ‘concerns’ Egoyan, for it is a frustrated will to enact such a transformation that grips Clara and drives the plot. Either the director conceives this transformation to be impossible, or he is as foolish as Clara is. In any case, Egoyan denies her the chance to turn her personal history into a speaking part. This is his own wise refusal to allow her to seem foolish, or, one suspects, to seem foolish himself. Expressed simply through plot machinations that contrive to steal Clara's memories and history (actually she sells them), his narrative refusal to test the hypothesis of such transformation permits Egoyan to sustain Clara's slight pathos, and even to moralize it when she becomes the woman betrayed.
Just as he does with Lisa's role and the mannered editing of his film, Egoyan's plotting, then, deliberately veils what he intends and leaves us asking what he means altogether. Whatever the director might have intended, common sense suggests that the obvious significance Speaking Parts implies is woefully sentimental, an obviousness Egoyan only complicates with melodramatic betrayals. Moreover, it should be understood, these complications derive from nothing mysterious or theoretical, which is what Burnett's facile essay wants anxiously to claim for Speaking Parts. Indeed, much about the film's plotting suggests ways Atom Egoyan continues to reveal himself still to be a somewhat classical man of the theatre (his field of study while a student at University of Toronto) more than he is the postmodern Canadian art-cinema filmmaker proclaimed in the press and in some classrooms.
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SOURCE: “Exotic Atom: With Exotica, Atom Egoyan Has Become the Most Celebrated Canadian Filmmaker of His Generation,” in Maclean's, Vol. 107, No. 40, October 3, 1994, pp. 44–47.
[In the following essay, Johnson explores Egoyan's career, influences, and the filmmaker's concerns about his future.]
Rolling up to a movie premiere in a limousine is a familiar ritual. But at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Canadian director Atom Egoyan elected to walk to the North American premiere of his new movie, Exotica. Egoyan knew that refusing a limo could seem as pretentious as accepting one—but he had taken the luxury route two nights earlier with absurd results. After the festival's opening-night party, he and his partner, actress Arsinee Khanjian, found themselves ushered into a preposterously long stretch limo. “I was ready to jump into a cab,” recalls the film-maker, but his handlers at Alliance Releasing “had insisted we ride around in these limos.” He directed the chauffeur to Riverdale, on the eastern edge of downtown, where Egoyan, Khanjian and their one-year-old son, Arshile, share a modest semi-detached house on a narrow little street—so narrow that the driver could not get around the corner. “He spent 15 minutes trying to negotiate the turn,” Egoyan laughs. “You could see the dismay in the driver's face. He started to think maybe he'd taken the wrong people home.”
It was an Egoyanesque moment, the kind of bizarre incident that could be a premise for one of his movies—a limo driver and a moviemaker go through the motions of a ritual neither believes in. One way or the other, Egoyan's films are all about ritual. They are stories of separation and loss, featuring characters with strangely fetishized occupations. In Speaking Parts, a hotel chambermaid is infatuated with a co-worker who moonlights as an extra in B-movies. In The Adjuster, a fire-insurance claims investigator provides his dispossessed clients with sexual solace. And in Exotica, a young stripper does therapeutic table-dancing for a tax auditor mourning his daughter.
Egoyan's movies are dark, disturbing and encoded with mystery. His tautly controlled visions of alienation can seem exquisite or excruciating. But over the course of his 10-year career, after writing and directing six features, Egoyan has created a unique body of work. His films do not look like anyone else's. The 34-year-old director, who was born in Cairo to Armenian parents and raised in Victoria, B.C., is now the most celebrated Canadian film-maker of his generation. Last May, Exotica became the first English-Canadian film in 10 years to be accepted for official competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious International Critics' Award. And at the Toronto festival, Egoyan won the annual prize for best Canadian film for the third time.
A favorite at film festivals around the world, Egoyan has a serious following in Europe—a German TV crew just finished filming a one-hour documentary about him. Now, his appeal is broadening. With each of his movies, he has gradually expanded his budget and his audience. Even before opening commercially, Exotica has recouped its ＄2-million cost with sales to distributors. In the United States, it was picked up by the Disney-owned Miramax Films. And Hollywood scripts are regularly showing up in Egoyan's mail. “His star is definitely ascending,” says fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg (The Fly, Naked Lunch). “He has a world of possibilities opening up to him.”
Cronenberg, whom Egoyan considers his mentor, recognizes some parallels in their work. “There's a dry intellectual humor coupled with a mischievous sexuality,” says Cronenberg. “I think we both have that, a cerebral approach with some earthiness—the lascivious professor.” And, just as Cronenberg has turned down offers to direct the likes of Tom Cruise, Egoyan seems determined to pursue his own vision. Both directors make movies that “get under your skin” says American film-maker Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs). “But while everyone talks about the voyeurism and creepy feeling in Atom's films, they forget that he's a really great storyteller.”
Saturday morning. Dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans, Egoyan serves black coffee in his kitchen, apologizing for the lack of milk. The house is a slim three-storey affair, renovated by the previous owner—its oddest feature being an undulating pine banister that ends in the form of a bird's beak. There are various artworks about the place, including one by each of his parents, and a New Mexican painting bequeathed to him by the late Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail film critic who helped put Egoyan on the map.
Sitting down at a patio table in the small, fenced-in yard, Egoyan reflects on his latest dealings with the Miramax publicity machine. “They are telling me there are certain phrases I shouldn't use in interviews,” he says. “They don't like me talking about ‘ritual.’ They would prefer I talk about ‘game-playing.’” The director seems more amused than offended by the attempt to doctor his image. “Maybe I should do everything they suggest,” he says, only half joking. “I'd be curious to see if it makes a difference.”
While Egoyan's films tend to be chilling, hermetic and austere, the director comes across as a warm, genial presence, with an eager sense of humor. For an artist who has achieved such acclaim so soon, he remains gracefully modest and down-to-earth. “I've been very lucky to make my living at what I do,” he declares. “Arsinee and I are new Canadians, and we are extraordinarily appreciative of the opportunity to make films in this country that couldn't be made anywhere else.”
Arsinee Khanjian has been Egoyan's partner in life and art ever since he cast her in his first feature, Next of Kin, 10 years ago. And she plays a crucial role in his career. The 36-year-old actress, an Armenian who immigrated from Lebanon at the age of 17 and speaks five languages, has appeared in all of his movies. But she also serves as his artistic foil, questioning his decisions at every turn. Although her screen characters are often eerily restrained, offscreen she is convivial and exuberant. Together, they make a striking couple—their faces forming a symmetry of bold eyebrows and seductive smiles.
The relationship, however, seems fuelled by creative friction. Their closest friend, producer Niv Fichman, says it is “probably the most volatile and tempestuous relationship I've ever experienced, and yet the most true. He knows he has her support, but there are so many eruptions and tests that she puts him through. And that gives him such confidence because he knows that he's had to go through the wringer to make a decision.” Egoyan concurs. “It's not a romantic process making movies together, not at all,” he says. “It's fraught with tension and anxiety. But that chemistry creates something interesting when it works well.”
Egoyan and Khanjian underwent an unusually difficult ordeal in making Exotica. By the time they were shooting the film, during a July heat wave in 1993, Khanjian was seven months pregnant with Arshile. Egoyan had written the script before learning he was to be a father. Had he known, he doubts he would have written it.
The story revolves around a father's ritualistic grief over the death of his young daughter. A tax auditor named Francis (Bruce Greenwood) frequents a striptease emporium called Exotica, where Christina (Mia Kirshner), a dancer tricked out like a schoolgirl in a tartan skirt, performs at his table. Francis is a voyeur who just wants to talk. And during his evenings at the club, he hires his niece (Sarah Polley) to “babysit” an empty house. With lambent flashbacks to a search party combing for a body in a sunlit field, layers of mystery are gradually stripped away. “It was such a perverse film for a new parent to have made,” acknowledges Egoyan, who now has a babysitter of his own. “But it wasn't conceived that way.”
Khanjian's pregnancy was incorporated into the script. She plays Zoe, Exotica's enigmatic owner, who is involved in a tense triangle with its emcee (Elias Koteas) and the schoolgirl stripper. A deadpan Don McKellar plays Thomas, a pet-store owner who smuggles exotic animals and gets investigated by the auditor. Khanjian says that she and Egoyan were first thrilled by the way her pregnancy enriched the story—“We thought it would be a great metaphor, the way you inherit life and pass it on.” Zoe and Thomas both inherited establishments from parents. And Egoyan, leaving no symbol unturned, points out that Thomas's act of smuggling eggs by taping them to his stomach is a kind of artificial pregnancy.
But the idea was more fun than the execution. “It was very disturbing,” says Khanjian. “I was going through those incredible moments of doubt and need for complete attention. And here was this guy who every day was going on the set to direct what seemed to be a very perverse environment. I realized how much parents can become completely conservative. Suddenly, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, we are both parents for this child. What are we going to pass on to him? Is this the world we are introducing him to?’”
Egoyan's parents, Joseph and Shushan, emigrated from Cairo when he was three. Settling in Victoria, they changed their name from Yeghoyan to the more pronounceable Egoyan. Atom, named in honor of atomic energy, disliked being called that when he was growing up. And it did not help that his younger sister (now a concert pianist in Toronto) was named Eve—Atom and Eve jokes soon wore thin.
As a child, Egoyan worked hard to assimilate, refusing to speak Armenian at home and covering his ears when his parents spoke it. Although they made their living with a small furniture store, both had set out with artistic ambitions. His mother had a painting accepted by the National Gallery of Armenia. His father had attended the Chicago Art Institute as a 16-year-old prodigy. But “he didn't really stick it out,” says Egoyan, who was 10 when his father staged his last major show. “They gave him the whole second floor of the provincial museum in Victoria, and his show was just images of dead birds—it did not go over well. The year before, our house was full of dead birds hanging by strings from the walls and ceiling, birds he'd collected on the beach, dead sea gulls and stuff. He would pose them around the house and paint them.” Adds the director: “I think I had a very early exposure to a very excessive mentality.”
Egoyan says his parents had “a volatile relationship, and I saw the pain they felt in not being able to do what they wanted as artists.” He appeared determined not to suffer the same fate. At 12, for a Christmas pageant skit, Egoyan set up a camera onstage and asked the audience to smile. “I remember everyone being stunned,” he recalls. “It was a wonderful moment for me, feeling the power to undercut people's expectations.”
From the age of 13, Egoyan wrote plays, soaking up influences from such writers as Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Later, after enrolling as an arts undergraduate at the University of Toronto's Trinity College, he began to make short films. And by the age of 23, he was shooting his first feature, Next of Kin—the tale of a bored 23-year-old who abandons his quarrelling WASP parents and masquerades as the long-lost son of an Armenian couple in Toronto. Directed with startling assurance, Next of Kin contains all the basic threads that would distinguish his later work: the theme of family loss, the use of videotaped memories as a narrative device and the sense that the camera is conducting surveillance.
The movie also introduced Atom to Arsinee. While casting, he showed up at a rehearsal for an Armenian play in Montreal. Khanjian and her husband of two years, an Armenian dental student, were both performing. “Atom arrived in this beige tweed suit, with a nice tie and rimless glasses,” the actress recalls. “The moment I saw him I thought, ‘My God, if I had any ideal man in mind, this is it.’” Egoyan says he had a similar response: “I had this shining image of an Armenian princess—I used to joke with my roommate about it—and when I found her I was sure she was that person.”
They did not meet until the next night, when Khanjian and her husband saw Egoyan at another play. Khanjian wanted to ignore him, but her husband insisted on going over to introduce himself. He then summoned his wife, who blushed in embarrassment as he persuaded Egoyan to audition her for Next of Kin. The director gave her a role, and during the filming they began an affair that would end her marriage. “My parents were mortified,” she says. “I had a high-bourgeois life waiting for me, and here I was going off with this guy who had no obvious future.”
Next of Kin was virtually ignored, which left Egoyan demoralized as he struggled to make ends meet, working for ＄5 an hour as a porter at the U of T's Massey College. But after gaining some experience as a TV director, he made his second feature, Family Viewing (1987). The protagonist is an 18-year-old boy. He discovers that his father (David Hemblen), who is estranged from the boy's Armenian mother, has been taping over the family's home videos with scenes of himself having sex with his mistress.
Egoyan still considers Family Viewing the film closest to his heart, and at film festivals around the world it established his reputation. Two years before Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape, Family Viewing explored video as a literal metaphor for distressed, disembodied memory. Egoyan stretched the idea even further in Speaking Parts, which featured video-linked phone sex and a mausoleum with video images of the deceased. The story takes place in a hotel, with Khanjian playing a chambermaid. (As a teenager, Egoyan himself spent four summers working in a hotel in Victoria.) Speaking Parts had a hot debut in Cannes: the third reel burst into flames. But the audience sat through the 40-minute delay, and the movie received warm praise from critics. “For someone just turning 30,” wrote Georgia Brown of The Village Voice, “Atom Egoyan may be unforgivably sophisticated. His ideas about sex, lies and you-know-what make Steven Soderbergh look like a naive schoolboy.”
With its narcotic pacing and deliberately stilted acting style, Speaking Parts could also seem unforgivably precious. But in his next movie, The Adjuster (1991), Egoyan grafted his otherworldly vision onto strong, naturalistic performances—by Elias Koteas as a fire-insurance adjuster who beds his clients, Khanjian as his film-censor wife and Maury Chaykin as an ex-football player with a demented fantasy life. Once again, Egoyan found the spark for the script close to home—a fire that destroyed his parents' furniture store on New Year's Eve in 1989.
For his fifth feature, the director downshifted to an intimate, low-budget experiment called Calendar (1993). Working both sides of the camera, Egoyan played a photographer who travels to Armenia to take calendar pictures of churches, and whose wife (Khanjian) leaves him for their tour guide. A simulated home movie, Calendar appealed to a narrow art-house audience. But its witty blend of postmodern formalism and unscripted cinema verite delighted critics.
By contrast, Exotica is Egoyan's most stylish, ambitious and broadly appealing work to date. With its haunting Middle Eastern score and aquarium-cool images, it casts a hypnotic spell that is sustained from beginning to end. All the performances seem tuned to the same weird wavelength. “I wonder how that happens,” muses McKellar, who acted in both Exotica and The Adjuster, “because Atom never told me to act in an Atom Egoyan style.”
Despite its dangerous premise, which is based on a confusion between the babysitter and the babe-stripper, Exotica is so brilliantly controlled that it never seems prurient. Egoyan dissects the paradox of table-dancing—an intimate act in a public place—without exploitation or moralism.
Khanjian, meanwhile, seems remarkably sanguine about her partner's choice of material. “I've never felt uncomfortable with Atom's portrayal of sexuality,” she says. “It probably fulfils my own hidden fantasies, God knows.” But she does have her criticisms of his work. “I get annoyed sometimes by the fact that he is very suspicious of expressing emotions in an overt way,” she says. “It took me a long time to realize that it was not a gimmick, because he's incredibly emotional in real life.” But the most contentious issue between them, she adds, is the role of women in his work. “I find his movies very male-psyche. I'm not saying macho or misogynist—he uses a lot of androgyny. But he channels his subtleties through the male characters. The female characters are very condensed.”
Still, Khanjian offers her partner wholehearted support. Although she recently took a role as a doctor's wife in CBC-TV's new series Side Effects, she suggests that she would put her career on hold for him if necessary. “It sounds tacky,” she says, “but I'm going to be there for him if I can be of any use.” Then she adds: “I get scared for him sometimes. He's very smart, and he has his head on his shoulders, but this is a profession where people love turning you into a god, then crucifying that god.”
In fact, Egoyan seems to be conducting his career with supreme caution. As the senior producer on all his movies, he has a reputation for finishing them on time and under budget. Other film-makers envy the steady support he has received from government funding agencies such as Telefilm Canada. But his skill behind the camera makes a ＄2-million movie look like ＄10 million. And Alliance chairman Robert Lantos, who co-financed Exotica, says its budget could have been larger if Egoyan had wanted it—“he has a very strong sense of fiscal responsibility.”
Now that there is mounting pressure for Egoyan to go mainstream, Lantos says that “making a movie that someone else could make could be damaging to his career.” Egoyan agrees: “The biggest myth in this industry is that you should go out and make your big commercial movie so you can do what you really want. It never works.” The one time Egoyan did direct a movie that he did not write—CBC-TV's Gross Misconduct (1992), about hockey player Brian Spencer—he seemed to lose his bearings. Although he says he is proud of it and loved making it, Gross Misconduct is uncharacteristically lurid and incoherent.
Now, Egoyan's options continue to multiply. He receives a lot of American scripts, typically dysfunctional family dramas and quirky sci-fi thrillers. “I get confused,” he says, “because I have the option at any time of just crossing over. The fact that I'm even courting it makes Arsinee unsure.” Filming his own material has become “addictive,” he adds. “There's a child-like thrill in being able to tell these dark fables that come from the deepest recesses of your imagination and project them in full theatres. It seems unreal. That's what Arsinee gets upset about—that lately I've been taking it for granted.”
At the Toronto festival, a full theatre awaits the premiere of Exotica. Egoyan, Khanjian and Lantos stand near the stage with the director's father, an elegant man dressed all in black who looks like Leonard Cohen. Joseph Egoyan has made a special request to meet Lantos, the money man. “Art without business, you can forget it,” he tells the Alliance president as they are introduced. “Atom is an astute businessman,” Lantos replies. “He learned that from me,” proclaims Joseph with a grin.
Egoyan is called to the stage. He confesses that he is more nervous than he was at Cannes, thanks everyone he can think of, then sits down to watch his movie one more time. At the closing credits, the audience breaks the movie's spell with generous applause, and Egoyan takes the stage to field questions, working the crowd with wit and charm. The first question is breathtakingly erudite, a mini-thesis about editing and memory. Someone else inquires about the etiquette of clients touching table dancers. Then, a man stands up to say he was reminded of Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel—“hands touching but not touching.” The director does a double take. This is too much, even for him. “Yes, thank you, Michelangelo!” he quips, drawing laughter from the audience. And for a moment, Atom Egoyan seems to have found a place for himself in show business.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1569
SOURCE: “This Director's Got a Brand Noir Bag,” in Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1995, pp. 21–23.
[In the following review, McKenna explores the differences between Exotica and Egoyan's earlier films.]
“People often describe my work as cold and clinical, but I just can't see it that way—to me it's about nothing but emotion,” says Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan.
“True, the people in my films often try to deny their emotions and usually have a hard time understanding what they're feeling. Nonetheless, the emotions are always bubbling away in there at an almost operatic level.”
The reason critics often describe Egoyan's work as cold could have something to do with the tendency in his films for the “operatic” emotions to implode rather than explode—and the fact that the media are usually positioned as central characters in his narratives.
From his 1984 feature debut, Next of Kin, to his recently released sixth film, Exotica, Egoyan has looked with a cool eye at our willingness to hand the reigns of our consciousness over to technology and at the barrage of images that have invaded human experience.
Those ideas are percolating away in Exotica, but the film is a departure in other ways. Egoyan's works have always been provocative—and Exotica, doesn't disappoint on that score—but he has never made such a nakedly emotional film before. The story, revolving around the relationship between a stripper (Mia Kirshner) and one of the patrons of the club where she works (Bruce Greenwood), blossoms into a multilayered tale chronicling various experiences of loss, betrayal and obsession.
More than anything, however, Exotica is a meditation on the mysteriousness of the connections between people and how powerful those connections can be.
Exotica—which also stars Elias Koteas, Arsinée Khanjian and Don McKellar—marks another change for Egoyan in that his previous works eschewed linear narrative in favor of a highly fragmented approach to storytelling. The new film is loosely structured as a conventional thriller.
“I've been heavily influenced by thrillers, and if I was to associate myself with any genre, that's the one it would be,” the 35-year-old director says during a meeting at the Westwood hotel where he is staying with Khanjian, who is his wife and the star of all his films, and their infant son.
“And as with a thriller, Exotica comes together like a puzzle and only works if you trust what the filmmaker's up to. If you watch it suspiciously and worry that you're not ‘getting it,’ it begins to slip into the distance.
“People tend to discuss my films in terms of theory, but I'm not a theorist—my stories are told to communicate emotions,” Egoyan says in explaining the change of direction in his work.
“It's true that ideas about media, realities once removed and surrogates have been central to my films, but I never intended to address those themes in purely theoretical terms. I was beginning to feel that my stories were revolving to too large a degree around technology, so the challenge with Exotica was to show that the need to behave in certain ways is deep within us, and we act it out with or without technology.”
A theme that Egoyan has turned to repeatedly is the relationship between technology, the fantasies it gives rise to and sexuality. In Exotica, this idea is central.
“For most people, I think sex resides more in fantasy and in the imagination than in the body,” Egoyan says. “Ideally the two should obviously be in sync, but we're surrounded by such a plethora of images that we're almost taught to be as satisfied with images of people.
“Ironically, the central relationship in Exotica isn't very sexual at all, even though on a superficial level that appears to be the only thing it's about. In fact, this is a story about a man who becomes involved in an odd ritual that began as a healing process but has degenerated into something quite tormenting.
“I had this amazing screening of Exotica for the Toronto Psychoanalytic Society, and I learned several fascinating things,” says Egoyan, who lives in Toronto. “First, they assured me that the kind of relationship that's central to the film definitely exists in real life.
“They also told me that all my films deal with a process known as ‘faulty mourning,’ which is a Freudian term referring to the phenomenon of people who are in the process of mourning and think they're dealing with their loss, but the means they've devised to deal with it actually exaggerates the loss and leaves them addicted to the process of mourning. Why would anyone choose to behave in this way? Because it's a project. People look for a project in their lives, and the project of trying to come to terms with unhappiness is quite consuming.”
Invariably, the characters in Egoyan's films are struggling to come to terms with unhappiness—a fact that's rather curious considering that Egoyan seems to have led something of a charmed life.
Egoyan, who was named after the atom, was born in Cairo to Armenian parents in 1960 and raised in Victoria, British Columbia.
“There was no Armenian community in Victoria, and one of the major challenges of my life has been learning to honor my own heritage,” says Egoyan, whose 1993 film Calendar deals specifically with this theme.
“There was an underlying racism there—I can remember a teacher calling me ‘little Arab’—and as a child I wanted nothing more than to be like everyone else.
“My parents were both painters, so I was raised in an environment where people made things. My parents had a tumultuous relationship, and from a young age I was always playing therapist and trying to bring them together. I've always found the process of conciliation challenging, and when I went to college I majored in international relations planning to be a diplomat.”
Egoyan earned a bachelor's degree in international relations at Trinity College in Toronto in 1982, but his career as a diplomat never took root, probably because he had also been turning out plays at a prodigious rate from the time he was 13.
“I wrote tons of very wordy plays, which an adviser at school pointed out to me were influenced by the theater of the absurd,” he recalls. “After he told me that, I tracked down some books by Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter, and I was so excited by their ideas that I was just running around and laughing out loud. The theater of the absurd corresponded with so many things I was trying to understand and was so rich with comic possibility—it introduced me to a dramatic world where anything could happen and had a huge impact on me.”
Shortly after graduating from college, Egoyan came to the conclusion, he says, that “I was never going to find my voice in theater.”
“From the moment I made my first film, however, I realized that the camera lens can be a metaphor for a missing character—that struck me as such a powerful device!” he says, referring to Howard in Particular, a 14-minute short he completed in 1979.
After his first feature, Next of Kin, Egoyan directed several programs for Canadian television and four more feature films (Family Viewing in 1987, Speaking Parts in 1989, The Adjuster in 1992 and Calendar two years ago) that shared the same basic thematic concerns.
“I'm fascinated by the process of how people hurt each other, and anything that illustrates the fragility of human existence is appealing to me,” he says. “The characters I find most dramatically compelling are usually dysfunctional people who think they have control of their lives but have lost themselves in a pattern of behavior that perpetuates their dysfunction. People create rituals in my films, and there's something compulsive about how my characters behave.
“I'm also drawn to stories that have a sense of moral ambiguity, where the characters are lost in a universe where they're trying to put together some sense of moral values.”
Long a darling of the art film crowd, Egoyan stands a good chance of reaching a broader audience with Exotica, which has already won several prizes on the film festival circuit.
Asked if Hollywood had come courting yet, he shyly confesses, “Well, yes, I have been given lots of scripts, and I've enjoyed reading several of them. I have really eclectic tastes and love some Hollywood films.
“I'm already at work on my next project, though—I've optioned Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter. I fell in love with it when I read it in 1991 and think it's a perfect novel for me. I'm working on an adaptation, but I don't know if it will in fact be my next film, because I've never worked from someone else's material. It remains to be seen if I'll be as happy with my screenplay as I am with Russell's book.”
Although Egoyan concedes that his films are difficult to “get” while they're in production, he stresses that “my films aren't remotely surreal to me—everything that happens in them is within the realm of possibility.”
“At the same time,” he says, “the strongest moments in cinema for me are the ones when you can't believe you're watching what you're watching. Scenes that extend the viewers' ideas about what they should be watching, but at the same time inspire trust and confidence—that's the tricky balance I'm trying to pull off in my work.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6709
SOURCE: “Imaginary Images: An Examination of Atom Egoyan's Films,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3, Spring, 1995, pp. 2–14.
[In the following essay, Harcourt, who teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa, traces the themes and cinematographic techniques characteristic of Egoyan's films and places the director's work in a Canadian context.]
I'm attracted to people who are lost in a world that I can navigate.1
There is a sequence in Exotica, the latest film by 35-year-old Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan, that makes me think of Andrew Wyeth. There is a long shot of an extended grassy field. In the distance, a number of people appear on the horizon, walking in unison. They are looking for something. As in Wyeth's “Christina's World,” there is a surreal combination of beauty and dread. Are they on a ramble, these people, looking at flora and fauna? Or are they looking for something else? Not until well into the film, as we continually return to this particular sequence, will we receive an answer to these questions.
Like other Egoyan films, Exotica (1994) interweaves three narrative elements. Images are established, characters are introduced; but their relationship to one another is unclear. This is Egoyan's form of cinematic suspense. Like other Egoyan films, Exotica focuses on the problems of looking—on the desire to spy, the need to see.
During the first scene, at an airport, we watch Thomas, an eccentric character, shuffling through customs. We can also see a customs officer peering at him through a pane of one-way glass. He is exhorting his assistant to also look. He must learn to detect, the officer explains, that something hidden which you have to find. “Look at him!” he exclaims. “Carefully! What do you see?”
This exhortation also applies to us. When we are watching a film by Atom Egoyan, there is always something hidden that we have to find. In Exotica, there are the scenes involving Thomas, who runs an “exotic” pet shop and who goes to the ballet in the evenings; there are the search scenes already referred to; and there are scenes involving Francis, a tax auditor, who frequents a strip club called Exotica. These scenes crisscross one another in the contrapuntal fashion that characterizes Egoyan's work, sometimes suggesting parallels, sometimes differences.
A person who is “here” but would rather be somewhere else is an exile or a prisoner; a person who is “here” but thinks he is somewhere else is insane.2
Although it hasn't seen itself in this way, Canadian cinema has often reflected the insecurities of a colonial world. It has also registered inclinations toward a postcolonial escape.
In the early days, À tout prendre (1963), Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964), Le chat dans le sac (1964), and Paperback Hero (1973) all constructed cultures of entrapment, as Termini Station (1989) and Léolo (1992) do today. Furthermore, Entre la mer et l'eau douce (1967), Goin' Down the Road (1970), l'Acadie, l'Acadie (1971), and, more recently, Highway 61 (1991) are all films of displacement and migration. The classic Canadian dilemma as formulated by Northrop Frye a good many years ago concerns less the existential question, Who am I? than the cultural one, Where is here?3 Canadian ontology has always been bound up with a dialectics of space, and one of the dominant narrative modes both in literature and film involves the quest.
As if to underline this colonial dependence, many commentators have remarked on the absence of real men in Canadian films, on the absence of father figures or even of elder brothers.4 During the 1960s and early 1970s, there are no fathers at all in Quebecois films; and when an actual father appears in an Anglophone film like Nobody Waved Goodbye, his authority is so flaccid that the filiation is refused.
While the faces and the colors of Canada are changing, metonymically in our films the situation remains the same. In Sitting in Limbo (1986), a quasi-fictional study of a group of young English-speaking blacks in Montreal, there is a distinct absence of responsible males. Similarly, in Welcome to Canada (1989), Perfectly Normal (1990), Masala (1991), and Léolo, there are few admirable authority figures.
Most consistently contestational, however, about the inadequacy of fathers is the work of Atom Egoyan. As a deliberately self-constructed Canadian of Egyptian birth and Armenian descent, Egoyan devises films that register the personal uncertainties of people who are striving to find a place of rest within a culture not their own. His six theatrical features, together with a number of shorts and television dramas, reflect and analyze the cultural uncertainties of the Canadian situation.
In Next of Kin (1984), his first feature, Egoyan both acknowledges the twin cinematic inheritance established 30 years ago by Nobody Waved Goodbye and Le chat dans le sac and refuses to accept their cultural implications.5 Like the protagonist in Nobody Waved Goodbye, Egoyan's character is called Peter. He too lives in a suburban split-level home in which there is no privacy. And here too, the parents are always quarreling about their son's future. Peter (Patrick Tierney) wants none of it. He doesn't want to do anything. He wants to pretend. He wants to be someone else.
The film opens with shots of an airport, the site both of flight and of change—a scene, incidentally, that will not be diegetically placed until later in the film. After a shot of Peter in bed, pulling the duvet over his head to block out his parents' quarreling, we see him sitting by a swimming pool. He introduces himself. “My name is Peter,” he says. “I'm 23 years old and I've lived at home all my life, watching my parents dislike one another.” The film then constructs what Peter is planning to do to escape from his suburban cultural trap.
Recognizing that identity is less a matter of essence than of cultural positioning, less an inheritance than a potential politics, Egoyan's Peter refuses his West Coast Angloceltic filiations in order to ally himself with an Armenian family in Toronto. It is through this deliberate repositioning that Peter is able, so to speak, to come into his own. As he says later in the film:
I've figured out a long time ago that being alone was easier if you became two people. One part of you would always be the same, like an audience; and the other part would take on different roles, like an actor.
Only by accepting some form of cultural schizophrenia—indeed, a chiasmatic sense of self—can Peter begin to negotiate his way out of the stifling inheritance of the Angloceltic middle classes. By exchanging his wimpy, WASP father for a passionate, if bigoted, Armenian father, he is able to devise a new feeling of identity.
Can any representation of a human being … be taken at face value? What does “face value” mean when all the faces are so carefully composed and lit to be as dramatically amplified as possible within the frame?6
Next of Kin establishes what will be, for Egoyan, some recurring themes and stylistic strategies. First of all, there is the family. For Egoyan, the family provides a microcosm of the social world. However, its values must always be contested. This leads to the second theme that pervades Egoyan's world: the characters' need to reconstruct their identity, to try on different roles until they find one that might fit. This entails an abrogation of inheritance and an appropriation of the ideas of difference, of alterity, of something other—but less an external other than the other which, although inside us, has been denied.
It is through Peter's fictional transformation of himself into Bedros, the family's long-lost Armenian son, and through his intimate conversations with Azah (Arsinée Khanjian, the film-maker's wife), his newfound “sister,” that Peter can begin fully to be himself. If at the beginning of the film we see him pretending to play the Spanish guitar, at the end we see Bedros actually playing it. Meanwhile, Azah is arranging her new photographs in her family album.
This acceptance of the immanent other often entails some kind of exile—the third recurring theme in Egoyan's films. Where Peter chooses his exile, Azah has hers thrust upon her. She is thrown out of her home for dressing “like a whore,” as her father says. So Azah, too, must renegotiate her inherited identity. As a woman, she wants some of the freedoms established by Angloceltic culture in North America, while Peter wants some of the commitments of his adopted Armenian household.
If there are three basic themes in Egoyan's work involving family, identity, and the necessity of exile, there are also three stylistic strategies. These strategies relate to acting, dialogue, and narrative structure.
Egoyan instructs his actors to deliver their lines in a flat, deadpan way. He has his Brechtian/Bressonian reasons for this type of direction, as he once suggested:
Rather than inviting the viewer to lose himself in a screen presence, the actor asks the viewer to question what it is about the character he's supposed to identify with. In this way, a more profound relationship can be established.7
This style of acting, however, is also appropriate to the characters' uncertain sense of self, to their efforts to relinquish received identities and to renegotiate new ones, as cinematic spectators must negotiate new ones with them.
Allied to this strategy is Egoyan's Pinteresque dialogue. His characters speak in a series of non sequiturs—in staccato, absurdist statements that enact a dimension of alienation but which also serve to abstract the personae from any simple notion of psychological realism, from a merely reflective mimesis.
Thirdly, both the flatness of the acting and the deployment of absurdist dialogue facilitate Egoyan's desire to achieve a contrapuntal structure for his films. Skilled in music and theater, he thinks out his films' structures in deliberately musical ways, like three-part inventions as we know them from Bach. Furthermore, the absurdist repetition of situations and scraps of dialogue bestows upon his narratives a serial dimension. We sense the presence of a rational intelligence ordering these experiences and directing our attention to relationships among them. Indeed, we might be profoundly moved by them—especially by the thrill of their intricate orchestration—but the “meaning” is seldom clear.
Finally, if through his treatment of actors, his dialogue, and his contrapuntal structures Egoyan's cinema is a cinema of surfaces, these surfaces are generally troubled in his films by photographic or televisual technologies of reproduction. Next of Kin, The Adjuster, Calendar, and Exotica all utilize photographs; Next of Kin, Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, and Calendar all utilize television. Video is everywhere—recording experience, mediating experience, “surveilling” experience, reducing reality to replica.
Egoyan's cinema is an art of images within a culture supersaturated with the overproduction of images. As he has explained:
I'm somebody who's torn constantly between a deep suspicion of images and a desire and a seduction by the process of making images. That I think is laced through all the work I'm doing. It's a very exciting terrain to be exploring at this point, at the end of the century. It seems to be the fundamental issue in a society completely overrun by images.8
This intense concern with images is distinctly Canadian. Growing up saturated with images of the United States, we have a special problem in distinguishing between what is imaginary and what is real. This was the situation of Rick Dillon in Paperback Hero, and it certainly provides the central theme of David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1982). In fact, Videodrome is perhaps the Urtext for a whole generation of Toronto film-makers. Containing in the figure of Brian O'Blivion a parodic representation of Marshall McLuhan, Videodrome charts the central character's growing inability to distinguish between his real life and his video imaginings. “Television is reality: reality is less than television,” as O'Blivion declaims. “Your reality is already half video hallucination. …”
From this film springs not only Family Viewing and Speaking Parts, but also Patricia Rozema's I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) and David Wellington's I Love a Man in Uniform (1993). It is a specifically Canadian dilemma to sort out the differences between images imagined for us by ourselves and images imagined for us by other people—let alone making a distinction between all these imaginary images and what we might still want to call, on occasion, the “real world.”
We're all aware of images that we've seen that chronicle or depict behavioural states that we try to replay. The question of whether or not that renders our actions natural or unnatural lies at the core of my desire to make films.9
In Egoyan's Family Viewing (1987), his second feature film, video images are everywhere. The film takes as its central theme the desire to make connections—away from false images toward true images, away from pornography toward affection, away from the father toward the mother, and away from the Angloceltic world toward an Armenian world, a large part of which has been lost. Indeed, the central character in this film is called Van—a name that implies links, that requires completion.
Van (Aidan Tierney) lives in a sterile condominium with his father, Stan (David Hemblen), and his father's lover, Sandra (Gabrielle Rose), who appears to be Van's lover as well.10 Stan likes to videotape all his lovemaking with Sandra although he requires the stimulus of an additional female voice on the telephone to get him started. This voice belongs to Aline (Arsinée Khanjian) who makes her living by offering telephone sex. She is also a friend of Van.
When Van discovers the sexual tapes of Stan and Sandra, he also discovers that his father has been recording over previous tapes of Stan's original family, when the mother and her mother were still part of the home and Van was just a child. A section of this childhood tape is returned to again and again in the film, in a kind of Edenic garden, like a prelapsarian dream.
This scene is extraordinarily choreographed. We see Stan at the left of the screen, watching his family in the garden through a window, separated both by glass and by language. Young Van is there, a Mickey Mouse doll clutched to his chest, with his mother and grandmother, talking in Armenian. Stan gives instruction to his son through the window by miming gestures that he wants him to imitate. This moment suggests both continuity between the generations and patriarchal control. Finally, in the fullest version of this scene, the mother brings Van inside to Stan, for whom Van sings “Ba, Ba, Blacksheep” in English. In its recurrence, intensified by ascending string octaves supplied by composer Mychael Danna, this scene haunts the film like a discarded memory of familial affection.
The story of Family Viewing centers around Van's repeated attempts to find a proper home for Armen, the grandmother, whom Stan had dumped in a home when his wife ran away. He moves her first to Aline's, then into an unused wing of a hotel in which he is now working, where he finally disguises her as a bag lady, just to keep her away from Stan's clutches.
The penultimate scene intercuts images of Van watching Armen being carted off in an ambulance to some unknown destination with shots of Stan racing up the hotel stairs as if to find Armen, but actually to encounter the memory of his wife, appropriately (if alogically) appearing on a television screen.
The film ends with Aline and Van visiting Armen in a women's hostel. Television cameras are in place as part of a surveillance system, but also, for spectators, to trigger a visual echo of the video memories that we have previously seen. Miraculously, (because again alogically), the mother is also there.
But where are they, really, this reconstructed family? Where will they go? And what will they do? What is the meaning, finally, of the concluding moments in this film? Although Egoyan's work resists simple paraphrase, a few things might be said.
First of all, there is Van's quest, his need to make connections. On this level, the film has a “happy ending.” He is there in the frame with his mother and her mother and with the young woman, Aline, who is also Armenian and might well become his wife. He has made connections both with the feminine and with his past. He seems to have rediscovered his ancient, ethnic soul, to have encountered his “other,” the other that he has always felt was within him.
At the same time, on a social level, what has been accomplished? These characters have all endured a series of displacements in their journey toward this family reunion. They end up, moreover, within the confines of a site more restrictive than any other within the imaginative world constructed by this film.
If the film ends with a mystery, it is a deliberate mystery. Although there are no narrative resolutions for this or for any other Egoyan film, by recapitulating all the visual motifs in these final moments, including the prelapsarian dream, the director can bring his film, formally, to an end.
Speaking Parts (1989) further refines the polyphonic structure of the narrative and continues Egoyan's investigation of images, but now the ubiquity of television images is associated with morbidity and death. The first image we see is of Clara (Gabrielle Rose) walking through a graveyard on her way to a video mausoleum. On each gravestone is a photograph; the mausoleum contains a haunting collection of looped video records of lost loved ones. Throughout the film, we repeatedly see Clara in this mausoleum, reviewing the ghostly footage of her brother—ghostly because he died in the attempt to donate one of his lungs to her and because the footage is eerily without sound.
The opening sequence is intercut with one of Lisa (Arsinée Khanjian) watching a video that is equally eerie because, except for Mychael Danna's music, this moment is also without diegetic sound. The subject of the scene is a piano recital, but that is of little interest to Lisa: the camera of her imagination tracks in past the foreground of the image to isolate a young man sitting in the audience, someone whom we will later know as Lance (Michael McManus)—the obscure object of Lisa's desire.
Egoyan again advances three stories simultaneously, while suggesting links among them—a procedure assisted by the continuity of the music. Lisa is drawn by images of Lance; Clara by images of her dead brother; Lance by the desire to move beyond the image into speech—to achieve a speaking part. Through its visual organization, however, Speaking Parts might seem to endorse the voodoo belief that televisual reproductions of the self can behave as the extractor of human souls, that reproductions can rob the self of essence. Certainly, in Speaking Parts, the televisual representations consistently lead to a death-desiring nostalgia for something that is either not really there (the indifferent Lance) or no longer there (Clara's dead brother).
Throughout the film, all events are mediated through these televisual representations. The telephone sex in Family Viewing becomes television sex in Speaking Parts. Everything from orgies to weddings requires a video record. During the wedding sequence, the busy producer is also there—but only on a television monitor. If Lance and Clara employ teleconferencing technology to simulate sex with each other, the producer uses it to maintain the distanced authority of his masculine control.
The penultimate sequence, staged as a television talk show, not only brings together the three narrative units in a kind of cinematic stretto but also collapses the real into the imaginary. As the characters in Egoyan's film momentarily trade places with the characters in the film being made by the producer, we cannot distinguish reality from representation.
The film ends in silhouette, with Lance collapsed on the floor of Lisa's room—initially reaching out for her only to be rebuffed. Lisa then reaches out for him. Finally, ever so tentatively, they kiss.
Has Lance been so burned out by his involvement with the televisual imaginary that he is prepared to return to the real? Lisa's face now looks softer, her hair less severely drawn back, her attitude perhaps chastened. After all the media interventions, are both now prepared to accept each other as one another's other, as one another's “real”?
The most resonant moments for me as a viewer always come when I don't quite know what it is I'm watching. I'm lost in a wash of emotions and feelings that don't originate from something that I can identify immediately. They're the most exhilarating passages in cinema because they come so close to the dream state.11
With The Adjuster (1991), Egoyan expanded both his palette and his budget. His previous films had been made for virtually no money at all. In Canadian dollars, Next of Kin cost ＄37,000; Family Viewing ＄160,000; Speaking Parts (the first to be shot on 35mm) ＄800,000; but The Adjuster was budgeted at ＄1,500,000—still a modest sum, even by Canadian standards.
The film opens on a close-up of a hand moving within the darkness. The hand belongs to Noah Render (Elias Koteas), the “adjuster” in this film. He floats through life, dealing with the aftermath of fires, shooting arrows into the darkness at the billboards that mark the extremities of the estate on which he resides.
Noah lives with Hera (Arsinée Khanjian), apparently his wife. Reinforced by the silence of her sister, Seta (Rose Sarkisyan), who is constantly “in touch with” Hera's son, Simon (Armen Kokorian), Hera seeks to be a center. While Seta and Simon are always holding each other, Hera is often in bed, troubled by unrecallable dreams. Actual, physical touch dominates the film, within and across both gender and generation. The less the characters have a settled sense of their own identities, the more they seem “out-of-touch” both with themselves and with one another.
This extended family inhabits a model home built for an urban subdevelopment that has never taken place. Although the billboards display names like “Sherwood Forest Estate,” there is scarcely a tree in sight. If this terrain comments on the speculative insanities of late capitalism, it also creates an atmosphere that is increasingly surreal.
Like the motel which provides the other principal site in this film, the pop-art patterns of its balconies color-coordinated with the parked cars below, the model home suggests impermanence. “Something had to change,” says one of Noah's clients later in the film, as she observes the spark that sets her house on fire. “So I watched while it did.”
In The Adjuster, although fire is a source of trauma for many of the characters, it is also an agent of purgation. Fire eliminates the past futility of their lives. It also projects them into the “ark” of this motel that Noah has arranged for them.12 Noah is their savior. All his clients love him. As the chambermaid exclaims one evening, “They think you're an angel.”
Noah's angelic role, however, is largely impersonation. He has no imagination. He endlessly repeats to all his clients the same professional clichés. “You may not feel it, but you're in a state of shock.” In order to value anything, he has to quantify it. He takes photographs. He makes lists. He has to put a price on everything. Questioning a client who had everything destroyed by his fire, even his academic diploma, Noah enquires, “What did it cost to frame?”
Although there is no intimacy at all between him and Hera in the film, he beds all his clients, whether male or female, while discussing their claims. Hera, on the other hand, who as a film censor also makes lists, surreptitiously records all the pornographic films she views for her sister, who stays at home all day looking after Simon. Furthermore, both Seta and Simon are locked within the mute Armenian space of their incomprehension of the English language. In the course of the film, “Bubba” is the only word that Simon acknowledges.13
The characters in The Adjuster are not what they seem. If they are all acting out parts only partially of their own devising, the potential madness of the imaginary life is centered in the character who is actually named Bubba (Maury Chaykin) and in his companion, Mimi (Gabrielle Rose). Uselessly rich and terminally bored, they try on different roles in the effort to flagellate themselves into a meaningful existence. Like Peter in Next of Kin, they pretend. They play games. The games they play, however, lead not to the liberation of self-realization but to a maniacal desire for self-immolation.
All the characters in The Adjuster are drained of initiative through living less within the real than through mediations of the real. While Noah is reluctant to awaken Hera from her sleep when he is in the bedroom with her, he does so on his cellular phone when he is driving away in his car. Although the speechless Seta is unaffected by the pornographic violence of the pirated videotapes, she screams in terror when a flasher appears at her window.
If the film opens with an extreme close-up of Noah's hand, it ends with a shot of his hand held up within the darkness against the flames, as if trying to touch the reality of watching his own house burn down. The final scene is the culmination of the need for touch in this film and of the sense of fire as a necessary purgation. It is complicated, however, by a sudden cut back in time.
Hera and Seta are there, looking distressed. Hera is carrying a baby in her arms, someone too small to be the Simon we have seen. Noah approaches them, as if he had never seen them before, touching Hera tentatively on the shoulder. “Is this your house? I'm an adjuster.” Meanwhile, the Arabic sounds of a duduk within the plaintive “emotional minimalism” of Mychael Danna's music14 reinforce the traumatized silence of this Armenian family to suggest the “otherness” which, in The Adjuster, has been denied. As Noah holds out his hand to the fire, moving toward the final image, we are left once again with an uncertain sense of the meaning of this film.
Did Noah acquire his family through adjusting their claim? Is he, in fact, married to Hera? Where did Simon come from? While watching the film, we might have imagined that he was also Noah's son. Where lies the reality in what we have just witnessed? Have we just imagined what we have seen in this film?
Egoyan has suggested that the most powerful moments in cinema are analogous to dreams, as if wanting his own work to enter directly into consciousness, bypassing intellectual controls. With its absurd objets trouvés, its barren landscapes, and isolated model home—itself both replica and parody of what a true home might be—with the recurring presence of irrational and bizarre moments, The Adjuster, more than any other Egoyan film, achieves a surreal force.
For the Armenian people, churches have a strong significance because they suggest timelessness. In the Armenian psyche, they are objects of adoration unto themselves. They are icons.15
Calendar came about by chance; through a prize won at the Moscow Film Festival, Egoyan was given ＄100,000 to visit Armenia and shoot whatever he wished. The resulting film, shot on 8mm video and 16mm film, is simple in the extreme. Indeed, for spectators who resist the intricate irrationalities of Egoyan's cinema, it is their favorite film. Certainly it is his most accessible.
As money was tight, Egoyan cast himself as the photographer on assignment with his wife (Arsinée Khanjian) and an Armenian driver (Ashot Adamian) to shoot 12 ancient Armenian churches for a photographic calendar. The churches lend to this film not only an enormous beauty but also a spiritual dimension. More deliberately than other Egoyan films, Calendar (1993) is about the passing of time and its irretrievable changes. Yet here there is the sense that something will survive the impermanence of relationships and the uncertainty of individual identities.
Because the photographer speaks no Armenian and the driver no English, his wife serves as translator. The photographer is more comfortable with his technology than he is with either his partner or his driver. He likes to point but refuses to touch. When asked to go for a walk with the two of them, the photographer declines. He wants to remain apart. What he really wants, as he explains later in what appears to be a letter to his wife, is to go on standing there, “watching while the two of you leave me and disappear into a landscape that I am about to photograph.”
In Calendar, we witness the gradual transfer of the wife's affection from her past relationship with the photographer to a future relationship with the driver. At the same time, by choosing the driver, she is also choosing to return to her Armenian roots—an option not available to the photographer, who has been too thoroughly assimilated into North American culture. Furthermore, as we gradually realize, the faded color of the video footage is appropriate for the photographer's fading memory of the Armenian events.
If Calendar is concerned with time, it is also concerned with space. Early in the film, referring to the differences between himself and his wife, the increasingly alienated photographer says, “We're both from here; yet being here has made me feel as if I'm from somewhere else.”
At the end, when the photographer has returned to Toronto, we can hear his wife on the answering machine—as always with Egoyan, a mediated communication—wanting to explain what has happened to them. She wants to describe the moment when he lost her, when the car was surrounded by sheep and the driver first reached out for her. “He grasped my hand,” she explains, “while you grasped your camera. Did you know? Were you there? Are you there?”
I have great suspicions about conveying screen emotion. It's my feeling that it can be too easy to just fix the camera on someone going through emotional turmoil. There's something very disturbing about that for me.16
As he moves toward greater acceptance, anxious at the same time not to alienate his present-day admirers, Egoyan is finding ways to flesh out more engagingly the characters in his films. Although the Pinteresque non sequiturs still abound and a deadpan detachment continues to inform the acting, there is now a richer sense of psychology. In Exotica, the characters elicit our compassion. The film still displays, however, a triadic, polyphonic structure. There are three recurring sites and three different men, each of whom relates to the three women in the film.
First of all, there is the exotic pet shop, inherited by Thomas (Don McKellar) from his mother. We have already seen him smuggling exotic eggs for his shop past the customs officers at the airport at the beginning of the film. Because of this illegal activity, his shop is visited by Francis (Bruce Greenwood), an auditor for the federal tax department. (In the evenings, Thomas also attends an opera house, in which we hear—but do not see—Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. This opera house, however, more European than North American in design and therefore just as “exotic” as the pet shop, is as much a pick-up joint for homosexuals as it is a site for cultural consumption.)
The second major site is that extended grassy field—the “Wyeth” sequence with which I began this essay. In a way structurally similar to the prelapsarian dream in Family Viewing, this scene is returned to repeatedly—finally, as a postlapsarian nightmare.
Thirdly, there is Exotica, the strip club presided over by Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), which she inherited from her mother. The club specializes in table dancing, where the men may look but never touch. Eric (Elias Koteas) serves as Master of Ceremonies. From the past, he is also emotionally involved with Christina (Mia Kirshner), the major female character in this film.
Before the opening airport scene, the sequence behind the credits consists of a slow track right along the tropical decor of this club, its exotic nature further emphasized by the eastern strains of Mychael Danna's music, with a shehnai, a kind of Indian oboe, sounding unsettlingly unfamiliar to our Western ears.
This exotic club becomes the site of the feminine in this film. It is the center to which all the men are drawn, a place of dreams and desire—even of fertility, since Zoe's pregnancy is very much in evidence. Indeed, if the clients of the club are not allowed to touch the dancers, most visitors to Zoe's womb-like central office are invited to touch her belly—an invitation that is generally accepted with embarrassment.
In Exotica, although all of the characters have their grief, it is Francis's story that most securely grips the viewer. It is his pain that spills over to affect the others and to establish the empathetic center of the film.
Francis leads a double life. An auditor by day, he frequents Exotica by night. At the club, he too has developed a special relationship with Christina, largely because she reminds him of the daughter he has lost. Playing upon her youthful appearance, Christina wears a schoolgirl's uniform and displays a sense of great distress during her public performances on stage.
“What gives a schoolgirl her special innocence, gentlemen?” Eric intones into his microphone as Christina dances. “Is it the way that they smell? The sweet perfume of their hair … ?” Indeed, as if to protect this innocence, Francis mutters private words of concern to Christina when she dances at his table, baring parts of her vulnerable body less for his sensual pleasure than to allay his physical fears. He keeps explaining that he wants to protect her, to save her from harm.
His fears relate to his lost daughter—the object of the search in that extended grassy field. They also relate to Tracey (Sarah Polley), his young niece, who babysits for him as, when she was younger, we eventually learn that “Chrissy” also had done. Yet now, since his daughter is no longer alive, Tracey plays as much a fantasy role in Francis's life at home as Christina does at the club. If the serial structure of the film still involves the repetition of scraps of dialogue and particular events, it also entails an interlinking of these young women, as (at least in Francis's mind) their roles all tend to merge. And if Francis's pain is privileged, it is because he is the most connected with the others. Furthermore, his obsession with the youthful Christina is less pornographic than compassionate; it is an attempt obsessively to recreate moments from his past as if to bring them to a different conclusion—a desire that can never be fulfilled.
Francis pays money to young women to enact his fantasies for him, to create for him an imaginary world; this activity is analogous to the activity that we all indulge in when, as spectators, we go to the movies. In Exotica, Egoyan has not relinquished his critique of our obsessive consumption of images.
During the film's final moments, we see a younger Christina, scarcely recognizable—with her braids and braces—as Mia Kirshner, entering the family home. The scene is full of anguish. The assumed security of a family is now felt as a threat.
Why do those Ionic pillars on that four-square home convey such a strong sense of dread? Is it through their implicit assertion of suburban rationality—a rationality inadequate for all the problems in the film? What is Christina's relationship to the later Tracey or, more distressingly, might her destiny one day be the same as Lisa's—the slaughtered child who was finally found, actually by Eric and Christina, in her schoolgirl's uniform in the middle of that extended grassy field?
For Egoyan, has the linear quest of classic Canadian cinema become a circle? Will the characters go on enacting their compulsions over and over again, devising similar imaginary images, only to encounter the very destiny they have been striving to avoid?
The films that really excite me are those in which it is unclear if the filmmaker is really aware of how disturbing or moving the image is.17
The enduring theme, the evolving theme in all of Egoyan's work is the need for personal transformation. Whether assuming a fictitious identity to escape an unwanted inheritance or descending into fantasy in the effort to combat feelings of pain or failure, Egoyan's characters never feel sufficient being what they are. They simulate. They impersonate. In this sense, they are all in retreat, not just from culture—as in the early films—but from nature. Nature seems “natural” only in the old world—in Armenia with its enduring presence of sheep and churches and of people belonging to the earth out of which they have grown.
In North America, within a technologized, urbanized, and increasingly migrant culture, a wondrous stretch of meadow can serve to conceal terrors too horrible to imagine. Nature has become unnatural, as has human nature. It is the fear of the depths of human nature, finally, that either silences Egoyan's characters or drives them into madness—that makes them exiles from themselves.
Within the context of Canadian cinema, Egoyan's earlier films seemed a positive repositioning in relation to our Angloceltic inheritance, a desire to escape the postcolonial uncertainties of the Canadian world. Yet even these films were not revolutionary. They all ended by endorsing the ideology of the family.
As his work has progressed, however, if the concept of alterity remains precise and alluring, the concept of self has become uncertain and obscure. It is as if Egoyan's characters, in their imaginings, have irretrievably abandoned their “originary” home.
At the same time, this desire to transform one's inherited reality parallels the activity of the artist. As Egoyan explains:
What fascinates me are characters who are very creative but don't know who their audiences are or who have become so aware of the isolating qualities of the creative act that they go a bit mad. And yet, the desire to create is completely comprehensible given what their situations are. Given the traumas in their lives that they've had to deal with, given the things that are left hanging, it's the only thing they can do.18
Whatever the forces that motivate Egoyan's own desire to create, over the past ten years he has done so with increasing formal authority. As the demographics of the world continue to shift and change, troubling our sense of who we are and where we belong, we can only wonder how these cultural transitions will be reflected and how new images will be imagined in distinguished films by Atom Egoyan still to come.
“Emotional Logic: Marc Glassman interviews Atom Egoyan,” in Speaking Parts, by Atom Egoyan (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1993), p. 48.
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, by Margaret Atwood (Toronto: Anansi, 1972), p. 18.
“Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada” (1965), in The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, by Northrop Frye (Toronto: Anansi, 1971), p. 220.
“Coward, Bully, or Clown: The Dream-Life of a Younger Brother,” by Robert Fothergill, in Canadian Film Reader, ed. Seth Feldman and Joyce Nelson (Toronto: Peter Martin Associates, 1977), pp. 234–50.
For this cultural inheritance, see “The Beginning of a Beginning,” by Peter Harcourt, in Self-Portrait: Essays on the Canadian and Quebec Cinemas, ed. Pierre Véronneau and Piers Handling (Ottawa: Canadian Film Institute, 1980), pp. 64–76.
“Surface Tension,” essay by Atom Egoyan, in Speaking Parts, p. 36.
Ibid., p. 33.
Talking with Shelagh Rogers on “The Arts Tonight,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 14 April, 1993.
“Emotional Logic,” p. 42.
The “sterility” of these scenes is visually reinforced by Egoyan's decision to shoot them all in a television studio on one-inch videotape, utilizing video sound.
“Emotional Logic,” p. 45.
For a serious mythological reading, see “The Place of the Spectator,” by Danièle Rivière, in Atom Egoyan, by Carole Desbarats, Danièle Rivière, Jacinto Lageira, and Paul Virilio, transl. Brian Holmes (Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1993), pp. 83–101.
Ironically, “Bubba” is an Arabic word for father.
Mychael Danna's own description of his musical style. Personal interview with Atom Egoyan in Toronto, 8 March, 1994.
Atom Egoyan on “The Arts Tonight,” CBC, 14 April, 1993.
“Emotional Logic,” p. 57.
Ibid., p. 52.
Personal interview, 8 March, 1994.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2244
SOURCE: “Exploitations,” in Sight & Sound, Vol. 5, No. 5, May, 1995, pp. 6–8.
[In the following review, Romney offers a negative assessment of Exotica, criticizing Egoyan's style of filmmaking as unfulfilling.]
Atom Egoyan makes bitterly disappointing films. They begin by stirring our curiosity—our desire to play detective or analyst, or simply our prurient longing for a glimpse of the louche, the exotic. And when finally they deliver what we're looking for, they invariably frustrate us—all we discover is that revelation can never be satisfactory. We learn that there are always more layers to the onion, or that it was never really an onion in the first place. As Egoyan's new film Exotica makes explicit, this director's work resembles the consummate art of male frustration that is striptease—we await the moment of laying bare only to have it dawn on us that the body is the one thing we don't want to see (just yet). His films are structured to exemplify a full-blown erotics of cinema, with all the attendant play of sadism and masochism. In that sense, his is the most profoundly anti-erotic cinema imaginable.
Egoyan's first feature Next of Kin (1984) began with the image of an unidentified bag going round on an airport carousel. It immediately poses the key questions that underlie his films. Whose baggage is this? Where's it from? What do we find if we unpack it? Exotica revisits this image. Its first words, spoken by one customs official to his junior as they scan a suspected smuggler, are: “You have to ask yourself—what brought the person to this point? You have to convince yourself that this person has something hidden that you have to find.” This is a pitch to our curiosity, too, and it's not that different from the come-on spiel that strip-club MC Eric (Elias Koteas) gives his customers as he invites them to pay ＄5 to have a stripper “reveal the mysteries of her world.”
But if we pay the price of admission, what guarantees satisfaction? At one point in the film, a younger Eric says he feels he wasn't ever meant to be satisfied. The woman he's talking to replies, “Maybe you want it to slip away—the thing you think you're about to have.” And consequently the film itself—a baroque construction of ellipses, flashbacks and repetitions—is angled to provide us with the constant anxiety/satisfaction of deferral.
His most complex essay in the Cinema of Disappointment, Egoyan's Exotica is built around the metaphors of striptease as psychological unmasking, narrative unpacking, commerce and contract. Layer after layer of meaning is revealed, although we're never quite sure whose “mysteries” we expect to discover (the film makes it remarkably difficult to identify a ‘central’ character). In the first 20 minutes, the threads come at us thick and fast. Thomas (Don McKellar), a nervous young pet shop owner who is smuggling goods, makes it through customs and shares a cab with a man who offers him ballet tickets instead of his share of the ride; Thomas will later use the tickets, at the ballet to procure himself a series of male sexual partners. He is meanwhile being audited by Francis (Bruce Greenwood), a tax official and a regular customer of the strip club Exotica, who is obsessed by Christina (Mia Kirshner), who performs, dressed as a schoolgirl. Exotica is presided over by proprietor Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), who has made a contract with Eric to make her pregnant. Eric, also obsessed with Christina, presides over the club, spurring his customers to buy across-the-table intimacies with the dancers. The circle of avoidance and negotiation is complete when Francis, banned from his club, does a deal with Thomas—an outsider sexually, but also the outsider in terms of the narrative—and brings him into the world of Exotica as his substitute.
It's only at the end, in a downbeat and extremely simple flashback scene, that Egoyan gives us some sort of ‘explanation’ of what's on these people's minds, of what's making their lives unworkable. But it's no sort of conclusion—it only makes us want to go back to the beginning and start again. It's a structure Egoyan has used before—notably in The Adjuster (1991), whose final moment similarly explains nothing but rather, so to speak, incinerates what's gone before. (Egoyan films tend to come together or fall apart with real or figurative conflagrations).
In his Director's Statement, Egoyan accepts that Exotica is structured like a striptease; but points out that this was only his analysis after the event. “The film wasn't meant to support a theory,” he says, “it wasn't constructed that way. I do find it fascinating how the ending is very cathartic for some people, and other people find it wasn't what they expected or needed at that point. I liked the ending. All these relationships, where people's emotions are so carefully guarded and so tenuously exchanged … suddenly you can see that for all the pretence, everything is rooted in this very real relationship between Christina and Francis.”
The most film's controversial element is the way it plays with the suggestion of paedophilia, with Christina doing her act dressed in a schoolgirl's tartan skirt, white shirt and tie. Eric repeatedly teases his customers with the riddle, “What gives a schoolgirl her special innocence?” This disguises another question: what makes him, or Francis or us, want to invest in the mystique of innocence, and how does it become sexualised?
What Egoyan's also offering us is a tease which places the film in a particular art-movie niche: the erotic psychological thriller, one that French directors have been exploiting since time immemorial. Of course, there's a perilous borderline between alluding to exploitation. and exploitation period.
“There are two answers—one is what the film itself represents, the other is how it's marketed. I've been very demanding that the image of Christina dressed as a schoolgirl won't be used on any of the posters, because it's an image that only makes sense in the context of the film. It was an image I was very protective of, not in the sense of creating a mystification round it, but I was aware of how it could be abused.
“The film does play with that tension, there's no question about it. There is that use of titillation, sexual manipulation. Because when you get down to it, I don't think it's an erotic film at all. You begin by assuming the relationship between Francis and Christina is perverse, that he has a paedophilic attraction to her. When you realise what is actually going on. it's platonic in the truest sense. He's projecting onto her something that's extremely pure. Though that has its consequences as well.
The environment [of the club] is sexual, so that can't help but imbue what he's seeing in her with a sexual content. And that tortures him, as he's trying to work out some sort of therapeutic relationship with her. He's trying to heal some sense of grief—which becomes infused with guilt, because of where he's chosen to conduct this therapy.”
All Egoyan's films could be said to explore therapy in one way or another, with his characters elaborating byzantine rituals of repetition, and constantly displacing their obsessions onto other characters who may or may not fit them. In Next of Kin (1984), an isolated young man invents an alternative family for himself; in Speaking Parts (1989), a woman tries to ‘cast’ an actor as her dead brother; the hero of The Adjuster obsessively becomes involved with his clients, while his own household is invaded by a couple who live out their own fantasies as meticulously staged performance art. Therapy in Egoyan's films always goes too far, and is invariably compromised by the vehicles people choose for it, usually TV or video technology.
“There's a group of analysts in Toronto who have looked at all my films. They've told me that from their point of view, all my films deal with a process called ‘faulty mourning’—when a patient builds a ritual of mourning which only accentuates and exaggerates the sense of loss which they think they're dealing with.
“In all the films there seems to be someone who's in the process of grieving another person's loss. But in the process, they're somehow underlining and distorting what it is that they've lost in the first place. In all of them, people extend this sense of loss through the relationship with an image, and because technology has the ability to preserve a moment, that moment can become fetishised and live way beyond its anticipated life.
“In Exotica, I've taken away the insistence on technology—apart from one video moment—but it's replaced by the transposition of someone into an icon. Christina's uniform becomes what video technology was in the other films.”
Because the ubiquitous video eye for once recedes into the background, Exotica is harder than its predecessors simply to pigeonhole as an ‘Egoyan film’—his preoccupations and tropes have been so consistent that he's practically created his own genre. It may not, ultimately, be as tight-knit a film as The Adjuster, in which the hermetic anxiety genuinely admits of no relief. It could be argued that Exotica has too many thematic and narrative strands for its own good—although it's that very sense of unresolved over-abundance that makes it so suggestive and hard to exhaust. The one notion of exoticism that seems insufficiently assimilated into the film's argument is that which attaches to race; and that's partly because it centres on characters who are less central, or even absent. Francis' wife and daughter are black; another white character, Harold, lives with his daughter in a black neighbourhood almost parodically dangerous. There's a clear mirror image of Francis here; what's not so clear is how it dovetails with the rest—a problem Egoyan admits he hasn't entirely resolved.
“There are two ideas being explored in the film—that which is outside your cultural experience, and that which is outside your own way of perceiving your memory. At what point do our own experiences and feelings become exotic to us? At what point do we transpose people we're attracted to onto the level of metaphor? If I deal with that theme, I have to suggest it through what the viewer is also projecting. So you have Harold in a clearly black atmosphere wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt—he's someone who feels more comfortable in that cultural context but there is something askew about it. He's made a parody of himself.
“I want the film to provoke controversy, but what I find far more controversial than the image of a schoolgirl is the use of colour in the film—the fact that Francis' wife is black, that Harold lives in a black environment, that Thomas purchases men of colour. I wanted these images to be outrageous, to really provoke a level of anger—but somehow that doesn't seem to be as integral to the viewing experience as I thought they would be.”
Ethnic identity has been a constant enigma in Egoyan's films—the jigsaw piece that always refuses to fit. Many of his films draw on Egoyan's situation as a film-maker on one hand committed to a post-modern notion of identity constructed through technology, and on the other involved with his own Armenian origins, with all the connotations they carry of a ‘pure,’ ‘natural’ identity and unmediated history. It's a situation he analysed in uncomfortably personal terms in his 1993 film Calendar, made for German TV. Egoyan himself appears as a photographer obsessed with the wife who left him on a visit to Armenia (played by his own wife, and regular star, Arsinée Khanjian). His hardest film to watch—both formally and for the discomfort it evokes—Calendar is still the fullest résumé of Egoyan's therapeutic mechanisms.
“I'm a prisoner of the situation I've been talking about—we do have an inexplicable desire to make a metaphor of our own neuroses. That's what art is about—all the characters in my films are failed or unrecognised artists. Francis is directing his life. The adjuster is a director. They are all involved in a process that I am myself am engaged in. I make a film like Calendar to come to terms with that process. You believe that by putting yourself in a context where there's cultural fragmentation and dissociation, you will deal with your own sense of dislocation—you normalise your own worst fears. It becomes perverse when you set into motion the machinery which may define the level of destruction you find in the film itself.”
Egoyan's films are undoubtedly as perverse as they might conceivably be therapeutic. They're scarcely a feel-good experience for the viewer; they don't provide catharsis as easy relief. And as a film-maker, he is surely aware that by working through your own anxieties on screen, you're less likely to quell them than you are to reaffirm their centrality. If you pick up Pandora's box, that neat package spinning round on the baggage carousel, then sooner or later, you have to take it through Customs.
Still, the intensely self-referential manner in which Egoyan works does offer some immediate consolations. “The most important thing,” he says, “is to be open about the process, at every opportunity to demystify the process of making films—there's nothing romantic about it at all. If my work only serves to illustrate the contradictions and perversities of making images of that, I'll be happy.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8489
SOURCE: “Family Romances: An Interview with Atom Egoyan,” in Cineaste, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1997, pp. 8–16.
[In the following interview, Egoyan discusses the nature of the film industry, his approach to filmmaking, and the influence of Canadian identity.]
Widely regarded as Canada's leading independent filmmaker, Atom Egoyan is frequently hailed as brilliantly innovative and occasionally damned as a purveyor of arid cinematic parables. Egoyan's wry self-deprecation, however, allows him to view both acclaim and derision with a jaundiced eye. In fact, the critical response to Egoyan's films often seems several steps behind the director's unsparing assessments of his own work. Egoyan's personal modesty has never interfered with his professional assurance, enabling him to explore a cluster of interrelated themes—the erosion of ethnic identity in the face of modernity, the relationship between technology and alienated sexuality, and the black humor that can be derived from the travails of irrevocably dysfunctional families.
Egoyan's debut feature, Next of Kin (1984), typifies the absurdist tenor which suffuses his work. A lighthearted film which provides a glimpse of darker ironies, Next of Kin focuses on an elaborate wish-fulfillment fantasy concocted by Peter, a nondescript young WASP who flees his affluent middle-class family to effortlessly become part of a warm but fractious Armenian clan. Never one to offer glib panaceas, Egoyan mercilessly skewers both the puritanical Anglo-Canadians and the feuding Armenians; the Candide-like protagonist's search for ethnic bonhomie proves futile.
A few ludicrous videotaped family therapy sessions in Next of Kin foreshadow the all-encompassing preoccupation with video surveillance and voyeurism that comes to the fore in Egoyan's subsequent films. Even if the narcissistic protagonists of Family Viewing (1987) and Speaking Parts (1989) seem inextricable from the media-saturated landscape—a world which fetishizes the ability to instantaneously record and play back images—Egoyan is not committed to a crude technophobia. He is merely bemused by how new technologies become harbingers of perceptual and cultural upheavals.
The Canadian critic Geoff Pevere remarks that these early works create a world where “identity becomes as erasable as videotape and as ephemeral as battery power.” Family Viewing deals explicitly with the permeability of one young man's identity, a Toronto WASP named Van. Van's discovery that his authoritarian father has erased an entire archive of video images proves pivotal; amateur pornography featuring the smug dad's sexual romps with his mistress obliterate the son's cherished images of a childhood spent with a now-absent mother and grandmother. Van's unlikely alliance with a phone-sex operator culminates in a strangely upbeat triumph over the enemies of historical memory.
Speaking Parts, a less optimistic cinematic fever dream, can be savored as a savage parody of the culture industry's tendency to reduce serious discourse to a series of banalities. Set in an antiseptic Toronto hotel, the narrative plunges us into a vertiginous and often hilarious tale of bumbling solipsists. Clara, a naive young woman, writes a heartfelt but plodding script in an attempt to commemorate her brother's death. But the script is eventually bowdlerized by a wily producer who replaces its earnest platitudes with a talk-show format. Both Clara and Lisa, a pouty chambermaid, are dazzled by the film's leading man, Lance. Nevertheless, they usually cannot enjoy his sexual allure in person, but must resign themselves to gaping at his image on a video monitor. Even grief has become subservient to electronic razzmatazz; in Speaking Parts' dystopian universe, video mausoleums convert mourning into a private spectacle. While Family Viewing concluded with a qualified optimism, Speaking Parts refuses to comfort the audience with even a glimmer of hope.
Equally pessimistic, The Adjuster (1991), Egoyan's first wide-screen film, bestows an epic dimension on its protagonists' concerted disengagement from reality. Noah Render, the eponymous insurance adjuster, is an unsavory mixture of therapist and con artist. Superficially empathetic towards his clients, his compassion for the bereaved emanates from a need to control their lives. And Render's arrogance is bizarrely congruent with his wife Hera's job as a film censor—a task that fuses anal-retentive zeal with furtive prurience. By the film's end, the semicatatonic Renders are eventually victimized by the schemes of more diabolical narcissists—a wealthy couple who spend their time staging increasingly violent private fantasies. The Adjuster unveils the authoritarian implications of a world where the genuine pursuit of pleasure has been replaced by loss of affect and asocial hedonism.
Casting a wider esthetic and thematic net, Calendar (1993) and Exotica (1994)—a low-budget experimental film and a lush, relatively high-budget psychodrama—were incrementally less claustrophobic and even flirted with a renewed sense of hope. Calendar offered an opaquely personal gloss on the preoccupation with assimilation already evinced in Next of Kin and Family Viewing. When a Canadian-Armenian photographer and his Armenian-born translator wife (played by Egoyan and his actual wife, Arsinee Khanjian) return to their homeland, the chasm between North American affluence and a culture wounded by war and deprivation becomes glaringly apparent. The failure of Egoyan's alter ego to confront a submerged past leads to the dissolution of his marriage; his moral hibernation is rife with both personal and political reverberations.
While Exotica was indisputably Egoyan's commercial breakthrough, it is also his most problematic work. This elaborately mounted puzzle film unfolds like a quasisurreal parody of a psychoanalytic session: a nubile stripper assumes the role of a surrogate shrink while the opulent sex club referred to in the film's title serves as a commodious couch. Audiences were understandably seduced by the film's rapid-fire plot twists and visual panache, but Exotica's soft-core titillation, as well its facile resolution, seemed to pander to an art-house audience.
Fortunately, The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Egoyan's most recent film, is one of his most textured and compassionate efforts. Like Exotica, this imaginative adaptation of Russell Banks's novel is concerned with personal devastation, the ravages of incest, and the deleterious effects of self-delusion. But the collective anguish of a troubled rural community supplants the urban anomie of the earlier films. The Sweet Hereafter's central cataclysmic event—a school bus accident in which many of the town's children perish—provides the springboard for an open-ended moral inquiry in which a pragmatic litigiousness is pitted against one courageous individual's resistance to bottom-line acquisitiveness. Mitchell Stephens (played with nuanced intensity by veteran British actor Ian Holm) hubristically believes that he can salve the town's wounds with a whopping cash settlement, while Nicole Burnell, a young accident victim, simultaneously resists the lawyer's blandishments and transforms her childhood traumas (the scars wrought by both her father's incestuous advances and the accident itself) into personal triumph.
Egoyan's decision to eschew the predictability of a linear narrative for an intricate skein of flashbacks and flashforwards pays off brilliantly. Avoiding the pitfalls of a tabloidish melodrama focusing on a lurid accident and its outcome, The Sweet Hereafter's insistent splintering of chronology allows us more profound access to a community's dark night of the soul. Egoyan's informal stock company—Khanjian, Maury Chaykin, Gabrielle Rose, Bruce Greenwood, and David Hemblen—display an impressive virtuosity. Usually cast as urban neurotics, these skillful character actors portray small-town bus drivers, motel owners, and mechanics with genuine conviction.
Cineaste spoke with Egoyan soon after The Sweet Hereafter won the Grand Prix at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and several months before its American premiere at the 1997 New York Film Festival. In the following interview, he speaks lucidly, and frequently wittily, on topics ranging from cinephilia and the
[Porton:] The Sweet Hereafter is your first adaptation of another author's material. Did you feel that it was time to change gears and integrate other perspectives with your own?
[Egoyan:] After I finished Exotica, I felt that I had gone as far as I could, given a certain set of impulses that had formed a lot of my work. I was afraid of parodying myself. It was a very confusing time after Exotica, because it was a film that broke through. I wanted to surprise myself, and I think that any filmmaker wants to, more than anything, exceed his own expectations. And, after a certain point, when you become so identified with a style and approach, you want to challenge people's expectations.
When I read The Sweet Hereafter, I felt that it was a story that I would never have been able to come up with. Yet I saw similarities to my work and I felt that I could serve the material. It was worth pursuing, since Russell Banks was extraordinarily generous. The book was optioned by another studio, but he was prepared to release it and let me make the film. With his encouragement, and also with this need that I felt to challenge myself, I went into the project. It was a treacherous journey, because I was also involved with a studio film myself at that point with Warner Bros. which I had to leave in order to pursue The Sweet Hereafter. As an independent, you have to understand what that all means and wade through it. I think that I was smart in trusting my instincts.
But weren't you initially fond of this Hollywood project?
Yeah, because I liked the script and had a fairly good idea of how it could be cast. But, ultimately, it all got bogged down; there were disagreements over casting. There seem to be two reasons to make an independent film. One is as a calling card, so you can enter the more mainstream industry. The other is that it just suits your nature: you can think and do better work when you don't have to respond to a number of other people. I've become so used to having complete control over my own work that entering a studio-driven project will inevitably be fraught with all sorts of difficulties.
You're also accustomed to working with what could be called your own repertory company. Given your working method, I'd imagine that it would be difficult to have to deal with actors who, at least in your view, weren't appropriate for the material.
That's so important. There's a certain degree of necessary self-delusion that goes with filmmaking. You have to be ready to shoot. You have to believe that you're the right person to do it. And sometimes you have to believe that someone is the right actor to play in it. Somewhere deep inside you, you know that may not be the case. But once a project assumes a certain momentum, you have to go with it. And that's when it becomes frightening, because then we lose our rational instincts and you surrender to what you need to believe in to get the project done. It happens all the time, and it's then that mistakes can be made.
What kind of assistance or feedback did you receive from Russell Banks while you were working on the script?
It was very important to have Russell's approval and support, even though it wasn't contractually necessary or anything I needed to do. But since it was the first time I was doing an adaptation, and I was making some major departures from the book, I wanted to get a sense that he felt that I was keeping its spirit. I should use this opportunity to talk about the collaboration I have with the script editor, Allen Bell, who I've been working with on all my films since Family Viewing. When I told Allen what this film was about, he said that it sounded like a modern version of the pied piper. This sent goose pimples up and down my arm, because I realized what an amazing controlling metaphor that could be, and I went out and reread the Browning book. Though this seemed so beautiful and rich, it was important for me to have a response from Russell as well. He loved it and became quite envious of it; he felt that it was something he might have used if he had thought of it. Since I had claimed complete authorship for all of my previous films, I wanted to feel that I was being true to what Russell intended. But he never raised an eyebrow or said that I was moving in a strange direction.
The Sweet Hereafter seems much more determined to offer the audience a sense of emotional catharsis than your early films. Unlike the straightforward trauma of the current film, the earlier films required the characters to engage in some kind of ritual or repetition compulsion.
Or family romance. Emotional immediacy is exactly the thing that makes the experiment of The Sweet Hereafter work so well. Ultimately, all you need to know is that a school-bus accident has occurred and that it's about a community before and after that accident. I wasn't really aware of how simple that fundamental sense of placement would be. Everyone knows how cataclysmic such an accident would be. There is a degree of confusion and timelessness that people will accept because the characters have lost their sense of time as well due to their grief and shock.
Although The Sweet Hereafter marks somewhat of a new direction for you, it also continues to explore the obsession with family dynamics emphasized in your other films, doesn't it? You even highlight this in your director's statement, since you explicitly link the current film with the closing scene of Exotica.
Yes. I find cinema is a great medium to explore ideas of loss, because of the nature of how an image affects us and how we relate to our own memory and especially how memory has changed with the advent of motion pictures with their ability to record experience. Our relationship as filmmakers to those issues has changed radically over the past fifteen or twenty years. And people in our society have the instruments available to document and archive their own history. In my earlier films, I was exploring this in quite a literal way. But the ways in which our ability—and our need—to remember have been transmogrified comes very much into the spirit of this film as well.
There's nothing casual about accessing memory or the way experience is evoked. There's something very self-conscious, quite determined about it—the way people manipulate or use their own experience to get things they want from other people. Or the way some people want to relate to their loss in a very immediate and private way and are threatened by having that intruded upon them. But what is great about this material is that, for the first time, the characters are really full-blooded. They're not schematically conceived. In the other films, there was a more figurative approach to the characters, because that's what those films needed. The characters were lost to themselves, so they were really just shells looking for some sort of purpose. But in this film you have some characters who know exactly who they are and what they're doing. It gives a different dimension to the piece.
Incest seemed like more of a submerged theme in your other films. In The Sweet Hereafter, it moves to the forefront.
On reading the book and working on the adaptation, it was one of those situations where something had become a cliche; the entire depiction of incest in films had become very banal and lazy. I felt that there was another experience of incest that many people have experienced, but that has not been depicted in films—instead of it being a coercive act it becomes something where distinctions are blurred. Lines are crossed, and characters find themselves in situations which are just as damaging—or more damaging—than the other kind of incest. It's more confused; guilt and responsibility are not as easy to assign. These are the incestuous relationships that perhaps have a deeper impact on the individuals involved, because they don't quite know how to extricate themselves from the situation. The reality is that if the accident hadn't occurred that relationship would probably have continued until Nicole was in her twenties and she would have been even more messed up.
As it is, I think what happens is not so much that she realizes that she's abused but rather that, seeing her father in such an extreme state of denial, and then seeing him bartering her broken body for a reward, she becomes outraged in a quiet but very determined way. So the effect is quite different than it is in the book. I also wanted to see if I could shoot an incest scene from the point of view of the person who is involved as it is occurring. That scene in the barn is my attempt to show how Nicole would have described that scene at that particular moment. It's challenging for the viewer, because you're not quite sure how to evaluate it. But I think it contributes to the extraordinary power of the ending.
So the point was to compress the experience in one shot so the event takes on a greater resonance by the end of the film?
In some ways, it's not dissimilar from the way the accident itself was shot—from Billy's point of view, as Billy would have experienced it at that moment. As opposed to the more expected Hollywood money-shot point of view, which would be to cover that accident from as many angles as possible, and to try to experience the visceral effect of what it would be like to be in that bus. That wasn't where I wanted to position that camera. As an independent filmmaker, I have the privilege of being able to construct this incredible stunt and shoot it with only one camera from quite far away. I don't think a studio would have ever allowed me to do that.
Jonathan Rosenbaum links your work to films by other Canadian filmmakers like Guy Maddin and David Cronenberg, who treat incest as a symptom of puritanism and repression.
It's perhaps a cliche to think that we're all bundled up so we play with each other. But, perhaps it's fair to say that one of the residual affects of our colonial experience is a very particular view we have of parents or people who are in positions of responsibility. We are all just now understanding our relationship to both what the explicit British colonial influence in Canada was and what the American cultural colonial experience continues to be. We probably have to define ourselves through that very complex relationship between those two forces.
Do you view the concept of the ‘sweet hereafter’ as a utopian antidote to repression?
Of course, because it is a community that is entirely virtual and that exists entirely on principles that the individuals need to sustain themselves in that community. Certainly, at the end of the film, Nicole has arrived at a point where what she does effectively destroys the community as it existed before but paves the way for a new one. To me, that's what makes it such a crowning moment. It's a complete reappropriation of her own dignity by that decision.
There's also a connection between what seems to be the father's key line in Family Viewing—“I like to erase.” Nicole's struggle is against erasure.
Yes. It's a struggle against cultural and personal erasure.
After reading the novel, I was struck by the fact that all of the characters, even the less intelligent ones, were unusually self-conscious. I'm sure that this must have appealed to you, but it's also apparent that you've restructured the novel so that Mitchell Stephens becomes the central character. Russell Banks seemed to regard him as only one link in the narrative chain.
I guess it was just the way I read the book. When I noticed that character, I became very inspired by him. As a director, I'm always drawn to the characters who are close to conducting themselves in the way that I do. There's an aspect of my job that involves manipulating people, that involves trying to seduce people and gather people and follow me into a project. In a way, I, like any filmmaker, am a pied piper. You try to seduce people in order to get money, you try to seduce a crew, you try to seduce a cast. It's all very much about having other people believe that you have a vision that's worth dedicating themselves to. So when I encountered Mitchell Stephens, with his audacity of going into this town and believing that he had an answer for their grief with his claims of moral responsibility, there was something that made me feel very uneasy, yet quite sympathetic towards him and his projected mission.
I understand you were quite impressed by Holm's performance in Pinter's The Homecoming. How did that influence your decision to cast him in The Sweet Hereafter?
One of the thrills of working with Ian was being in such close contact with someone who had worked with Pinter—one of my gods. One of the best gifts he gave me after the shooting was over was a signed edition of The Homecoming. He's a remarkably generous man.
Of course, with the exception of Calendar, all of the previous films have been set in Toronto. The more pastoral milieu of The Sweet Hereafter also transforms your view of the characters. Your earlier films seemed to focus on the erosion of community, as traditional communities were replaced by so-called ‘virtual communities’ governed by technology.
They have a sense of community; they know where they're from. They're not lost like urban individuals. This, more than anything else, was the gift Russell Banks gave me. I've never lived in a town like that and I wouldn't have known how to begin telling a story based in a town like that. In making the adaptation, there was a huge challenge, which is that this community is, in some ways, quite virtual and unrealistic. In order for the drama to work, we have to feel that the children of the town completely disappear. If you look at it realistically, there is a school bus picking up kids from the outskirts of town, and there must be a central community, there might be kids who don't need to take the school bus and who just walk to school. So the town is bigger than you feel in the film and yet you never see that.
That's why in doing the adaptation, I couldn't show the crowd scenes, I couldn't show the funeral. If we represented the whole town, we'd diminish the dramatic effect of the story. A writer has the privilege of being able to do that because he's able to emphasize particular people so the background becomes abstract. But the moment you train a camera on a huge fairground and see other children, it takes away the fairy tale-like feeling that I wanted to create.
And your choice of a wide-screen format gives the film the feel of an intimate epic.
Yes, and this large canvas that you have gives you a feeling of vastness. There's no question that it transforms scenes to an epic level. And there's also this relationship to other films about strangers coming into town.
Some of the casting seems to reflect your fondness for narrative ambiguity. For example, was it accidental that the actress who portrayed Alison looked quite a bit like Nicole?
That was entirely intentional and very much a part of my casting. That's what Stephens is spooked by as well. It's probably why he confesses to her as much as he does.
Didn't a controversy erupt when you decided to show The Sweet Hereafter at a benefit for your son's school?
It only generated controversy among the people who were subjected to it. That was a classic example of complete denial—showing this at a benefit to a group of parents who every morning send their children off to a school bus was a perverse decision. But it was not intended to arouse the degree of shock that it did. Russell told me that he couldn't understand how someone who had just had a child could have made this film. I couldn't understand what I was doing until the film was finished and I had some distance.
It would seem accurate to term The Sweet Hereafter your most affirmative film. For example, both Christina in Exotica and Nicole in the current film have been traumatized by incest. But Christina is unable to transcend her childhood trauma, while Nicole succeeds in breaking through and changes. Speaking Parts, on the other hand, could be termed your most pessimistic film.
Absolutely—and The Adjuster as well. Although if you look back at the really early films, like Next of Kin, there's a bit more optimism. I think that The Adjuster went about as far as you could go in rendering the characters almost completely absurd because of their inability to define themselves. There was something quite humorous at some level about the repetitive patterns of behavior that the people were forced to reenact over and over again. Emotionally, the films are obviously quite bleak. There's not really any invitation to identify with any of the characters. As a matter of fact, you're always very aware of the fact that you're watching them, and that becomes what those experiences are about. They're very much about watching, and what happens when a relationship is entirely conducted through a lens, either in a literal or a figurative sense. In a way, the censor's relationship to the images she sees in The Adjuster are characteristic of how all of those relationships work. Material is gathered in an archive, and then stored and preserved.
Were these sequences focusing on censorship in The Adjuster your critique of the practices of the Ontario censorship board?
Yes, this also refers to my own experiences of being censored as a journalist. It is not as extreme as it once was. After the film was made, Tokyo Decadence was banned. The censorship board is a fascinating organization, because there's this casualness about the way the board defended themselves. They had this idea that they existed because there was a need to defend certain social values. Though Toronto was a very liberal city, they're a provincial board, and they felt they had a wider mandate to defend the interest of a wider cross section, people who wouldn't go to art cinemas in Toronto.
In the early Eighties, when I was a student at the University of Toronto, we were experiencing the most vicious period of censorship. It was around the time that The Tin Drum was banned. I wrote an article about that for a student newspaper and met Mary Brown, who at the time was the head censor. She took me to this room and showed me what she called the shock reel. It was literally a reel that had all the scenes that had been cut and were then pasted together. Of course, this was designed to place the viewer in a state of shock. After the lights came on, she came into the theater, and said rather smugly, “And now you know what we do.” That experience was so important because it was so absurd. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to agree with her, because those were images that I would never want to see. But those images were completely out of context, and some of them were culled from films that I later saw in their complete versions.
It would be absurd, for example, to evaluate In the Realm of the Senses only from the vantage point of the castration scene.
Yes—or you could make similar points about Salo. That idea of context, and the way in which you see an image, are issues which are really important to me and they are certainly ideas that become part of the narrative structure. I like to replay scenes, moments, or ideas from different viewpoints that challenge the viewer to question the authenticity, not only of where the material or where the images are sourced from, but why those people need to express those views.
That takes us back to The Sweet Hereafter, where we have Mitchell Stephens, a character who is similar to the title character of The Adjuster in some ways. While Noah Render was completely numbed by his own lack of self-awareness, and is not particularly a bright man, Mitchell Stephens is a brilliant lawyer who is able to manipulate and to adapt his course, depending on whom he's confronted with. And yet, he's not a wise person. Unlike Nicole, Mitchell is just destined to repeat an immediately satisfying occupation—immersing himself in other people's grief, but without really understanding how to deal with, in the longer term, his profound sense of loss.
The consistency of your work is remarkable. The deliberate blurring of Nicole and Alison is almost a throwback to the beginning of Speaking Parts, a film where the viewer has a great deal of difficulty in distinguishing the two female protagonists for about the first ten minutes.
It's a problem that other filmmakers don't seem to run into as much as I do. But viewers do feel confused by similarities and parallels in my films. Any viewer is very sensitive to the attitudes that a filmmaker has when making an image. And because I'm so aware of the construct, image, and presentation of characters, and because there's something so delicate about that, people approach my characters with a degree of caution. In a film like Speaking Parts, which is so aggressively mystifying, you are quite untethered in making those decisions. You don't necessarily have anyone pointing you in one direction or another. That's what the film is about, ultimately, the fact that people resemble each other and have the ability to play certain roles based on their ability to remind someone of someone else.
It's always a matter of finding a form or texture which reflects the underlying psychology of what the film is about. In Speaking Parts, it was about substitution, projection, and people living with other people as images and being able to trade or barter those images. The film has to reflect that. So, almost by definition, it couldn't be an easy film to watch. It couldn't be a film where identification was made comfortable or simple. There are films that could deal with those issues so that the viewer might be more immediately entertained. But the residual effect on the viewer's subconscious might not be as strong.
There's a sense in which reality has caught up with what seemed to be the sci-fi premise of Speaking Parts—a world of constant surveillance and instantaneously accessible image banks. I recently heard about a college student who voluntarily subjects herself to twenty-four hour video surveillance through the Internet.
One article I remember reading around that period involved a man whose parents had divorced. He wanted to show his son how happy his parents had been before they became divorced, so he brought his divorced parents together and recreated videotapes of their family life so he could show his son. It probably had an enduring affect on my sensibility.
Surveillance is usually thought of as Orwellian, but in your early films the characters are quite complicit with their own surveillance.
This is a way that the characters find out things. In Family Viewing, there's a real ambiguity about the role of technology. It's the means by which the father controls the family, but it's also ultimately the way in which the boy recovers his past. It's very easy to take a moralistic position and condemn these technologies, but the fact is that they are with us. It's a question of educating people how to use the technology, instead of demonizing technology or allowing it to become casual. It's important to understand how unusual those things are.
I've been editing this Yo-Yo Ma film, and I'm shocked that all this technology really does, despite the fact that it allows us to do something so much faster than it was ever possible to do with a Steenbeck, is make us more anxious. It's not as though we're using the extra time we're given to allow ourselves to rest or to reduce our stress. It's as though there's this lag between what the technology can provide and our own ability to absorb and understand it.
At the risk of sounding simplistic, the ambivalence towards technology in theorists like McLuhan or filmmakers like David Cronenberg might lead one to think that this position is typically Canadian.
As a culture, we are so completely overwhelmed by our access to American identity through technology. All of our major cities are no more than 200 miles from the border. From a very young age, we've all been bombarded with images of a culture that's not ours but seems to mirror certain aspects of our upbringing. But we're fundamentally different in many ways; in order to understand ourselves, we've had to understand our own relationship to these images which have completely crept into our cultural and social makeup.
And, of course, your early films, particularly Next of Kin and Family Viewing, are about both national identity and ethnic identity.
Right. I'm aware that I'm a person who came to this country from another culture and had to form an identity in order to think of myself as an assimilated Canadian. Even though I am very much a part of the mainstream fabric of English Canada, I'm aware of what I had to go through to become that way. That predisposes one to think of identity in a general sense as a construct. My suspicion about what it means to be natural has been an ongoing concern.
In his recent memoir, Black Dog of Fate, the Armenian-American poet Peter Balakian observes that he was encouraged to become “more American than the Americans.” As an Armenian who was encouraged to become totally assimilated, do you see any similarities to your own experience?
That speaks very directly to me. My strongest experience in childhood probably comes from being settled in a town where we were the only Armenian family there and then having to reconstruct myself as an English boy. And learning all those traits and absorbing them so completely that I was more English than the English or thought I was.
Calendar quite deliberately circled around Armenian history; the viewer has to fill in the blanks. You don't mention the Armenian genocide, for example.
Yes, that was quite deliberate. It's a fundamental issue which I'm very nervous about treating casually. It's very interesting the response that some Armenians have towards The Sweet Hereafter, because they almost see it as being a clear metaphor for the genocide. That never even occurred to me when I considered my own attraction to the story. When I hear that, it seems almost obvious. But I was so thankful that this didn't occur to me while I was making the film or I would have analyzed it excessively.
The Armenian genocide hasn't just been repressed. It's this very curious type of denial where, in the face of so much openness about the nature of holocaust, the Armenians are in a curious position where the perpetrators have never really admitted it. There's a vagueness about the whole event. And, as it recedes more and more into our history, as the century has found other events to deal with, the necessity about determining what happened in Armenia at the turn of the century seems to be diminished. Yet, as an Armenian, its emotional consequences are still overwhelming.
Your TV film, Gross Misconduct, has never been released here. The subject, a family's relationship with hockey, would appear to be quintessentially Canadian.
That is one of the best Gothic stories to emerge from this country. It's an incredible, true story about this young boy from a small town in northern Canada whose father always dreamed that he would be a hockey player and trained him with an incredible degree of violence—the father was quite psychotic. He hammered this obsession with hockey into the boy until he was finally invited to join the NHL. On the night he was playing his first big league game that was supposedly being broadcast across the country, the father in the small town turned on his TV only to find out that it wasn't being broadcast in the western part of the country. He flipped out, took a gun, drove to the local TV station and held it hostage and demanded that they broadcast the game. At the very moment that his son was being interviewed between periods on each network, the RCMP ambushed the station and shot the father dead. It could never really make it to network TV in the U.S. because it's a fractured narrative.
Although your films often deal with eroticism, you've avoided explicit sexuality. Exotica is, after all, about striptease. The desire to stimulate the viewer's imagination relates to what has been called the ‘interactive’ nature of your films.
It always surprises me that you can conceive of an erotic scene, but the moment you actually shoot it and construct it, it immediately reduces its ability to excite. And yet, what's interesting about Exotica is that it's interactive in that you know the film is going to unfold in a certain way and you have to determine what you're feeling in response to what you know is inevitable. The film will continue to give out information and give out scenes and give out glimpses of these characters. That is much more attractive, in a way, than a situation where you are genuinely interactive, when you control the narrative.
That's what a lot of filmmakers had to contend with about ten years ago with the advent of the CD-ROM. It was thought that maybe this whole aspect of storytelling would become redundant now that we just need to think of drama as an interactive video game. It's not anywhere near as compelling as having to determine what your relationship to a predetermined story is. One of the results of having a child is that you realize that little human beings want stories. They want to imagine those stories in relationship to images they have as opposed to some controlling set of images.
I read that you were quite taken with Cronenberg's Videodrome. Do you see any affinities between that film and your own work?
I didn't think I was influenced by the film when it first came out. In fact, I had some problems with it. Looking back on the film now, I realize that it did have a tremendous influence on me. This notion of how we are encouraged to hallucinate and the idea that there are shadow worlds that exist in tandem with our reality was, for me, the most compelling aspect of Videodrome. It seems like a very simple film, but what it proposes is very shocking in a literal way. I think the difference between David's work and mine probably is that he gave up a certain formalism, much to his commercial success. His early films, Crimes of the Future and Stereo, are very esoteric, and he just turned away from that very early in his career. He realized that, if he was to continue making films at that time, he had to work within the horror genre. That gave him a certain freedom to take the conventions of that genre and, of course, delusion is quite an accepted motif within horror films. Videodrome explored that in quite a strident and brilliant way. There were also other films which explored this, such as Godard's Numero Deux.
Your admiration for hallucinatory narratives evokes an observation you made some years ago in which you claimed that “nothing is more artificial than mainstream realism.”
I don't know whether I would still agree with that. Mike Leigh has been one of the filmmakers who has really had an impact on me since I made that statement. I was on the jury at Cannes last year and found his use of realism in Secrets & Lies quite a devastating experience. Everyone makes images the way they need to make them. I would be foolish to say that there's nothing more artificial than mainstream realism—it's just artificial to me. I'm completely swayed by the sincerity of many images, which actually allows me to enjoy a film like Private Parts. In a perverse way, it's quite sincere. It's very arrogant to be prescriptive about how a film should be made, because one can always be surprised.
There's an interesting contrast between your films and Leigh's character-driven movies. it's always been possible to offer thumbnail sketches of Leigh's characters, while you've always viewed the characters with a great deal of detachment.
I've always felt that my own characters were in a place where they didn't quite understand what their own feelings were and what they had to contribute to any relationship. And, in a way, that's an enduring influence of my early exposure to the theater of the absurd, playwrights like Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. They assumed that there was an inherent mystery in the meeting of any two people and that there is a whole nest of motivations and reasons that are completely belied by the casualness of that meeting. In my early films, I wallowed in that; that was a very exciting place for me to explore. I am naturally attracted to the grotesque and extremes of human behavior—the extent that people will go to convince themselves that something is normal and the casualness with which people will embark on modes of behavior which, in any other context, would be quite aberrant.
In Exotica, for example, there's this man who goes to this sex club every night. There's something quite habitual about that and he doesn't quite understand the damaging affect of this type of behavior merely because he's allowed himself unquestioned access to repetition. We think we've found a way of coping with our sense of grief, but in fact we've only distorted it; we're only reflecting it until we think that we've absorbed it. It doesn't cease to astonish me how I can show a film as intimate as Calendar and find that these images, which seem so hermetic and drawn from a seemingly unapproachable personal history, can make themselves public and people can draw from it and find emotional sustenance.
I've always wanted to resist films which have the ability to make people think that what they're seeing is real. Maybe I'm grown out of that at this point. And certainly the challenge in The Sweet Hereafter was to create a very vivid sense of what this community was about and who these people were within a very unorthodox structure. It's completely nonlinear, but because you have a strong sense of who the people are and what the community is about and what the central event is, you have tremendous freedom to play with that structure.
Of course, New Wave directors like Resnais also liked to fracture time. Was this stylistic choice an intuitive decision?
There's no great design. For me, it's the most natural way of telling a story. I love weaving time, because I want to be surprised by the images I make. When I write in a linear way, it seems to detract from my desire to actually direct the film. There's not a lot left to discover when I feel that the story is unfolding from point A to point B. I don't have a problem watching those movies or reading those scripts. But when I'm asked to write or make that kind of film, I get very impatient. I find it more exciting when I'm not entirely sure what the alchemy of it all will be and I have to shoot those images and put them together and find out. There's an element of surprise, there's also a greater risk of failure. All of that drives me on.
And the convoluted structure of a film like Speaking Parts satirizes how talk shows trivialize both historical and personal issues and transform them into entertainment.
Yes, it's very prescient about what's happened to our culture since 1988. On shows like Jerry Springer's, there's this notion of the confessional, the staged moment where the truth is supposedly uncovered in public on television. All the work we do as dramatists to formulate a story seems to be obliterated by the way this type of communication has taken over our imagination. It bludgeons us into taking sides and seems to be the antithesis of what drama can do.
What's perverse about Speaking Parts is that the producer actually has a point. He's taken what is probably a very uninteresting and melodramatic script written by Clara and changes it into what may well be quite an innovative television program. Does that give him the right to take that story? And who has the responsibility to tell the story and at what point does the own person's talent or vision weigh on their right to keep that story and to be the conveyor of it. That is a very provocative issue for me. In Speaking Parts, you have a premise which deals with helplessness—our society is divided into people who make images and people who watch images. Authority is granted to people when they have the ability to turn themselves into producers. Nicole succeeds in producing her own history by the end of The Sweet Hereafter. She takes the format of a talk show where people are encouraged to tell the truth and then subverts it. I was really inspired by her ability to reconstruct her own sense of experience.
It's more hallucinatory in Speaking Parts. When Clara appears at the talk show, we imagine that she shoots herself or Lance imagines that she shoots herself. We're not quite sure whose inhabiting what role. That whole last reel is just a bombardment of various images and projections.
Did you consciously avoid the shot/reverse shot pattern in your earlier films? You often followed a close-up with a moving camera shot.
Coming from theater, I was very unsettled by the idea of manipulated time and the ease with which you could distort and break the moment of observation. What was powerful about a camera was the way it looked, and the moment you cut away from its look, you diminished the responsibility of the gaze. I was very consumed with that for the longest time. All of my earlier films continued to deal with characters who felt lost. I thought that the camera was the way to embody the look of that person as they watched the people they left behind. I was very attracted to long unblinking shots where you would really feel the power of observation. I felt that cutting away would corrupt that. It might have been that, on a purely technical level, I didn't understand coverage. I didn't go to film school, no one had really explained it to me. No one ever told me what I was doing was wrong. But I certainly learned from some very obvious mistakes in film grammar that I made during the early shorts.
I feel that cinema syntax is based on images that we project in our own mind when we dream. This is probably the reason why we found a grammar for cinema so quickly, as opposed to the other arts, where it took centuries of evolution to find and determine notions of perspective. Cinema came really quickly, because I think we found an instrument that allowed us to conjure the way we dream. And, perhaps, in our unconscious state, we have an 180-degree line that we don't cross. And maybe we use master shot coverage in our dreams. I guess we'll never really know that for sure. But it seems only natural that cinema, which has remained so unchanged since the beginning of the art form, conforms to something that we've all been watching for eons. And that's why a lot of those experiments of the New Wave, which tried to break those conventions, never really took hold.
Since you're a cinephile, I suppose there's always a tension between film history and your personal vision. You once mentioned Teorema as a film that impressed you, and there are at least some superficial resemblances between the Pasolini film and Next of Kin.
Yes. I'm taken with this idea of an interloper, somebody who finds their way into an environment where you wouldn't think they would be welcome, but where they find or make their own welcome and insinuate themselves. This theme recurs in The Sweet Hereafter as well; this lawyer comes into people's homes and makes himself indispensable. Where this comes from, or why, I'm not quite sure. As a child, I was always aware of going into other people's homes and seeing how friends from different backgrounds lived their lives. I also felt that I was intruding or coming into a situation that wasn't mine.
Your work seems to have generated a certain amount of critical misunderstanding over the years. Some of your harshest critics, for example, failed to acknowledge the bleak humor of those early films, didn't they?
If you don't see the humor, you're not going to enjoy the films at all. I noticed this with Family Viewing especially. The way I can test an audience is the scene in the nursing home when the father makes a mistake about which grandmother he's giving the flowers to. There are people who take that moment really seriously and I never quite know what they can make of the rest of the film. There's an obliviousness that the characters have to the consequences of their actions which is very funny.
The early films were considered ‘cold’ by certain critics and viewers.
It has continued to an extent with The Sweet Hereafter, but less so. I just find it really odd, because, for me, a film like Speaking Parts is operatic!
You cannot get warm and cuddly with the films. That's maybe what people are talking about; they can't simply sit back and have a story told to them and identify and lose themselves. They have to be always aware of their position and their relationship to these images. There are people who will even see this new film, and given what the subject matter is, find it distant and not really understand that, if it wasn't distanced, it'd be a TV movie! The more classical way to shoot this is to be right up there, with them, whatever that means. I'm always aware of certain things: Why am I shooting this? What is it about this story that needs to be shown? What am I hoping to achieve by depicting these people? If that means that I'm a formalist, fine. Formalism is a concern with the process of depiction and that informs every gesture I'll ever make in movies.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1474
SOURCE: “How Sweet It Is: His New Film Signals a Change of Direction for Egoyan,” in Maclean's, Vol. 110, No. 36, September 8, 1997, pp. 60–61.
[In the following review, Johnson compares The Sweet Hereafter with Egoyan's previous works, stating that Hereafter features more natural and fully developed characters.]
Inevitably, directors get tired of their own movies. And after finishing The Sweet Hereafter, Atom Egoyan watched it so many times that by the time it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, he no longer knew what to make of it. But last month—rested after vacationing in Italy with his wife, actress Arsinee Khanjian, and their four-year-old son, Arshile—the Canadian film-maker was ready to take a fresh look at The Sweet Hereafter. The occasion was a private screening in Toronto for the Directors Guild of Canada. Halfway through, the fire alarm went off. There was no fire, but the theatre was soon filled with firemen. “It was so bizarre,” recalls Egoyan. “Usually firemen are all, like, ‘Everybody leave the building now!’ But they were so casual. They were thrilled because they'd read about the film. So I ended up doing a photo session with all these firemen. They all wanted pictures, and they gave me their cards.”
If Atom Egoyan is hot stuff in the fire hall, perhaps it is official that he has finally made his mark in the mainstream. Not too many years ago, despite his popularity in Europe, Egoyan's name in North America was synonymous with cinema's art-house fringe. But Exotica (1994), his hermetic drama of school-girl striptease and adult bereavement, was a modest hit, grossing ＄15 million. Now, The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan's seventh feature, takes his career to a new threshold. To the consternation of many critics, the film fell short of winning the Palme d'or, the top prize at Cannes, but it received more awards than any film in the festival: the second-place Grand Jury Prize, the International Critics Prize and the Ecumenical Jury Prize.
The Sweet Hereafter also marks a departure for Egoyan. Based on the 1991 novel by Russell Banks, it is his first script adapted from another source. And although the film's tone of acute existential paralysis is familiar from his previous work, for once its characters are ostensibly normal people. Filming in the B.C. interior, the 37-year-old director also left behind urban claustrophobia and took his camera into Canada's wilderness for the first time.
But shooting in the mountains “wasn't that shocking,” says Egoyan, sipping an espresso in the kitchen of the converted house that serves as his production office in downtown Toronto. “I was raised on the West Coast, so natural beauty is part of me.” (Born in Cairo to Armenian parents, he moved to Victoria at the age of 3.) “What makes this film such a huge step forward,” he adds, “is that for the first time you can identify with the characters. You're not outside them. In all my other films, the characters have been fragments or aspects of my own personality. They were people looking for their own identity through rituals or gestures. But they were just shells.”
Now he tells us.
So does this mean that all those naysayers who felt stymied by his films were right all along? No—Egoyan stands by his original work, but he felt he had reached an impasse. “After Exotica, I felt that everything I was writing I had dealt with somehow before,” he says. “I was treading water. I have natural attractions to the grotesque and the absurd, and extreme and obsessional behavior, but I can almost predict that. I want to surprise myself, and surprise others.” Adds the director: “I think my film-making is going to be split between projects I write myself, which will become smaller and more intimate, and these adaptations, which I really enjoy.”
Egoyan's career, a kind of multimedia work in progress, extends beyond film. Giving Robert Lepage a run for his money as a directorial Renaissance man, he is writing a libretto for an opera titled Elsewhereless. He will direct Dr. Ox's Experiment, a new work by leading British composer Gavin Bryars, for the English National Opera in London next spring. In November, Egoyan is remounting his provocative version of the opera Salome with the Vancouver Opera. And he is currently polishing off his contribution to a six-part series of films about cellist Yo Yo Ma—a playful fiction in which Ma's limousine gets stuck in traffic on his way to a concert, and then he has to put up with a coughing fit in the audience.
The next movie project, meanwhile, is another literary adaptation. Backed by Mel Gibson's Icon Productions in Los Angeles, Egoyan is writing and directing a screen version of Felicia's Journey, based on the 1994 novel by Irish author William Trevor. Icon was involved in Egoyan's last brush with Hollywood—as the producer of Dead Sleep, a thriller that he was preparing to direct two years ago. After a quarrel with Warner Bros. over casting the female lead, Egoyan backed out, and Dead Sleep was dead in the water.
The director is more optimistic about Felicia's Journey. It would become his first non-Canadian movie, although he made an unsuccessful bid to transplant the setting to Canada. Trevor's novel, which won the Whitbread Prize, is about an Irish country girl who travels to England, pregnant and penniless, looking for the lover who left her. Instead, she falls in with a gentle, mild-mannered psychopath who tries to convince her to have an abortion so he can kill her with a clean conscience. The subject matter certainly seems Egoyanesque. But Egoyan suggested turning the woman into a Quebecoise who travels to Victoria-a revision that was vetoed by the author.
Banks, meanwhile, seems delighted with Egoyan's treatment of The Sweet Hereafter, although the director shifted the setting from New England to British Columbia, re-ordered the narrative structure, added a car-wash scene at the opening, stripped the story of its demolition-derby climax, and embellished it with readings from The Pied Piper of Hamelin. “It's a brilliant film,” Banks told Maclean's in Cannes. “He's disassembled my novel and reassembled it like a mosaic. And he doesn't judge any of the characters.” The Pied Piper motif, Banks added, gives the story the quality of a fable, and he would have used it in the novel if it had occurred to him.
But perhaps Egoyan's boldest invention is his portrayal of the incest between the teenage Nicole (Sarah Polley) and her father, Sam (Tom McCamus). He films it in a candlelit barn as a gauzy romantic reverie, as if seen through the girl's confused eyes. “A lot of people will be quite shocked by it,” says the director, “because they won't quite know what they're supposed to feel. But that's exactly what Nicole is experiencing.” Then he adds: “I try to show things that haven't been shown before. And what we have never seen is that type of incest from the viewpoint of the person who's going through it.”
The Sweet Hereafter, meanwhile, offers more natural performances than any of Egoyan's previous work. “These characters were fully formed,” he says, “and I knew that the worst thing to do would be to stylize them.” British stage veteran Ian Holm stars as the ambulance-chasing lawyer, Mitchell Stephens—replacing Donald Sutherland, who dropped out 10 days before cameras were set to roll last winter. But the cast is dominated by Canadian alumni of other Egoyan films: Bruce Greenwood, Gabrielle Rose, Maury Chaykin, Polley and Khanjian.
The director seems to inspire loyalty in actors. Aside from his affection for misanthropic themes, one of the quintessentially Canadian things about him is that he—like his older colleague David Cronenberg—is a notoriously nice guy. Polley says she has never worked with an easier director. “Even if he was a really bad film-maker,” she suggests, “I think I'd still want to work with him.”
Egoyan brings a mischievous sense of fun to the set. Actors appreciate his playful, almost childlike fascination with the creative process. But the director combines it with a clinical instinct for control—like the claims man in The Adjuster, the auditor in Exotica or the lawyer in his current film. There is a scene in The Sweet Hereafter where Stephens, the lawyer, tells the driver who crashed the school bus that she must learn to express her suffering for the sake of his lawsuit. When she finally does so, and is overtaken by grief, he rudely cuts her off: “And then what happened?” Egoyan can identify. “That's what a director does,” he says. “We go to incredible lengths to seduce an actor to do something, only to disregard it if it doesn't work for us.”
Egoyan, meanwhile, is gradually seducing his audience, like a Pied Piper of Canadian cinema. And where he is leading it is anybody's guess.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1688
SOURCE: A review of The Sweet Hereafter, in Sight & Sound, Vol. 7, No. 10, October, 1997, pp. 60–61.
[In the following review, Rayns argues that Egoyan's failure to sustain a sense of community in The Sweet Hereafter detracts from the film's overall impact.]
In The Sweet Hereafter, Lawyer Mitchell Stephens arrives in Sam Dent, a small town in British Columbia, where the community is paralysed by a recent accident: the school bus, driven by Dolores Driscoll and carrying 22 children, went off an icy road and plunged into a lake, causing 14 deaths. Stephens hopes to mobilise the bereaved parents into a class-action lawsuit against the bus company; he will act without a fee, against one-third of any settlement reached. (Stephens himself has deep emotional problems; divorced from his wife Klara, he keeps his drug-addicted, drop-out daughter Zoe at arm's length.)
He turns to the local motel owners Wendell and Risa Walker for advice on which grieving parents to approach. He also meets Dolores (and her husband Abbott, victim of a stroke) and hears her account of the day of the accident. The first to sign up for his class action are the Ottos, Hartley and Wanda, who lost their adopted son Bear. Risa is the next, followed by Sam and Mary Burnell, whose daughter Nicole survived the accident but is now wheelchair-bound. (Stephens provides a computer for Nicole, to sweeten the deal.) But garage-owner Billy Ansell, a widower who lost both his children, threatens Stephens with violence and advises others in the community to have nothing to do with him.
Called to give her legal deposition about her experience of the accident, Nicole (who has previously insisted that she will not tell lies) destroys the law-suit by testifying that Dolores was driving too fast. Stephens is left smarting, but the community regains a sense of solidarity and learns to come to terms with its grief.
This narrative is intercut with flashbacks to the periods before, during and immediately after the accident, centred on the day-to-day lives of the main characters. Billy regularly hires Nicole to babysit his children while he pursues a secret affair with Risa. Nicole is trying to make it as a rock singer, and has an incestuous relationship with her father Sam. Stephens himself recalls an episode from Zoe's infancy, when he and Klara raced against time to get her to a hospital in a medical emergency. There are also glimpses of the future: some time later, Stephens is on an internal flight and finds himself sitting next to Allison, a childhood friend of Zoe's. The encounter forces him to go over the gradual breakdown of his relationship with his daughter and to describe his deeply unresolved feelings for her. On arrival at his destination, he sees Dolores driving a hotel shuttle-bus. In Sam Dent, Nicole feels that the community has entered a new and happier phase which she dubs “the sweet hereafter.” But her own thoughts still centre on the days when she used to babysit Billy's children—and dreamed of marrying Billy herself.
Atom Egoyan has been notably frank about his reasons for adapting Russell Banks' novel and making—for the first time—a film not based on an original screenplay of his own. “I felt I had made a number of films inspired by stories that came from the universe that was in my own head, but it was becoming all too familiar for me. I wanted to find something that would challenge me and still provide a framework on which I could impose my own structural concepts, and this was the perfect story for that.” He is also eager to cement a direct link between this film and its predecessor: “Exotica ends with a shot of Christina walking towards the house. What happens there has had a great deal of influence on her life. She is not protected in the house. And The Sweet Hereafter takes us inside the house.” (Both quotes are from the Alliance Communications pressbook.)
This is a not uncommon syndrome among writer-directors who base their work on deeply personal preoccupations and use it to confront issues they want to resolve for themselves or to exorcise personal demons: they tend to reach a point (sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent) when the well runs dry. Fassbinder dealt with it by co-opting favourite books (Effi Briest, Berlin Alexanderplatz) or by giving a revered classic a good kicking (Nora Helmer). Paul Schrader dealt with it by remaking Cat People. Egoyan has taken what seems at first sight the Cronenberg route of filming an ‘unfilmable’ novel. His adaptation of The Sweet Hereafter certainly looks like an Atom Egoyan film; simply as an exercise in superimposing one sensibility on to another, the film is so ingenious, so skilful and so nuanced that it's easy to forget that it has literary roots at all. All of which makes it hard to explain why the film is ultimately so disappointing.
The core problem seems to be that Egoyan has miscast himself as the adapter of a novel in which a sense of community is paramount. Few directors have less sense of community than Egoyan: his work has always centred on obsessives and eccentrics trapped in solipsistic worlds, most of whom have cause to regret their forays into social and sexual intercourse, and the surly bonds that interest him most are those within families. Here he does not even present a plausible topography of the town, which never feels like anything but a patched-together collection of locations, let alone provide any inkling of the ways its citizens interact socially. For the purposes of the film, Sam Dent is a group of five unhappy households, a garage and a civic courthouse. And the only elements which knit the households together prior to the accident are an adulterous affair and the feelings of a young woman trapped in an incestuous affair with her father who dreams of marrying the town's most eligible widower and becoming a ‘mother’ (rather than just a babysitter) to his kids. In short, Egoyan's Sam Dent is not a million miles from Peyton Place.
Banks' novel is divided into four sections, each with its own narrator: the structure helps the author to build a real sense of the community which has been struck by the tragedy. In line with his earlier films, Egoyan appears to replace the idea of plural voices with an omniscient directorial point-of-view. The Sweet Hereafter has a fantastically complicated time structure: it has hardly begun before it plunges into free-range cross-cutting between the pasts, presents and futures of its characters, and it feels free throughout to make connections across all bounds of time and space. Egoyan's method of constructing and narrating his films has always had an element of tease: he likes to drop hints, make insinuations, leave room for the viewer to speculate … and to surprise with sudden revelations. The Sweet Hereafter does all these things, only more so. It's as if what Egoyan responds to most strongly in the novel is simply the range of characters and time-frames it provides as grist to the mill of his structural machinations.
The most surprising (and daring) of the film's countless linkages is that between the bus accident itself and the day when Stephens' then-infant daughter Zoe almost died from the side-effects of an insect bite. Egoyan effects the link simply by presenting one event after the other. The implications are anything but clear-cut: the juxtaposition could be suggesting that Stephens' quest to mount the Sam Dent class-action suit is an oblique expression of his unresolved rage at the breakdown of his own marriage and the loss of his own daughter—not to an insect bite and an insufficiently concerned doctor but later, to narcotics. The one thing which is clear (and Egoyan underlines it heavily by using the image of the Stephens family asleep moments before the calamity strikes Zoe as the background to his main title at the front of the film) is the directorial sleight-of-hand which equates a community tragedy with a family crisis.
It's revealing that the ‘glue’ which Egoyan uses to weld the many disparate fragments together is ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin.’ The poem is first heard as Nicole's bedtime reading to Billy's children: it subsequently blankets the film, appearing on the soundtrack even when, at some unspecified point in the future, Stephens discusses Zoe's fate with one of her old friends on a plane. (Browning's poem is not in the novel, although Banks now says he wishes it had been.) The prominent use of the poem ‘rhymes’ Sam Dent with Hamelin and implies that the children who died in the bus-crash were somehow ‘culled’ as a punishment for the sins of their parents. (It also, of course, identifies Nicole with the “lame child” left behind by the piper.) This is a smart and snazzily post-modern way of connoting ‘community,’ but Egoyan cannot make it stick when nothing in the rest of the film supports it. Five pained/guilty families do not a community make.
Banks and Egoyan do, however, reach simultaneous climaxes with the crucial scene of Nicole's testimony about the crash, the only genuinely moving moment in the film. For Egoyan, Nicole's rationally inexplicable decision to scuttle the law-suit by lying represents both an act of tremendous courage and a decisive break with “what happens to her inside the house”—her incestuous idylls with her father, which take place in a barn dangerously festooned with candles. His respect for the novel obliges him to show Nicole's action having a community-wide effect, something he attempts in a rather bizarre way with a shot of a ferris wheel over which Nicole's voice enthuses about everything being “strange and new.” But he follows this by showing Nicole's retreat into her memories of the days when she was Billy's babysitter, closing the film as he began it: with an image of domestic bliss which we know will very soon be shattered. On the face of it, a classic Egoyan moment. But it doesn't kick either emotionally or intellectually, because the ingenuity of the adaptation has obstructed the real thrust of the film.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2304
SOURCE: “The Great White (North) Hope,” in Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1997, pp. 8, 94–95.
[In the following review, Turner argues that Egoyan's past works inform The Sweet Hereafter and notes ways in which the film deviates from his earlier works.]
The taxi pulls into a narrow lane in downtown Toronto's western fringes, where artists' lofts share the neighborhood with storefront restaurants and converted warehouses.
On the north side of the street, a red-brick, Victorian-era duplex unmarked by any sign houses the headquarters of Atom Egoyan, at 37 an icon of the Canadian cinema and a writer-director edging toward the center of the Hollywood radar screen.
The interior gives off a dormitory feel, with film posters covering the walls, cardboard file boxes stacked on the floor, old props leaning against walls, and doors flapping with the passage of young and youngish employees. The atmosphere had been described perfectly a few weeks earlier by New York author Russell Banks, whose novel The Sweet Hereafter, as filmed by Egoyan, is gaining critical acclaim. Entering Egoyan's office, Banks said in an interview during the New York Film Festival, “I felt like I was visiting a bunch of funky, brilliant graduate students, all deeply serious and very funny at the same time.”
This is a long, long way from Hollywood—and we're not just talking about miles and the need for snow tires. But the scene is characteristic of Canada's small but hardy movie industry, dominated as it is by low-budget independents such as Egoyan.
Wiry and owlish, with a penetrating intelligence and a restless artistic drive, Egoyan has a small but loyal following in the United States among critics and film buffs fond of his cool, elliptical stories of men and women skating along the brink of anomie.
That circle of admirers figures to widen with the commercial release of The Sweet Hereafter, which opened Friday trailing awards and critical huzzahs from the Cannes, Toronto and New York film festivals. It is the most mainstream and commercial of Egoyan's movies, and Fine Line Features is marketing it with an emphasis on the critical buzz and hope that there may be Oscar nominations in its future.
The film explores the effect of a fatal school bus crash on the residents of a small border community in British Columbia, and on the predatory attorney who arrives from out of town promising justice and restitution. The lawyer is performed with nuance by British actor Ian Holm, who at 66 has his first film starring role. Holm is surrounded by an Egoyan repertory company of Canadian actors, including Bruce Greenwood, 18-year-old Sarah Polley, Alberta Watson and Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan's wife.
But to say that The Sweet Hereafter is about a bus crash is a bit like saying Citizen Kane is about a sled. The movie, which shifts about in time and place, gradually peels away layers of mystery in its characters and setting.
“It's about our relationship with fate, really,” says Egoyan, perched on a chair in his sunlit office in the back of the Victorian. “To what extent do we want to control our lives, and to what extent do we let things just happen to us?”
“People will hopefully come out of this movie talking and debating,” says Holm, who leaped at the role of the lawyer when Donald Sutherland had to bow out at the last minute. “It's asking questions that maybe nobody knows the answer to.”
Even before its opening, The Sweet Hereafter has lifted Egoyan closer to the Hollywood jet stream. Egoyan jerks a thumb at a foot-high stack of screenplays, novels and manuscripts resting on a chair. They have been sent from Los Angeles by his agent, and “I'm supposed to read them by the weekend,” he explains.
And every morning, after dropping off his and Khanjian's 4-year-old son, Arshile, at kindergarten, Egoyan spends three or four hours in front of a computer, tapping out a film script of Irish author William Trevor's psychological thriller Felicia's Journey. He is signed to write and direct the movie version for Mel Gibson's Icon Productions.
He also is preparing to direct two new operas, one in London for the English National Opera and one in Toronto that he coauthored. Egoyan is executive producer of two films being developed by his assistants, recently completed a 55-minute short with cellist Yo-Yo Ma for PBS and supervises distribution and television sales of his early features. In January, he is scheduled to become the backup director to Michelangelo Antonioni on a new movie shooting in Los Angeles. The bonding company requires that Egoyan be ready to step in if Antonioni suffers a relapse in his recovery from a stroke.
To hear Egoyan tell it, this upward curve in his career has followed an almost geometric logic.
“I've been working through these skills, starting with micro, micro budgets and increasing from project to project,” he says. “It has made me very aware of what the market for my movies is, how it's grown, how it continues to grow, what I can do and still maintain the freedom I need to make the films the way I want.”
Nor is he daunted by the prospect that Hollywood has come calling, for he has been down that road before. He spent much of 1995 in a long, ultimately frustrating relationship with Warner Bros. over a script that never was produced. Egoyan walked away when he and the studio could not agree on casting, but today he classifies it as educational exercise.
“Looking back, in a way I would have paid to have had that experience,” says Egoyan, who as a college student considered a career in diplomacy. “It allowed me to have a front-row seat in seeing how films were made there without actually going through the process of making what probably would have ended up being a compromised work.”
If The Sweet Hereafter does score a breakthrough at the U.S. box office or in awards nominations, there will be cheers throughout the Canadian film industry, for it would be seen not just as recognition of the popular Egoyan but as a longed-for American acknowledgment of a neighboring artistic community that often seems like an interesting little boutique operating in the shadow of a giant supermall.
The list of Canadians who have had successful careers in Hollywood is long and impressive; it begins with silent-movie director Mack Sennett, the inventor of screen comedy, and Mary Pickford, the first star, and extends to director James Cameron (Terminator 2, the upcoming Titanic) and comic Jim Carrey. But those Canadian movie-makers who stay home labor in relative obscurity.
Even Canadians shun most domestically produced movies in favor of American films. Egoyan's biggest gross to date is 1994's Exotica, which earned ＄5 million in the U.S., ＄1 million in Canada, another ＄5 million overseas and is classified as a major hit by Canadian standards.
“We want our Piano or Crocodile Dundee or Full Monty, a film that will break out of our domestic market and do a lot of business across North America,” acknowledges Wayne Clarkson, executive director of the Canadian Film Center in Toronto, an academy modeled on the American Film Institute.
If Egoyan leads the way, Clarkson adds, it would be especially fitting. Along with David Cronenberg (The Fly, Crash), Egoyan is Canada's best-known director, and “he makes his films entirely on his own terms and at his own pace; it's almost the perfect career path for someone in the Canadian cinema,” Clarkson says.
“Atom Egoyan is the filmmaker that every film student in Canada wants to become,” summarizes Mina Shum, 31, a Vancouver writer-director whose debut feature, Double Happiness, a comedy about growing up Chinese Canadian on the West Coast, won plaudits two years ago.
Egoyan was born in Cairo to Armenian parents and raised in Victoria, British Columbia. His parents were trained as artists in Egypt and owned a successful gallery in Cairo. When they tried to transfer that business to Victoria, however, there was no real market for fine art in what was then a provincial and insular town. Instead, Egoyan's father found success running a furniture store.
“I was very aware of the frustration in their lives between this desire to make art and the practical reality of what they needed to do to make a living,” says Egoyan, who adds that the experience accounts for his fixation on holding down his film budgets and for his reputation as an astute negotiator with producers and distributors.
As a struggling playwright and aspiring director in Toronto in the early 1980s, Egoyan faced the decision every would-be filmmaker in Canada must make: whether to go south. He enlisted an unusual family connection to get some inside counsel. One of his mother's close friends knew Danny Arnold, the Los Angeles producer of “Barney Miller” and other television series, and she got the young Egoyan an appointment.
“Danny Arnold gave me this amazing bit of information,” Egoyan recalls. “He said: ‘Nobody comes to L.A. to become a better writer. They come to make a lot of money. So you have to decide what your priority is.’ … That word of advice has stayed with me.”
Back in Toronto, Egoyan's emerging career coincided with one of the periodic bursts of spending on the arts that Canadian governments embark on when they get fretful of American cultural dominance. He quickly mastered the system, forming his own production company, Ego Film Arts, and cobbling together movie funding from a spectrum of government and private sources. Television work paid the bills while he poured his creativity into feature films, in which he served as producer, director, screenwriter and, in one case, co-star.
His early movies got limited distribution, played the film festival circuit and made little or no money, but critics in Canada and Europe took notice.
In 1991, Egoyan formed a crucial partnership with Robert Lantos, the chairman of Alliance Communications, Canada's largest producer of film and television. The deal they struck was this: If Egoyan could stay within a limited budget—usually less than ＄2 million—Alliance would raise the financing, from government and private sources and by selling the film in advance in Europe. In return, Egoyan could make whatever movie he wanted. Lantos just insisted on veto rights over the title.
The bargain has paid off for both parties.
“He's amazingly fiscally responsible; none of his films for us has ever lost money,” says Lantos. “For someone who makes eccentric movies so far away from formula-driven popcorn movies, for someone who lives in that world, that's very unusual.”
Unpredictable and often bizarre, Egoyan's films up to The Sweet Hereafter usually feature outsiders seeking an identity, often in unconventional ways. Despite elements of voyeurism and what Egoyan calls “the energy of aggressive perversion,” the films are surprisingly cool in tone.
Geoff Pevere, a leading Canadian film critic, compares their chilly ambience and searching characters to the work of Sweden's Ingmar Bergman, although he also contends there is something “hopelessly Canadian” about their restraint.
“His films are almost as interested in the intervals between the dramatic high points as in the dramatic high points,” Pevere says. “It's a cultural trait we've got. Canadians have grown up incredibly influenced by the United States, but not part of the United States. … It's made us … accustomed to standing apart, taking it all in and analyzing it.”
Indeed the most frequent rap on Egoyan's films is that they are too distant from the audience's experience. That echoes a criticism of Canada's movies generally, in part stemming from film financing, which is heavily dependent on government subsidies and thus is driven more by the concerns of filmmakers and bureaucrats than commercial considerations.
It has made for what Clarkson calls “a cinema of auteurs,” but it also helps account for the inability of most English-language Canadian movies to draw big audiences. (Canada's French-language films play mainly in the province of Quebec and are more popular, something usually attributed to the language barrier separating them from most things American.)
Egoyan argues—and critics agree—that he has crossed into much more mainstream territory with The Sweet Hereafter.
“It's only gradually that I've been able to reconcile my artistic tendencies and formalist impulses with character-driven stories that people can relate to,” he says.
“The other films were not about characters that people could identify with. … This film is really asking you as a viewer: What would you do in this situation?”
Still, there is that sense of restraint. In a pivotal sequence in The Sweet Hereafter, a school bus filled with children plunges off a road, skids across a frozen lake, comes to a halt and then, after an agonizing pause, crashes through the ice. The scene is shot with one camera from the viewpoint of the father of two of the children, who has been following the bus in his pickup truck.
It's hard to picture a Hollywood director passing on the opportunity to raise the emotional pitch with close-ups of terrified children.
“There is something perverse about holding back that far away from the action, but I think it ultimately makes it more powerful,” Egoyan contends. “It's horrifying because you have to imagine what's going on as opposed to seeing it.”
Because The Sweet Hereafter does not lend itself to a one-paragraph summary, even those close to the film are uncertain of its commercial potential, although they certainly are hopeful.
“I think it's going to be a hard picture to sell. … It will be very much by word of mouth,” says Holm. “This is a modest little film, but modest little films are in now, and I think it's important that Hollywood people see this kind of film. … The loose ends are not all tied up, and it's not a package where you come out and say, ‘Oh, that's great,’ and forget it. It provokes discussion.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1440
SOURCE: “Atom Egoyan's Particles of Faith: Director of The Sweet Hereafter Believes in Smart Audiences for His Complex Films,” in Washington Post, December 14, 1997, p. G10.
[In the following essay, Waxman notes that viewers must work to unravel the plot elements in The Sweet Hereafter.]
Watching Atom Egoyan's new film The Sweet Hereafter can be rather like living through the turbulent events it depicts.
The film tells the story of a school bus accident in a small rural Canadian town and the big-city lawyer—himself a tormented soul—who arrives looking for a lawsuit.
As the film wends its way through the town's heartbreak, it focuses on several families—some hippies who lose an adopted Indian son, a widower who witnesses the crash and loses his twins, a talented teenage girl who survives but is scarred by incest. With no regard to time frame or context, the scenes flow from flashback to present day and back again.
It sounds confusing, but, instead, this approach immerses the viewer in the community's confused anger and grief, denial and, ultimately, a wounded sort of acceptance—which is what Egoyan intended.
“You want things to be loaded, to know that there is more going on than meets the eye,” he said after a recent screening of the film. “The characters themselves are drifting, trying to understand what happened. It was important to find a way of telling the story that implicates the viewer in that process. … You have to place yourself in relation to what you are seeing.”
The director, small and energetic, sips a double espresso as he talks. He wears owlish sunglasses and the European-intellectual look—rumpled-white-shirt-with-dark-jacket—his bouffant hair an incongruous dark halo in the California sunshine.
Placing some of the burden of unraveling the story on the viewer is a tricky business, but Egoyan just shrugs when asked about it. “What I'm trusting is the viewer's desire to explore, their infinite curiosity,” he says. “I can't be afraid to do that, to believe in the viewer's being trusting and exploratory and very—” he thinks—“very curious.” He smiles. “I have high expectations of the viewer.”
The 37-year-old filmmaker must be right somewhere because The Sweet Hereafter won no less than three awards at this year's Cannes Film Festival. For Egoyan, who has steadily worked his way to prominence among independent filmmakers, The Sweet Hereafter represents a departure from the themes of his earlier films but a continuation of his intense examination of morality and human need, and the creaky balancing act of life.
If the director comes off as intense and somewhat complicated, it isn't unexpected given his background. Start, for example, with the fact that he's named after a particle.
Egoyan was born in Cairo to Armenian parents (themselves the children of refugees from Armenia), who named him Atom as a tribute to Egypt's development of nuclear power (make that would-be development of nuclear power). Troubled by the rise of Arab nationalism, his family moved to Victoria, Canada, when Egoyan was 3, where the dark-haired, olive-skinned boy stood out—and not in a way that made him feel comfortable.
To fit in, he rejected his Armenian background, refusing to speak his native tongue (which he eventually relearned as an adult). He excelled in school. Though interested in film and theater in high school, Egoyan enrolled in the University of Toronto to study international relations, with the thought of becoming a diplomat. He soon realized that diplomacy would be boring, and instead focused on artistic endeavors, writing plays and making short films as a student. His first feature film, Next of Kin (1984), is the story of a disaffected WASP named Peter who is adopted by a troubled Armenian family—a kind of Egoyan fantasy in reverse.
His other films, including Family Viewing, The Adjuster and the critically acclaimed Exotica and Calendar, have consistently grappled with the impact of technology and media images on modern life and on the alienation created by a society driven by corporate interests.
Egoyan's work earned the admiration of critics, actors and fellow filmmakers. “I think Atom is a master craftsman, a real genius,” says Ian Holm, the only non-Canadian actor in The Sweet Hereafter. (Egoyan tends to work with the same group of actors in his films.) “I regard the film rather like a [Harold] Pinter play; he doesn't dot the i's and cross the t's, so that there are questions posed in the film: What do you think that meant?”
Canadian film critic Geoff Pevere writes, “For him, the process of … making us question our reason for watching his movies simply re-poses the most essential questions of our cinema. ‘… Who are we anyway? And where is here?’”
Russell Banks, who sold Egoyan the rights to his novel after a project at 20th Century Fox fell through, was initially skeptical about working with the director, having seen his other films. “But then I saw that he shares the same obsessions as me,” says Banks. “How people know each other, what they can and can't know about each other, people's sense of disconnectedness and their need to cross over that and connect.”
Ultimately, Banks says, Egoyan was more faithful to his novel than any Hollywood filmmaker would have been. “The thing that mattered most to me, finally, was that he held on to the moral center of the novel; that's what is most meaningful to a writer and it's what most filmmakers take away,” says Banks. “In Atom's case he was most concerned with those issues, the relationships between parents and children, the role children play in our larger community, how we are robbed of our futures.”
Central to The Sweet Hereafter is the relationship between a teenage girl, Nicole (played by Sarah Polley), who has a promising career as a singer before the accident, and her too-loving father. Their incest is no more than a brief, almost benign scene in the narrative; only at the end of the film can it be perceived for the perversion that it is. Parallel to that relationship is the one between Stephen Mitchell, played with depth by British actor Holm, and his own drug-addicted daughter, a source of constant anger and torment to the lawyer.
These protagonists are intriguingly ambiguous. Nicole ultimately frees herself from the incest through an act that is at once courageous and cowardly: She lies about the accident, implicating the bus driver, who is not at fault. And then there is Mitchell: Is he a hearse-chasing bloodsucker, playing to the vulnerability of the grieving parents? Or does he sincerely believe, as he tells the parents, that it is his role to help them assign blame and win some compensation—and thus closure? It isn't clear.
Again, intentional. Egoyan, whose natural intensity punctuates his rapid-fire theorizing, almost cackles in savoring these shades of gray. “It is the lawyer's job to create a story that he can get other people to believe in,” he says. “Sometimes that story happens to be true, sometimes not. The truth is crucial. But ultimately the story that isn't true may be the better story. So it's not as much about law as it is about who tells a better narrative.”
If Hereafter is a shift from Egoyan's previous films, it may be because the director himself has moved on from the sort of arch intellectualism that marked them. In 1988, he told an interviewer he thought the family was suspect as a “biological structure” because of the “psychological demands that are placed on an individual. … The notion that you surrender yourself to a group purely because they're linked to you biologically is naive, especially if those people have not attempted to make an emotional connection with you,” he said.
Nearly a decade later Egoyan is now married to actress Arsinee Khanjian (who plays a hippie in the film) and they have a 4-year-old son, Arshile. The family unit is the touchstone of The Sweet Hereafter, symbolized by the hauntingly beautiful tableau that is its signature image, a mother and father asleep in bed with their naked infant curled at the mother's breast.
Is this all too remote for the average moviegoer? Sadly, until now, it has been; the director's work has been limited to small runs in art house theaters while garnering near-fanatic praise at film festivals. More's the pity, for Egoyan doesn't intend to make any compromises from his end. Movies, he says, are “a way of addressing experience, of showing us through the trick of the camera that what we are seeing is real.”
He thinks, but only for an instant. Then he says, “Movies should be like that all the time.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859
SOURCE: “The Sweet Hereafter: A Cry of Hope,” in Washington Post, December 25, 1997, p. C01.
[In the following review, Hunter suggests that The Sweet Hereafter's ambiguity and unusual chronology are among its strengths, but notes that these elements may bother some viewers.]
Here's one way to look at it: Man is a meaning-seeking creature.
Pitiful being, he cannot accept the random cruelty of the universe. That is his biggest failing, the source of his unhappiness and possibly of his nobility as well. He paws through disasters with but one question for God: Why? And God never answers.
He certainly doesn't answer in Atom Egoyan's superb The Sweet Hereafter, which watches a mad, vain scrambler seeking to impart his own meaning on someone else's terrifying disaster. As derived from the intense Russell Banks novel, the story follows lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) on his peregrinations through a western Canadian town where a school bus has recently fallen through the ice, drowning 14 children and leaving an enamel of grief as blinding as the snow that blankets the place. This lawyer: greedhead or pilgrim of pain?
This town: victim of horrid coincidence or of God's vengeance?
This story: remembered myth or spontaneous occurrence?
The answer to the questions is: All of the above. And one more thing is certain, and that is uncertainty. The movie is of the mode called postmodernism, which no one understands but everyone recognizes. To borrow from Kurt Vonnegut, its story has come unstuck in time, and though the narrative materials are eventually clarified, we seem to drift for a period between now and then, here and there. Some people can't handle this willed ambiguity and grow restless, if not anxious, in the absence of a clear chronology. But as in The English Patient, the chronological looseness is part of the pleasure of the piece, which magically reassembles in the last reel into something strong, lucid and compellingly powerful.
Basically, its “now” appears to be a plane ride in which Stephens returns, in defeat, from his trip. As he tells the story to his seat-mate, a friend of his daughter, the whole story emerges in bright and tragic vignettes, seen from a dozen perspectives, revealing the heart of the observer.
It turns out that in one sense, it's the most old-fashioned of narrative archetypes, the small-town story. Sam Dent, as the place is named, picturesque in the Canadian Rockies, soon reveals itself to be another in the form revealed by Grace Metalious all those years earlier in Peyton Place, a caldron of promiscuity, alcoholism, even some terrifying sexual child abuse.
In his recollection, as he bobs about the town in support of his lawsuits against the school board, the county that maintains the road and hires the driver, even the bus manufacturer, in search of a villain, any villain, Stephens encounters instead human weakness and culpability in all its forms. A was sleeping with B, C was molesting his daughter, D was cheating on her husband and on and on.
On top of this, Egoyan adds something that Banks never thought of. That's an overlay of myth, as he impresses Robert Browning's “The Pied Piper of Hamelin Town” on the events as if to ask the question, that eternal question: Who took the children? Who was the piper? Why did the portal in the mountain—an actual portal in the ice at the bottom of the mountain in the movie's most shattering scene—why did the portal open up and why did they disappear? As the saying goes: You've got to pay the piper. Why didn't the townspeople pay the piper? But the final ambiguity is the lawyer himself. As it advances, the film makes clear he's not merely in search of wealth (though he may be), but driven by the need to impose meaning. He wants to inflict punishment on them. Them? Oh, you know: Them, they, the unknown agents of all destruction, workers for Lucifer, corporate, municipal or ecclesiastical, as the case may be. For he is also a parent in mourning: He once loved his daughter, Zoe, so much that he went beyond taboo and attempted to save her life with an emergency tracheotomy, taking upon himself the moral weight of cutting into his own daughter's flesh. Zoe is among the lost, not in this accident, but in another, larger accident called society.
Zoe phones him, wheedles for money, pretends to be his old Zoe, but she is clearly of that subset of living dead, the hopelessly addicted, her soul crippled with lust for heroin, her immune system finally overcome. We realize that the lawyer has gone west seeking meaning in the larger society of a town of lost children in hope of finding meaning in his own lost child.
Of course, it's hopeless. One can, after all, never know the reasons and the meanings. But there's something so human in the attempt that the movie, despite the crushing weight of the pain it contains, ultimately feels hopeful. The sweet hereafter of the title is that zone of wisdom where we ultimately come to accept the unacceptable and in some provisional, broken way, go on living.
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SOURCE: A review of The Sweet Hereafter, in Christian Century, Vol. 115, No. 5, February 18, 1998, p. 163.
[In the following review, Wall describes The Sweet Hereafter as emotionally demanding and calls Hereafter one of the best films of 1997.]
Over the past few months I have led discussions of three films that I count among the top pictures released in 1997. Two of the discussions were in religious settings, the other in a secular setting, but I found the same range of responses: some participants picked up on the religious dimensions of the films while others wondered what had happened to just plain fun at the movies.
What happened to fun at the movies may be found in 1997's biggest financial success, Men in Black. Those who want more than fun should find plenty of food for thought in the following ten films. I should point out that the harsh language, violence and sexual content in some of these pictures will sharply limit their audiences.
With this caution, I recommend the following, beginning with the three that were the focus of my presentations: The Apostle, Robert Duvall's film about a Pentecostal preacher; Good Will Hunting, director Gus Van Sant's sensitive depiction of a young mathematical genius; and Canadian director Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, based on Russell Bank's haunting novel about a school bus accident that kills 14 children.
Religious themes are obvious in The Apostle, more subtle in the other two films. Good Will Hunting is about a psychologist, played by Robin Williams, who has to re-examine his own identity as he helps a young man, played by Matt Damon, break through his entombed personality. Their moment of breakthrough is more of a spiritual than a psychological experience.
The most demanding of the films is The Sweet Hereafter. It provokes many “hunches” about the director's intentions, which makes the discussion afterwards especially valuable. What I had thought was a subtle allusion to Abraham was regarded by one viewer as “obvious.” Another member of the group linked an opening scene, in which a lawyer is trapped in a car wash, to the tragic drowning sequence in which the 14 children are killed. These connections are not thrust on the viewer; they just resonate as part of the experience.
One viewer of The Sweet Hereafter came armed with excerpts from Robert Browning's poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” which plays a crucial role in the film (though it's not in the novel). The poem is read by a baby-sitter to children involved in the bus crash. This literary addition is important because the film focuses on precisely the problem of the villagers of Hamelin, who fail to fulfill their promise to pay the piper. This broken promise in Browning's poem—and in the German folk tale that inspired it—leads to the disappearance of the children. In Egoyan's film, the loss of the town's children reminds the community of their own broken promises.
Egoyan is not suggesting a cause-and-effect divine intervention; he is lamenting a failure that encompasses the entire community, a condition that the families must confront in their grief.
British exports seem to be limited to two kinds of films: those that celebrate classic English literary texts from Shakespeare to Austen and those that deplore what Margaret Thatcher's conservative government did to the country's working classes. One of the better examples of the latter category is The Full Monty, a comedy with a strong dose of pathos. The plot involves a group of unemployed miners who decide to put on an all-male strip show. The film examines the devastating effect of economic change on working-class families. The film has some difficulty surmounting the language barrier; the working-class accents call for subtitles.
A comedy overly full of vulgarities and insulting language is As Good As It Gets, featuring Jack Nicholson as a compulsive-obsessive neurotic. It's a film that depicts struggling relationships among individuals who live on the margins. Nicholson is so obnoxious that the only “friend” he has is a waitress, played by Helen Hunt, who tolerates Nicholson's behavior long enough for the two of them to fall into what passes for love.
Another comedy that works better than many may expect is Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen's latest venture into self-exposure. It follows a successful novelist on a journey back to his old school (an homage to Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries). Beneath Allen's sharp wit is evidence of considerable personal pain.
When Wag the Dog was released it seemed that director Barry Levinson's satire about a president who escapes a sex scandal by starting a phony war might be too heavy-handed. Not so now, with President Clinton embroiled in a sex scandal and considering whether to attack Iraq. Wag the Dog deserves attention entirely apart from the real-life parallels, however; its delineation of the influence political spin-doctors have is a needed reminder of the collapse of integrity in public life.
Amistad, Steven Spielberg's well-intentioned effort to give the same attention to slavery that he gave to the Holocaust in Schindler's List, is inaccurate about some of the religious figures involved in the story and somewhat didactic, but it provides vital information about slave conditions. Of special note is an effective sequence in which two African prisoners discuss the biblical story of Jesus which they cannot read but can grasp from pictures of a man who walks around with a small sun around his head and who is unfairly put to death, only to rise again—a fate they believe will now come to them.
The Ice Storm, an adaptation of a novel by Rick Moody, is set in the 1970s, amid suburban couples who think they can find love and happiness in unmitigated sexual freedom, a misguided concept they pass along to their unloved children. Director Ang Lee's use of the ice metaphor effectively conveys the barren landscape of loveless lives.
Rounding out my list is a film from first-time director Kasi Lemmons about a dysfunctional African-American family. Eve's Bayou is told through the eyes of a young girl who adores her wayward father, played by Samuel L. Jackson, a doctor who, in his own words, “pushes aspirin to older folks” and who has a weakness for women who need him to be a hero. A story of repeated betrayals and lies, this film covers some of the terrain featured in The Ice Storm and The Sweet Hereafter. Apparently the loss of “family values” cuts across racial and cultural boundaries.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4155
SOURCE: “The Sweet Here and Now,” in Saturday Night, Vol. 113, No. 3, April, 1998, pp. 67–72.
[In the following essay, Pearson compares the commercial and critical success of The Sweet Hereafter to Egoyan's background as an independent screenwriter and director.]
Atom Egoyan always said he was deeply suspicious of the Oscars. Then he got nominated.
The first time I spied Atom Egoyan, at a Christmas party for Toronto's arts and letters set, the handsome thirty-seven-year-old director was engrossed in conversation with Greg Gatenby, head of the International Festival of Authors. Slightly hunched, with one hand grasping his chin, he seemed unaware that the crowd surrounding them had come alive with whispers and glances. “Is that Atom Egoyan?” someone near me inquired excitedly. “Hey,” someone else hissed, “I think that's Egoyan.” A hiply clad woman with honey hair approached and stuck out her hand: “Atom, I don't know if you remember, I interviewed you in London.”
The buzz about Egoyan was that he had a shot at the Oscars. His seventh independent feature film, The Sweet Hereafter, is a gorgeous and poignant adaptation of the Russell Banks novel about a small community shattered by the loss of their children in a school-bus accident. By December, the movie had hit 200 top-ten lists. Premiere magazine had just pegged him as a “good bet” for a best-director nod. The National Board of Review in New York had already awarded a best ensemble-acting prize to his largely Canadian cast. In Toronto, a city with one of the highest film production and attendance levels in the world, the prospect of a homegrown, Hollywood-anointed film celebrity was heady stuff.
I ran into Egoyan towards the end of the party, in a corridor, peering at framed pictures through his round, dark glasses. It seemed appropriate to find him there, ever curious about his surroundings, but wary of other people's curiosity about him. Part of the problem with the Oscar hype, as he saw it, was that it set him up as someone whose mission was to score for the flag. “I remember when I won three prizes at Cannes,” he pointed out, referring to The Sweet Hereafter's debut on the Riviera last May, “I was thinking, ‘Finally! Respect!’ Then, I was so appalled when I got home—and a lot of the reporting was ‘Oh, it was second place, not quite.’ I thought ‘Come on! Give me a break!’”
He didn't want to take the same tsk-tsk over Oscar. “My distributor wants me to fly down and spend the whole month of January in L.A.,” he added, referring to the increasingly aggressive Academy Award campaigns mounted these days by the studios, “but I can't. I have too much work to do.” Egoyan's voice is elegant, the intonation courteous and cultured, but he sounded a touch plaintive on this point. True, he was working on a new film script, and preparing to direct two operas in the spring, but it's fair to say that most men within reach of an Academy Award would hop on a plane.
Egoyan, however, is an unusual bird. He is extremely ambitious, which is what has brought him to this threshold of acclaim, but he is not one to play by the rules. He refuses to live in L.A.; he rejects Hollywood's cinematic style; he ignores the box office; and he spurns big-budget studio pictures in favour of retaining creative control of small, highly personal films. “He's succeeded by being stubbornly anti-Hollywood,” his friend, the actor Don McKellar, says. “That's the great irony of this.”
Early in the new year, I visited Egoyan at his downtown Toronto office, a narrow Victorian semi with two cluttered rooms on the ground floor and an editing suite upstairs. He graciously offered me the remaining half of his take-out latte—having no coffee pot—and gave me an update on his four-year-old son, Arshile, whose chickenpox had almost capsized his work day.
He was feeling anxious about the Oscar campaign, but he still refused to rearrange his schedule. He had to promote The Sweet Hereafter in Europe; the European critics and festivals have been essential to his success. “Everyone has a fantasy of how their work should be situated,” he explains, caressing the neck of his worn black T-shirt, “and for me that has always been Cannes and the critical response.” So he's struck a compromise. He's agreed to fly to New York to address members of the Directors Guild, and to appear on a talk show. He'll also do a photo shoot for Vanity Fair, having been persuaded by his distributor at Fine Line that all these gestures will buy him prestige, which is the only currency he can trade in to secure his independence.
“As suspicious as I am of the Academy Awards,” he says, “and I'm deeply suspicious, I cannot dismiss what they would mean. We are all colonized by these benchmarks of status.”
Egoyan often proclaims his suspicion of things. At one time or another, he's been suspicious of awards, and of “mainstream acceptance” and of “on-screen emotion,” and of “image-making.” It's as if it's his shtick to play the doubting professor.
He leapt up and glided around his office while we talked, procuring clippings and phone numbers and the last name “of that guy, what's his name?, who writes so brilliantly about Canadian nationalism?”—finally phoning a friend to find out. “Ah, Bruce Powe!” Clearly, one of the keys to his talent is this ability to focus, to instantly carry a notion through into consequence: he thinks, therefore he directs.
Since high school, in fact, he has been directing prodigiously, with a remarkable constancy of vision. His films are filled with bewildered, faintly absurd characters who engage in perverse occupations and pursuits in an effort to connect with one another. Invariably, their connections are filtered through machines: they watch one another on video tape, or gaze longingly through telephoto lenses, or engage in phone sex; scenes take place from the vantage point of apartment-building security monitors; conversations are held on answering machines.
A scene in The Sweet Hereafter is vintage Egoyan: a teenage runaway places a collect call to her father from a pay phone, and he answers on his cell phone, in his car, while trapped in a car wash. The communication between them is that tenuous, their capacity for movement towards one another that impossible, but the yearning so keen you can almost hear it.
Egoyan has built up a huge following in Europe, where film critics and communications theorists fall over each other to praise his critique of technology and modern communication. North American audiences have been more indifferent, preferring, as we do, to hunker down to proven pleasures. His distributor's attempts to promote Egoyan here have verged on the comical, packaging hopelessly cerebral, ambiguous films as if they were thrillers. Egoyan laughed in bafflement when he saw the trailer for his 1994 film Exotica. The trailer opened with a shotgun blast, when the only action in the film is people brooding. “Miramax sent me on a huge tour of the States for Exotica,” he says. But he was too intellectual, “and my interview schedule petered out after the first few appearances.”
Egoyan's office walls are tick-tacked with snapshots: his wife, the actress Arsinee Khanjian, his son, and his friends and collaborators, who include Don McKellar (the writer and star of CBC's “Twitch City”), the director Bruce McDonald (Highway 61 and Hard Core Logo), the director and cinematographer Peter Mettier, and his mentor, David Cronenberg. For years, they have been acting in one another's films, coproducing projects and screening each other's rushes, bound by a sense of humour that is dark, acerbic, and deadpan. “I need to say something mean about Atom” Don McKellar told me in a phone interview, with no hint of joking. “He needs to be punished.” He couldn't think of anything mean, though. Egoyan is universally liked in the film community, considered to be charming and charismatic, but also diplomatic, so that people don't notice him getting his way.
“The reason people can be so proud and happy for Atom,” McKellar says, “is because he's so Atom. There's no point in envying him, because you could never do what he does.”
Atom Egoyan was born in Cairo, the eldest child of two Armenian artists. His father's parents had fled their homeland in the aftermath of Turkish genocide. “My parents thought it would be cool to name their son after what was going to be a predominant source of energy for the future,” he told Interview magazine, “as opposed to calling me television monitor.” In 1962, the Egoyans emigrated to Victoria, B.C., and set up a modern furniture shop. They also continued with their art, some of which is on permanent display in the Armenian National Gallery in Yerevan.
“Atom comes from a family that I always imagined an artist should come from,” his friend, the novelist Doug Cooper, says. “His parents were warm and encouraging, but they were also exacting and tough-minded. They wanted a son who was a perverse filmmaker and a daughter who was an experimental pianist. How many people have parents like that?”
“There were tensions” Egoyan qualifies, of this idyllic artist-childhood, “but those were interesting too.”
While Eve learned the piano, Atom concentrated on classical guitar, which he still plays, and on reading novels and writing plays. One of the defining experiences of his adolescence was his friendship with a girl who was having an incestuous affair with her father. “I remember an absolute confusion on my part as to what was happening,” he recalls. “I never talked to her about it, and no-one else did either.” Yet, he maintains, everybody knew. In The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan was finally able to get at this memory, casting Canada's sweet Sarah Polley as the consenting lover to her own father. “We go to great lengths to avoid and to obfuscate things that are unbearably obvious,” he says. “The need for clarity, but also for mystery, is the defining question in my drama.”
At eighteen, he flew east to the University of Toronto and quickly began directing his own plays at the Trinity College Dramatic Society. ‘Atom had a much older sensibility than any of us,” Cooper recalls. “It was really rare to meet someone straight out of high school who was already serious about Pinter and Beckett.”
His plays were not the sentimental favourites of the college-theatre season. “I was trying to prove that I had something to express, but at the same time I never wanted to bend to what was popular,” ‘Egoyan explains, echoing a persistent theme in his subsequent career. Cooper's more emotionally engaging play won over the campus audience, and Egoyan remembers “feeling completely marginalized. He got a standing ovation, and I thought: ‘I will never enjoy that,’ and resigned myself.”
If Egoyan was convinced that he wouldn't become popular, he nevertheless remained driven to prove that his take on the world was worth attention. “Atom is very, very wilful,” says Cooper. He began to make short films, submitting each effort to festivals—only to feel “devastated and excluded” when they weren't accepted.
Then, with ＄37,000 in grants from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council, Egoyan produced his first feature. Next of Kin is about two families in therapy, one WASP, the other Armenian, whose paths cross when the Anglo son sees the videotaped therapy session of the Armenian family, realizes that they are torn up about a long-lost child, and decides to pose as their grown-up son. Next of Kin made it into the Perspectives Canada programme at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, a triumph for Egoyan. From there, it went to the Mannheim film festival in Germany and picked up a prize. Egoyan was also nominated for best director at that years Genies. He was not yet twenty-five.
The erudite young director was quickly adopted by Canada's culture elite as what he calls “multiculturalism's prize pony.” Robert Fulford crowed over Egoyan in Saturday Night, applauding his “essay on ethnicity in Canada.” Peter Harcourt, in Film Quarterly, described the filmmaker's themes as expressing “the classic Canadian dilemma as formulated by Northrop Frye. … Egoyan devises films that register the personal uncertainties of people who are striving to find a place of rest within a culture not their own.”
Egoyan instantly disliked this characterization. “I'm about as assimilated as you can get,” he protests. “The idea that I straddle communities is a bit ridiculous” Well, not really. He pointedly reached into Canada's Armenian acting community to cast Next of Kin, which is where he found his wife, Arsinee Khanjian, whom he spotted starring in an Armenian-language version of The Mousetrap in Montreal. He also shot his 1993 film Calendar in Armenia. “I did sublimate my first culture, so the process of retrieval is important to me,” he concedes.
What offends him, perhaps, is the attribution of a politics to his work, and in particular an identity politics. “If you're feeling confused about who you are, saying it's because you're from somewhere else becomes very convenient,” he says.
If arts mandarins at the Canada Council, Telefilm, and the Ontario Film Development Corporation backed Egoyan because he was addressing politically correct themes, others backed him because he had star quality. “It was really the uniqueness of Atom's vision that attracted me,” says the producer Camelia Frieberg, who joined him for Next of Kin and has seen Egoyan through to the Oscars. “I just felt he was somebody who was really going to go places.”
In 1987, his second grant-funded feature, Family Viewing, won an honourable mention at the Festival of New Cinema in Montreal, which placed him on the stage with the legendary German director Wim Wenders, who was accepting an award for Wings of Desire. Out of the blue, Wenders handed his cash prize to Egoyan, which instantly won him international attention. “The great myth was that he loved my film so much that he wanted the world to embrace me,” Egoyan says, “but actually he hadn't seen the film. What he really wanted to embrace was the notion that a young filmmaker needed money more than he did.
“I couldn't admit that to people for years,” he says, laughing. “If you'd asked me, this a few years ago, I would have said ‘Yes, he loved the movie.’ I wanted to believe that. Eventually I did a performance piece at the Rivoli (a restaurant in Toronto) in which I apologized to the public for this great lie, and explained how I finally had to separate myself from Wenders's approval.”
In 1993, Egoyan passed the torch by impulsively offering John Pozer, director of The Grocer's Wife, his own ＄20,000 festival prize. “It was,” he reflects, “one of the stupidest things I've ever done in my life. I really needed the money.”
Over the next several years, buoyed by growing fame on the festival circuit, Egoyan continued to toil away at what Entertainment Weekly described as his “kinky, avant-gardish doodles,” writing his scripts around things that popped up in his life. The Adjuster was prompted by a devastating fire that destroyed his parents' house in 1989 and got him thinking about how strange it would be to suddenly be completely emotionally dependent upon an insurance guy; Calendar involved him and Arsinee improvising as they toured around Armenia, with Egoyan playing himself—“well, my worst nightmare of myself”—filming his girlfriend as she fell in love with their tour guide. Exotica was plotted on his being audited. When Arsinee got pregnant, he wrote that into the film, too.
Among his detractors, Egoyan was famous for eliciting stiff, almost monotonous performances from his actors, which impressed the intellectual film set—“the actor asks the viewer to question what it is about the character he's supposed to identify with,” one enthused—and kept viewers away in droves.
Arsinee Khanjian publicly chastised her husband for his suspicion of on-screen emotion. “He doesn't feel that we are entitled, it seems, to our emotional explosions,” she told Doug Cooper in 1994, for an interview on the Sundance Film Festival website. “There is no embarrassment in making public your emotions. You don't always have to hide behind smarts, or wit, or darkness, in order to validate the honest nature of emotions per se.”
“There's a certain kind of acting that you do for Atom that follows from the linguistic style of his script,” says Don McKellar, who was in Exotica and The Adjuster. “It asks you to approach your part as subtext-laden. I've never seen him say to an actor: ‘more stilted.’”
David Cronenberg passionately defends Egoyan's style. “We both have a horror of the cheap emotional affect of Hollywood movies,” Cronenberg says. Both directors deliberately disorient their viewers' emotional expectations by experimenting with structure, acting style, and multiple viewpoints (the character being watched on video by another character who's being watched by you).” It's almost impossible to imagine a film that doesn't do what Hollywood does,” Cronenberg argues, “which is to take some very unsubtle point and hammer it in twelve times. If you grow up exposed to the classics, and to great literature, then subtlety and ambiguity should be a part of your expectation for storytelling. That that is no longer the case is a serious, serious problem.”
He has a point. We don't hold cinema to the same standards as other art forms. We want movies that lift our spirits or let us weep, and if they make us think, we want to think along pre-drawn lines. “People get mad when the release they're expecting from a movie isn't there,” says Cronenberg, “and I'm saying, emotional release is a possibility, but it's not a necessity of cinema. We accept that when we look at a painting or read a book. Why nor in movies? If your private life is so atrophied that you have to go to a movie to find some cathartic emotional experience, then I'd say you're in trouble.”
Odd, that the two directors who most consistently reject this Hollywood template live and work within miles of each other. “It's a mystery,” says Cronenberg, “and it's suspicious, because we're both Torontonians, both Canadian, and we both come from family backgrounds that are solidly middle-class, very strong, and artistic.”
Perhaps their backgrounds make them feel, simultaneously, brave enough and entitled enough to reject the American view of itself as the centre of the universe. “Beneath official Canadian culture,” Douglas Cooper argues, “there's always been an extremely coherent subversive streak. I would call it a kind of Northern grotesque. It's a point of view that's very clear-eyed, and nasty. As an educated culture on the margins of empire, we really have something to contribute, because we can gaze at the brutality of empire with a cold eye.”
In the case of film, Cooper is referring to the brutality of image-making, to the relentless assault of Walt Disney emotion. John Knechtel, who edits Toronto's Alphabet City, argues that Egoyan's films comment on the way our whole world has been altered by “the cinematic paradigm. The structure of perception and the structure of relationships are being retold through Hollywood. People perceive each other with cinematic passion.”
Surely, one of the reasons that The Sweet Hereafter lit up so many critics is that Egoyan played so brilliantly on their cinematic expectations of a tragedy. They expected to sob along with the movie's small-town parents over the loss of little children. They expected to see the bus crash the way they saw James Cameron's Titanic sink, in awe-inspiring, heart-in-throat detail. But Egoyan offers no such thing. On the contrary, he makes you realize over the course of the film that that is what you're expecting, and that's your problem, not his: you are the hopeless voyeur.
Unlike Egoyan's earlier films, The Sweet Hereafter does not simply make that one point. ‘In Russell Banks's deeply stirring novel, Egoyan found a rich tale to tell about sorrow and hope and redemption. For the first time, he was able to bring characters to the screen who were fully formed and, dare I say it, readily identifiable to viewers. “Working with someone else's material gave him the courage to open up emotionally,” McKellar says.
By the time he had it ready for Cannes, Egoyan knew he'd made his best film. But he was still unprepared for the breadth of the acclaim. Virtually every critic in Europe and North America hailed The Sweet Hereafter as brilliant. “I think it's safe to say,” Don McKellar ventures, “that none of us expected this. We just thought it was another Atom Egoyan film.”
On February 12, Egoyan was sound asleep in a New York hotel room, having partied at the Tavern-on-the-Green into the wee hours after the National Board of Review awards dinner. The news broke in a cascade of wake-up calls: he'd been nominated for Oscars as best director, and best writer of an adapted screenplay. He instantly threw his cool Oscar scepticism out the window. “I'm really, really excited about this,” he told me a few days later. “I've been watching the Oscars since I was a kid.” When I brought up his earlier ambivalence, he said: “Maybe my reticence was a way of protecting myself.”
Egoyan is going to continue to need to protect himself, because triumph brings invitations. At the moment, he's working on a script for Mel Gibson's Icon Productions, an adaptation of the spooky William Trevor novel, Felicia's Journey. He has already travelled to Ireland to meet Trevor, trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade the author to allow him to transplant the story to Canada. The executives at Icon, he says, were fascinated that a director would actually want to meet a writer.
Now he is trying to persuade Icon to allow him final cut, which he has always taken for granted in Canada. “The big thing now in Hollywood is screenings,” he explains. “Short of final cut the producers will give you three screenings, in which the public grades the film. So, nowadays, negotiations with directors are like: ‘Okay, we'll let you have a seven, or even a six, but if it gets below a six we get to make changes.’ I don't think my films would survive the screening process.”
American directors are already used to the process of self-censorship. From the outset, no matter how outre or cutting edge, they must formulate their films with an eye to the sale. “You can go into a meeting with any executive in Hollywood,” Egoyan says, “and they are not dumb, bottom-line people. They've all read the same books you've read, they are able to talk about those works in a way that's familiar to you, and yet their survival instinct is different.” Money doesn't just talk to these guys. It screams.
Cronenberg agrees. “Contrary, to popular belief,” he says, “the people in Hollywood are extremely smart and articulate. What's fascinating is watching the arcane and arabesque systems of rationalization they devise for why they can be so smart and produce such dreck.”
A couple of years ago, Egoyan almost got seduced into producing dreck when Warner Bros. signed him to direct a “mediocre thriller.” At the eleventh hour, he backed out. “It was so empowering to be able to walk away from that,” he says. “To have made The Sweet Hereafter instead, outside that system, and brought it in through the back door, is so satisfying.”
Icon's picture will not be a back-door enterprise. Egoyan has been getting an earful of cautionary words from his friends. “Atom's wanting to seize the momentum he has built with Sweet Hereafter could prevent him from writing another original screenplay,” Cronenberg warns, “because it's time-consuming, he'd have to disappear for a year, and he can no longer afford to do that. But your sensibility is not as all-encompassing when you adapt someone else's material. It's one step removed from your own nervous system.”
“Atom's on a slippery slope,” his longtime producer, Camella Frieberg, says. “And he knows it.”
Egoyan is adamant that he can retain his footing. He has no intention of surrendering final cut to Icon, and even less of moving to L.A. “One can be really daunted by the extraordinary persuasion and brilliance of an informed American response,” he reflects. “They do it with such an alarming degree of excitement and hype. The only way you can defend yourself is to believe that there should be something more solid and rooted in your own culture to support your sense of self. Why can't we, as Canadians, say that we've earned the right to live here, because we have a responsibility to our own culture?”
In March, Egoyan and Khanjian bought a new house in Toronto, trusting, in part, in a huge increase in his director's fee as a result of U.S. studio backing. On March 3, Egoyan announced to the press that Icon had capitulated, and granted him final cut.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2716
SOURCE: “The Politics of Denial: An Interview with Atom Egoyan,” in Cineaste, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1999, p. 39.
[In the following interview, Egoyan describes his development of the Hilditch character in Felicia's Journey, his relationship with author William Trevor, and the influence of Alfred Hitchcock.]
Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997) was the Canadian director's breakthrough film. While Egoyan had enjoyed a cult following during the 1980s, The Sweet Hereafter appeared on more than 200 ‘Ten Best’ Lists in 1998 and won him a much larger audience. The initial reception for his latest film, Felicia's Journey, while respectful, has been considerably less rapturous. This critical ambivalence can probably be attributed to assumptions that Egoyan's talent is not suited to the well-worn thriller genre and a feeling that the new film is less innovative and ambitious than The Sweet Hereafter. Cineaste interviewed Egoyan shortly before his new film's American premiere at the 1999 New York Film Festival. He clarifies his decision to adapt William Trevor's novel with his usual lucidity and states his reasons for making a film about a serial killer with an honesty that functions as an implicit reply to his critics.
[Porton:] Do you think that Felicia's Journey benefits from your status as a foreigner examining Irish and English culture? One thinks of other films about Britain made by outsiders such as Antonioni's Blowup and Skolimowski's Deep End.
[Egoyan:] When you do something from outside, you question your right to take a story and tell it. I did far more research than I really needed to do, since I saw Felicia as the embodiment of every Irish martyr in romance and literature. I went through a number of Irish writers, but inevitably you are looking at it from the outside. There's a distance and that accommodates my style very well, since there's a self-consciousness and a tentativeness to my approach.
I had to deal with my fantasy of both Ireland and the Midlands and then with the reality of what was actually there. With Ireland, there was the shock of realizing that what was in the book is very hard to find now. Ireland is very prosperous and a lot of the towns are all tarted up for the tourist industry. You'd be hard-pressed to find a place which we see in the movie; it's an Ireland from the late Eighties-early Nineties.
The bigger issue was with the Midlands, which we all have engraved in our minds from Blake as the home of “dark, satanic mills.” We expect to see faces blackened with soot and chimneys churning out sulphur. It's not like that at all. In fact, I went into a tailspin when we were scouting locations and I realized that there was nothing to distinguish the industrial parks from any in North America. But then you begin to think of how to convey Felicia's initial perception of the industrial park. For example, when Hilditch leaves the car park for the first time, there is a very slow pan around and we see her figure emerge. It's the anonymousness of it that makes it so creepy and the fact that you've decided to train a camera on something which doesn't seem to have any distinguishing features. Then you begin to look at architecture which does look strange from a North American perspective, such as the gasometers, metal Victorian structures which we never had here. And the water cooling towers, which look to us like nuclear silos, appear twice in the film. It becomes heightened and monstrous for us, since we would never have nuclear silos near a major highway!
Some of the early commentary on Felicia's Journey compares it to Hitchcock, but your style seems considerably more meditative and less manipulative.
I see the film as being anti-Hitchcockian, because Hitchcock is all about making the viewer privy to something that the characters aren't aware of. For example, in Sabotage we know that a bomb is going to go off and the characters don't. By contrast, my whole filmmaking approach is about trying to enter into the characters' experience about how they would see themselves. The suspense is more about the dislocation between how they see themselves and how they really are, as opposed to traditional Hitchcockian suspense. The only moment that's kind of a homage to Hitchcock (and I'd also say that, from that point on, the film is sort of Hitchcockian) is when Hilditch comes up the stairs and the viewer knows that he wants to kill Felicia. But I'd say that most of it is an attempt to deconstruct Hitchcock.
Hitchcock has had a huge influence on me, so I can't be totally cavalier. Certainly, when it comes to camera movement, composition, and the role of psychology in the movie, there are similarities. But it's kind of misleading for people to go in expecting a kind of Hitchcockian film.
In a way, this film is more of an essay on the rudiments of the thriller genre than an example of it.
Directors like Hitchcock seem to know what an audience expects. I can have a fantasy audience in mind, which is infinitely curious and exploratory, and wants nothing more than to be mystified and is very trustful of my intelligence. My audience is not the one that Hitchcock imagined. I assume that the audience might want to be self-conscious and I don't have any fantasies about engendering a collective response. It's antithetical to the way I work, but I imagine that Hitchcock probably found nothing more pleasurable than the monolithic nature of manipulating a large group of people in a dark room. My fantasy is based on quite a subjective journey through my projected imagery.
Perhaps there's a double edge to the film's style, since it seems that you're trying to create both a creepy ambiance and poeticize the landscape as well.
Take the conversation that the father has about Irish history within the ruins of a castle. There are two things working here. First, there's the decision that the father makes to take Felicia to that place to tell her that story. He reinforces the impact of that story by putting her in the ruins of a castle that was destroyed by Cromwell and saying that this is the nature of the English monster. Then, there is a point when she's having the abortion and has this dream where the image comes back to her. The castle, which is an edifice used for defending an idea, can be used as a prop for a father telling a story. That's not a conscious decision he made, he just thought it was the right place to take her to tell that story. But there's a latent history there that is being sourced. I find that those sort of things are really fascinating, like the moment when Hilditch takes that little mannequin and says, “Can I keep this?” He's someone who's in complete denial of consciousness, and as soon as he sees this little totem which might represent himself, he uses it to objectify himself. This becomes doubly significant when it comes back later: a shot of him waking up in the morning with this totem is intercut with shots of the castle.
The poignancy of Felicia's plight is that she's no more at home in Ireland than she is in England.
What I ultimately found so powerful about her passage is that she comes from a place where oral tradition is very important, where stories are told, where a great-grandmother speaks in an ancient tongue, letters are hand delivered and everything is done by direct contact and transmission. She then enters into this universe where she's lost, but through contact with evil and ultimately through the recitation that Hilditch gives of the names of the women that he's taken away, she uses this oral tradition to reconstruct her own dilemma. That history actually reflects her own experience and she almost has a sacred duty now to commemorate those names. That is very much based on her tradition. Irish culture is all about remembering the names, but the names that her father has given her don't have meaning for her anymore, whereas the names that she's just heard from the mouth of this killer do.
She therefore gains access to personal history rather than political history.
Exactly, which is also political history in a different way. Notions of history and retrieval are important in the film. I don't think that Hilditch has any conscious memories, except when he meets her because she's going to be a mother. He finds this disturbing, so when he steals that money from her he goes back, for the first time probably, to an actual organic memory of an original sin when he first stole money. That wallet finds its way back to the end of the film when he's digging her grave. The combination of finding this wallet and the meaning that it has, combined with having to deal with these two female evangelists staring at him, shakes him. It's not what they're saying, but the fact that they're looking at him. He has to return the gaze.
This story seems simple, but the issues are multilayered. After the structural ambitions of The Sweet Hereafter, which attempts a portrait of an entire community, I was looking for something more intimate.
Did the idea of adding the video extracts of Hilditch's victims, as well as the excerpts from his mother's cooking program, come to you early on while writing the script?
Yes. In the book, he makes reference to his victims as being part of a picture gallery. Trevor envisioned it photographically, but video seemed a natural extension of that. The way it links with the cooking-show videos is related to the fact that he comes to associate the archival evidence as providing access to a control of intimacy. He's been taught to believe that this sort of control is empowering.
Do these videotapes explain his trauma in an almost psychoanalytic fashion or does his psyche remain opaque?
I hope it's opaque—in the book it's a bit too literal. That was one of the big problems that I had with the book. The book is beautifully written, but it's actually quite reductive in terms of why Hilditch is who he is. I don't agree with Trevor's psychoanalysis.
Serial killing in our culture has become a job. Films have treated serial killers like lawyers or doctors. It's become so commonplace in our cinema that a shorthand has emerged, and part of that shorthand includes an ignorance of why some of us are genetically encoded to do these kind of things. Studies have demonstrated that if children do very sadistic things, like pulling the wings off flies, that's an indicator. But, as a child, I did certain sadistic things, like burning bugs with a magnifying glass, and I didn't become a serial killer. There are certainly upbringings that can enhance these qualities and others that can hold them in check. I'm cautious about easy explanations and this film isn't about that. All we need to know is that there's a relationship that he has with his own personal history, which is about denial. That's what interests me—the psychology and politics of denial and how that affects both of these characters. She, in a very identifiable and common way, is in the throes of first love and is unable to see how things are. She is incapable of sensing that Johnny has no feelings towards her and that he's a cad. Her denial is very clear, but his is much more submerged and we don't need to reveal it specifically. Trevor felt that he did and I find it a fault in the book.
Perhaps Trevor is stuck in a literary tradition where he has to tie up the loose ends. On the other hand, earlier in the book, the reader experiences a kind of vertigo as he attempts to figure out what's actually happening.
That's my favorite part of the book, when you don't actually know what's happening. It's kind of perverse that this was what attracted me to the book. It's sort of like the Russell Banks book where what attracted me was the demolition derby which I didn't even end up filming. In Felicia's Journey, I was intrigued with the thirty pages where she escapes and he gradually gains consciousness of the fact that she's left—and once he becomes conscious of that fact he kills himself.
Appropriately enough, Hilditch's house is both enormous and seemingly claustrophobic.
The first dolly through the house is taken from the height of a young boy wandering through the house and finally encountering himself in the kitchen. It's the same path he takes at the end as he decides to commit suicide. When you document a house that a person has travelled through many times, there are certain trajectories that are loaded.
It was a great privilege for me to create a set. I had never been able to afford one before. The nature of the films I had done before meant that I had to build rooms in warehouses and wait for trains to stop. You just don't have the control that you do when you're using a huge studio like Shepperton and I took full advantage of that. For instance, when you make a set like that and want to populate it in England, there are prop houses where they've kept everything from every film that's ever been made. I don't know if it's done here. In Canada, we don't have that depth. For instance, I needed a mixer from the 1950s and had five choices of models that had been stored; that seemed really remarkable. When you're making a period film, it's a real treat to be making it in a culture that enshrines the notion of collection.
It's quite surprising that the British press and public don't take Bob Hoskins seriously as an actor these days.
He's overexposed in England. He did a whole series of ads for British Telecom and there are a number of films that he makes for that market that we don't see. A lot of people winced when I mentioned that I was planning to use him in the film. It's not like here where he's regarded as a fine actor. He sort of reinvents himself in this film, since we're used to seeing him in very expansive roles. This is very far away from his performance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Did you have as close a relationship with William Trevor on this film as you did with Russell Banks on The Sweet Hereafter?
It was close. I sent him drafts and we met a number of times. The main difference is that Russell loves movies and movie culture. Russell is coming to the opening tomorrow night, but William never would. He's just not into the film scene. Russell was visible and on the set and wanted to be a part of it. William enjoyed reading the drafts, but he is from a different generation and is less interested in the hype and tensions of contemporary film production.
Although the Hoskins character is the most psychotic of any of your protagonists, you've remarked that, unlike some of your other anti-heroes, he emerges successfully from a pattern of repetition compulsion.
What I wanted to say is that, unlike some of the male characters, he achieves a kind of ironic breakthrough. Certainly, some of the female characters, like Nicole in The Sweet Hereafter, do emerge from their quandaries. Most of the male characters are suspended, and he actually makes a decision to change his life by sentencing himself to death. What I find striking is the that the police will come and find this man hanging in the kitchen and these bodies in the garden. It will be publicized and people will go, “Oh, he got away with it.” But, when someone decides to kill himself, he's not getting away with it. By the end of this film, we understand that action even if we don't condone it. That's what makes the film so provocative. I love when people come up to me at the end of the film and ask, “Is it OK to feel sorry for him?”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1152
SOURCE: A review of Felicia's Journey, in Cineaste, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1999, p. 42.
[In the following review, Porton offers a positive assessment of Felicia's Journey, noting Egoyan's skill in creating relationships between characters.]
Neither a straightforward genre film nor a simple portrait of mental aberration, Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey brilliantly subverts the conventions of the standard Hollywood thriller as well as the cliches of the by-now hackneyed serial killer subgenre. While Egoyan's adaptation of William Trevor's novel possesses superficial affinities to the work of Hitchcock and Chabrol, the Canadian director's more meditative style prevents us—as audience members—from being pawns of an autocratic auteur. The emphasis in this film is less on individual psychosis than on the web of relationships (both social and implicitly political) that engender it.
Felicia's Journey promotes a distinctively contemplative form of suspense by recounting the commingled destinies of two mismatched protagonists: Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), an astonishingly naive teenager who yearns for a reconciliation with her unfaithful boyfriend, and Joseph Ambrose Hilditch (Bob Hoskins), a deceptively mild-mannered catering manager from the Birmingham suburbs with a penchant for befriending young women. When the newly pregnant Felicia, in flight from an almost premodern Irish adolescence, travels from her sheltered home to the Midlands' antiseptic industrial landscape (virtually a character in its own right), she has a fateful and near-fatal encounter with Hilditch. And, perhaps most tellingly, both characters are, to varying degrees, suspended in time. Felicia comes from an almost ludicrously verdant Irish village (in sharp contrast to contemporary Ireland's vibrant modernity) where her father treats the Easter 1916 rebellion as an event that might have happened yesterday and her great-grandmother invokes Eamon de Valera's memory in Gaelic. Hilditch, on the other hand, lives in a stodgy, commodious house where he recreates the supposedly more innocent 1950s with mementos from his childhood and syrupy recordings of obscure crooners.
Just as Trevor's novel marked the ‘Chekhovian’ humanist's newfound interest in the morbid terrain best personified by Patricia Highsmith's novels, Egoyan's film flirts with genre conventions that are, in the final analysis, skillfully deflected. Unlike charismatic killers such as Robert Walker's Bruno in Strangers on a Train or diabolically clever madmen like The Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter, Hilditch is an almost laughably banal psychotic. A man with exquisite manners who reveres the memory of his mother, a comically flamboyant TV chef, he fails to conform to the standard movie profile of a homicidal maniac. Despite recourse to violence that appears antithetical to this dullard's placid demeanor (the film itself is resolutely unviolent), his delusional reveries are not much different from the convoluted fantasies of garden variety neurotics in previous Egoyan psychodramas. The perverse alchemy that leads Hilditch to murder the objects of his affection, however, is (quite wisely) never clearly in focus. We only know that this pudgy, incurably lonely man, depicted (in vignettes that are equally farcical and macabre) cooking elaborate dinners for himself that could easily feed a dinner party for fifteen people or more, fancies himself a father figure to young women in need. In a key scene, Hilditch derides a salesman's pitch for an automated catering system, insisting that “food must be served by caring hands.” Aptly enough, Hilditch—affable culinary expert—is close to being an automaton himself. Trevor's empathetic but ultimately unsparing portrait of this pathetically frustrated nurturer occasionally resembled a case study that verged on vulgar Freudianism. Egoyan's more detached portrayal of a colorless middle-class Everyman is, paradoxically, more frightening. Hilditch's fondness for kitsch pop music, especially the ultra-derivative ditty, “You Are My Special Angel,” drives home the point that sentimentality can often conceal lethal delusions.
The film's boldest departure from its source material involves video interludes chronicling both Hilditch's eclectic gallery of female victims and his mother's zany cooking program. Egoyan once remarked that many of his protagonists were stymied by their “lack of self-awareness.” Unable to emerge from a debilitating narcissism, these terminally alienated characters attempt to gain access to an identity that proves elusive by immersing themselves in hyperreal, although ultimately spectral, video images. Even though the source of Hilditch's madness cannot be fully explained, his mistaken belief that this repertoire of images, ritualistically played again and again in his womb-like home, provides genuine solace unquestionably promotes his dissociation from reality. His video ‘memory lane’ only reinforces his mental deterioration: an eclectic assortment of young women (multiracial; innocent runaways as well as prostitutes—he is an equal opportunity killer) appear to him as an undifferentiated mass of wayward girls who have abandoned him. Similarly, his mother Gala's vaudevillian turns as a loopier version of Julia Child (played with brio and a wink to the audience by Arsinee Khanjian) hint at a deep-seated trauma that is never completely revealed. Undoubtedly a mamma's boy, Hilditch's is, nevertheless, far from a Norman Bates clone.
Egoyan's characteristically audacious editing and use of camera movement are also key components of his ‘defamiliarization’ of the suspense genre. For example, as Hilditch's anxiety reaches its apogee, a few well-chosen images economically pinpoint his festering masochism—a television set displaying a campy moment from Rita Hayworth's performance as Salome is immediately juxtaposed with his memory of Strauss's “Salome,” which frightened him as a child. Traveling shots of water towers (adjacent to—but not glimpsed by—Felicia and Hilditch as they travel by car to pay a visit to the murderer's imaginary wife) are much more reminiscent of sequences from Antonioni's Red Desert than the shooting style embraced by most thriller directors. These unpeopled glimpses of ordinary industrial appurtenances, both ominous and lyrical, complement the central narrative's oscillation between sinister and poetic moments.
Although Hilditch's growing delirium at times threatens to subsume Felicia's own saga, her painful transition from innocence to hard-won experience constitutes a mini-Bildungsroman. In perhaps the film's cruelest scene, Hilditch accompanies Felicia to a pub where the object of her English quest—caddish boyfriend Johnny—strenuously ignores her. The fact that she is able to survive brutal rejection, as well as the more tangible threat to her life posed by Hilditch, imbues grisly material with cautious optimism. Like Nicole in The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia achieves a kind of secular redemption (totally unlike the hokey version of fundamentalist redemption touted by the film's Jamaican evangelist, Miss Calligary) because, against all odds, she is able to leave girlhood behind and become a free woman.
Felicia's self-liberation is far from treacly, but Egoyan is an ironist who eschews the smarminess of what currently passes for social satire in films. Avoiding the cartoonish characters who have become staples in recent facile attempts to unmask suburbia or the nuclear family, he evinces empathy for even his most repellent protagonists. In Felicia's Journey, he is greatly aided by the contributions of a gifted cast, particularly the brilliant Bob Hoskins. Known primarily for blustery, exuberant performances, he gives an astonishingly nuanced portrayal of Hilditch—even his tiniest gesture conveys this gentle monster's inner chaos.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2887
SOURCE: “Atom's Journey: Canada's Celebrated Director Reveals the Rite of Passage behind His Cinematic Obsessions,” in Maclean's, September 13, 1999, p. 54.
[In the following essay, Johnson considers the unique voice in Egoyan's films and explores the sources of his recurring cinematic themes.]
Lunch with Atom Egoyan. He arrives late, on the run in a day of interviews. This is Toronto, his home town, but he might as well be on tour. His personal publicist hovers close by; a driver waits at the curb outside the restaurant. Affable and full of energy, Egoyan takes a seat in the corner booth, a dark wood enclosure with a thick curtain that can be drawn for privacy. Should it be open or closed? “Closed,” Egoyan suggests. The curtain is drawn and suddenly the booth feels strangely private, like a sleeper compartment on a train. It is the kind of place where secrets could be revealed, with the awkward intimacy that you would expect to find … in an Atom Egoyan film. The only question is, how to catch the waiter's eye?
It is the sort of dilemma Egoyan can appreciate. He has built a career out of creating coolly hermetic worlds on film, dramas that are ripe with understated menace and employ none of the usual tricks to catch the eye of the audience. His latest movie, Felicia's Journey—which opens the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 9 to 18) this week—tells the eerie story of a gentle serial killer (Bob Hoskins) closing in on an Irish girl (Elaine Cassidy) adrift in the industrial barrens of England. There is not a single scene of violence, but there is an overwhelming sense of violation.
Egoyan's films are all about violations of innocence and trust. And, as he eventually reveals over lunch, the theme is rooted in a trauma from his own teenage years that he has been reluctant to discuss until now. “It was a really primal adolescent experience,” he says. “The way in which people can camouflage things is absolutely vital to my experience of growing up.”
Born in Cairo of Armenian parents, Egoyan immigrated to Victoria with his family at the age of 3. Now 39, he is the most accomplished Canadian director of his generation. With eight features to his credit, he has received two Oscar nominations, five Genies, four prizes from Cannes, five honorary degrees and a French knighthood. He lives in Toronto with his Armenian wife, Beirut-born Arsinee Khanjian, and their five-year-old son, Arshile. Khanjian, who has appeared in all his films, is now a rising star in her own right. And their creative marriage has become the quintessential Canadian immigrant success story, an artful romance of two outsiders working their way from the margins to the heart of the cultural elite.
The name Atom Egoyan, meanwhile, has become synonymous with the peculiar identity of Canadian cinema, which has acquired a reputation for introversion and sexual pathology. But despite his reputation for chilly abstraction, there is a deeply personal sense of compassion that runs through all of Egoyan's films, a fixation on the secrets and lies buried at the core of the nuclear family. From Family Viewing (1987) to The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Egoyan returns again and again to tales of bereft parents and lost children, stories in which sexuality keeps striking uncomfortably close to home.
Anyone looking at Egoyan's recent movies cannot help but notice a disturbing pattern. In 1994's Exotica, a father mourns the violent death of his daughter by ritually doting on a young stripper costumed as a schoolgirl. In The Sweet Hereafter, a father carries on an incestuous affair with his adolescent daughter. And now in Felicia's Journey, a pregnant teenager slides into the clutches of a paternal predator. Three movies. Three stories of father figures obsessed with teenage girls. It is one thing for a director to keep coming back to the same themes—Catholic redemption for Martin Scorsese, technological mutation for David Cronenberg—but the pattern in Egoyan's work is so specific, so personal and ultimately so creepy, it raises the question: What is at the bottom of it?
The obsession goes back to an experience Egoyan had as a teenager growing up in Victoria, which he has finally agreed to talk about. “There was a young woman,” he says, “whom I adored from a very young age, and who was inaccessible to me for the longest time. Later on, it was revealed that there was an abusive relationship with her father. All the clues were there. But it wasn't a society at that point that could read them or respond to them, and I felt kind of helpless about it. So rather than address it, I went into denial over it, like everybody else.”
The father's behaviour left Egoyan with a distressing lesson in life and art. “I suppose the thing that confused it more than anything,” he says, “is that he himself was an artist, and it was so obvious what was going on, from the work he was doing and presenting publicly and the way he was behaving. But no one could actually talk about it. There was this incredible shroud of secrecy. And I was completely, madly in love with her. From about 13 to 18. And it wasn't until the last year when it became more. …” Egoyan pauses. “I feel weird about it, because it's her story,” he says. “The pain that she went through was a lot more than mine. I was an observer.”
Egoyan never talked to the father about the incest, but ended up in awkward negotiations with him about the terms of his own romantic intentions. “When the father realized I was serious about her,” he says, “I had to make promises to him which I ultimately couldn't keep—in terms of keeping my relationship with his daughter platonic. It was a very strange time, because I was living a double life.” Complicating things even further is the fact that, for the girl, the incest had an element of romantic delusion. “And that's what The Sweet Hereafter explored,” explains Egoyan. “What is the experience of incest on the victim when it's not the obvious exercise of violent power, but this blurring of love?”
Egoyan says that he himself had an “ideal upbringing.” His parents, Joseph and Shushan, who met at art school in Egypt, are both painters. His mother, now 65, recently mounted her first solo exhibition in Victoria. And when Atom was 10, he remembers going to the provincial museum for a show of his father's work called Birds—“which was a very attractive title to the population of Victoria, until they realized these were canvases of dead birds. My father would suspend dead birds around the house. It was a little bit gothic.”
His parents, who supported their art by running a small furniture store, “gave me great work models as to what an artist does,” adds Egoyan, who worked in the store from a young age. “I became very aware of the mechanics of operating a small business. That gave me a very practical sense of how to manage a production, and how to be modest. And I became very aware of the making of art, and the appreciation of art. I was around it all the time. A lot of my father's friends were artists. And my sister [Eve Egoyan] is a concert pianist doing very unusual music.”
But as an Armenian child trying to assimilate, Atom endured a degree of culture shock. He did not speak English when he first went to school. “I remember very clearly episodes where my parents had to explain to the teacher, ‘If he says this it means he has to go to the bathroom, and if he says that, it means he's hungry.’ I remember saying to a teacher in Armenian, ‘I'm hungry,’ and then being shown to the bathroom.”
Egoyan developed a love for the absurd at an early age, crafting teenage plays in the spirit of Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter, then short films as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. By the time he made his first feature, Next of Kin (1984), at the age of 23, he says he had become “really aware of the fact that identity is possibly a construct.”
Much of Egoyan's work dwells on blurred identity, a Canadian “construct” if ever there was one. In Next of Kin—which opens with a shot taken from a camera on an airport baggage carousel—a young man joins an Armenian family in Toronto by pretending to be a long-lost son. In Family Viewing, a young man learns that his father is erasing the family's home videos by shooting sex scenes with his new wife. A series of shadowy father figures began to emerge in Egoyan's films—the seductive insurance man in The Adjuster, the grieving accountant in Exotica, the manipulative lawyer in The Sweet Hereafter. But none are as dark as Hilditch, the mild-mannered monster played by Hoskins in Felicia's Journey.
Based on the 1994 novel by Irish author William Trevor, it is a spare drama that brings two characters together with quiet, claustrophobic intensity. Felicia is a naive 17-year-old from rural Ireland who has come to the English city of Birmingham searching for Johnny, the lover who has left her pregnant. Lost, alone and unable to find him, she is befriended by Hilditch, a quiet catering manager who has made a macabre pastime of collecting and disposing of homeless girls.
Living alone in the gloomy house where he grew up, Hilditch seems locked in a time warp. He spends his nights preparing elaborate meals while watching black-and-white videos of a 1950s cooking show hosted by his dead mother. Played by Khanjian, she is a comically flamboyant character with a French accent who cruelly exploits her son (Hilditch as a chubby boy) on camera. Hilditch's video archive also includes tapes of his victims, recorded with a camera hidden in his Morris Minor. Egoyan has been developing the idea of fetishized video artifacts ever since Family Viewing. And by grafting it onto Trevor's novel, along with the burlesque horror of the cooking show, he has placed a surreal signature on an essentially realistic drama.
Repression builds in Felicia's Journey with the claustrophobic weight of English weather. Cutting between past and present, Egoyan shifts from Ireland's green fields to Britain's bleak industrial landscape, and from the sharp intolerance of Felicia's Irish-Catholic father to the insidious comfort of her English benefactor. The movie is an underhanded thriller, bereft of catharsis. And as Egoyan slowly tightens the noose of suspense (which turns out to be a slipknot), the stalking, predatory camera seems more sympathetic to the killer than to his prey. “The camera betrays the feelings of the person behind it at all moments,” Egoyan explains. “I was far more fascinated in Hilditch than in Felicia. The story of a young woman looking for the father of her child is not as interesting to me, dramatically, as this monster who is responsible for evils beyond description, yet doesn't seem aware of it.”
Egoyan's empathy for Hilditch popped into alarming focus during the filming. Hoskins fell sick on the day he was to improvise the videotaped scenes of the victims talking to Hilditch in his car. So Egoyan played the killer's role, which is largely off-camera. “I put on his gloves, I put on his coat, and I had to go through a serial rejection of each of these women in a car,” the director recalls. Hilditch's side of the dialogue does not appear in the film, “but when you see him grab one of the women, it's my arm,” says Egoyan. “What I realized in the process is that so much of my job is about trying to seduce people. The darkest side of what we do as directors is make people do something they wouldn't do otherwise—and what is Hilditch if not a director?”
So what does the director's wife think of all this, a husband who likens his metier to that of a serial killer? “There is a man of immense contradiction in Atom,” says Khanjian. “There is one side of him that is very cynical and obsessed with control. He can be very dark and arrogant. But his vision is humanistic. He is obsessed with the human condition, with how innocence can be abused and how a person is redeemed.”
Khanjian is her husband's fiercest supporter and most vigilant critic. “She can be brutal with him,” says their friend, actor-director Don McKellar. “She challenges him all the time.” Khanjian is especially wary of commercial temptations that come his way. In 1994, when Hollywood was courting him with an offer to make an erotic thriller called Dead Sleep, Egoyan says his wife “saw me in the worst kind of delusion.” In the end, Egoyan declined to make the film because he wanted to cast Susan Sarandon and the studio insisted he choose from a limited “A-list” of younger, more bankable stars. “We really felt vindicated when Susan went on to win the Oscar for Dead Man Walking,” adds the director.
With Felicia's Journey, Egoyan explores the thriller genre for the first time, even if he tries his best to subvert it. And the exceptionally sensitive performances that he draws from Hoskins and Cassidy show a huge progression from the archly distanced acting in his early films. Felicia's Journey is also the first movie he has not produced himself—he made it for Mel Gibson's company, Icon Entertainment International. And it is the first he has shot entirely outside his own country. (Initially, he hoped to set it in Canada, and make the heroine a francophone girl from Quebec travelling to British Columbia, but Trevor insisted the book's Irish themes were integral to the story.)
Felicia's Journey marks a watershed. For 10 years, ever since Speaking Parts, Egoyan has launched his movies at the Cannes Film Festival. And with each outing, his international profile has climbed a notch, peaking with The Sweet Hereafter, which won three prizes in Cannes and was nominated for two Oscars. Then last May, he showed up with Felicia's Journey and came home empty-handed. It was a bit of a shock, given that Egoyan's home-town mentor, David Cronenberg, headed the jury that snubbed the film—especially since it was an open secret that, when Egoyan was on the jury in 1996, he fought to create a special prize for Cronenberg's Crash.
According to McKellar, who is friends with both Egoyan and Cronenberg, “Atom took it very personally. It's sad because we have a very close-knit, supportive film community. And Atom has always really admired David.” Egoyan hesitates to discuss what he calls “a really loaded issue.” But, echoing widespread outrage, he says he was mystified that the Cannes acting prizes all went to non-actors: “There's a dogmatism to the decisions,” he says. “The jury was trying to make a statement. And given that there were professional actors on that jury, I don't know what was going through their heads.” Khanjian is more vociferous, calling Cronenberg and his jury “stingy” and “self-indulgent.”
Cronenberg pleads innocence. “We just reacted to the performances that affected us,” he says. “It's happenstance that it looked like a statement.” Asked if he and Egoyan are still speaking, he says they have exchanged phone messages. “As far as I'm concerned, there is no rift between me and Atom.”
As Canada's leading writer-directors, who both create severely idiosyncratic films, Egoyan and Cronenberg may seem joined at the hip in the public eye. But their visions are radically different. And by now, as a directorial one-man band, Egoyan has marched beyond his mentor's shadow. Working flat-out for the past three years, he has made two features, staged three operas (Salome, Dr. Ox's Experiment and his own Elsewhereless), and created a delightful short film, Bach Cello Suite #4: Sarabande, for a TV series devoted to cellist Yo Yo Ma. Meanwhile, as he explores his passion for music, there is a mounting sense of operatic urgency to his work—in Felicia's Journey, Mychael Danna's strident sound track drives the drama with martial force.
Now, Egoyan is ready for a moment of silence. “It's been a real whirlwind,” he says, “I'd like to see what happens if I just concentrate on something. I miss the solitude.” He will get his chance this fall, with Arshile at school and his wife onstage in Japan and France for three months. After making two movies from novels, he keeps getting asked to do literary adaptations—he just turned down an offer from Icon to adapt D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel—and Icon wants to lock him into a multi-picture deal. But the director is keeping his options open. And he has embarked on an original screenplay, which he will only say has “elements of a historical epic.”
Egoyan felt a certain romance with the past in making Felicia's Journey, which is, after all, an odyssey to the Old World. The movie is set in the present, but as he points out, the characters are trapped in the past, “so it feels like a period film.” In a sense, all Egoyan's pictures feel like period films, stories of rituals and artifacts. They also feel like foreign films, in a uniquely Canadian way—portraits from an artist whose journey keeps circling back to the essential strangeness of home.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666
SOURCE: “Starvation of the Soul: Atom Egoyan's Latest Is a Troubling Minor Masterpiece,” in Maclean's, November 15, 1999, p. 148.
[In the following review, Hluchy offers a positive assessment of Felicia's Journey, arguing that it is less contrived than Egoyan's earlier work.]
William Trevor's 1994 novel Felicia's Journey is a small masterpiece of literary creepiness, a tale of deception told with exhilarating insight. Atom Egoyan's adaptation of the Irish author's book is a small masterpiece of cinematic creepiness, in which the perversion comes with a large measure of humanity. The tale of a guileless 17-year-old Irish girl who leaves home and falls into the hands of a Birmingham psychopath, Felicia's Journey shows Canadian film-maker Egoyan, who both directed and wrote the screenplay, to be at the height of his powers. So much about the movie is breathtaking: the acting of Elaine Cassidy as the title character and Bob Hoskins as the man who preys on her, Egoyan's fleet-footed jumps between present and past, Paul Sarossy's cinematography of a landscape blighted by industrial detritus and tangled highways, Mychael Danna's nerve-jangling score. The film is also laden with evocative minor details, right down to the endearingly clunky sandals, made of wood and blue leather, worn by the hapless Felicia.
The story begins with her passage by ferry to England. Felicia is pregnant and hopes to be reunited with the baby's father. But Johnny Lysaght is nowhere to be found. As Felicia walks through the industrial zone of Birmingham looking for the lawn-mower factory where Johnny has told her he works, she meets Joseph Hilditch (Hoskins), a pudgy, middle-aged bachelor who holds the position of catering supervisor in one of the plants Felicia visits on her doomed pilgrimage.
Joseph is a primly aproned, platitude-spouting manifestation of the banality of evil. By day, he is a satisfier of workmen's appetites, a man whose face lights up when the factory kitchen cooks up a tolerable steamed raspberry pudding. He seems as quaint, and as safe, as his vintage forest-green Morris Minor. By night, however, Joseph pursues his sick, probably sexless, fascination with what he calls “lost girls”—mainly prostitutes.
Or he stays at home and makes elaborate meals according to video instructions in an old cooking show featuring his now-deceased mother (Arsinee Khanjian). Embellishing on Trevor's novel, Egoyan has added the detail of the gourmet-TV mom. And it is an ingenious addition. The mother is named Gala, and she is an exotic creature indeed—too exotic, in fact, to be much of a maternal figure. Flashbacks of her taping the show reveal a fabulously turned-out woman with no patience for her morose, overweight son. No wonder Joseph grows up to be obsessed with her, and with food.
With frequent cuts to Gala's program, Egoyan explores the way video can offer a spurious sense of intimacy. And as Joseph methodically prepares a crown roast of lamb or a turkey with all the trimmings, and then dines alone by candlelight, the effect is both pathetic and terrifying. “Food must be served by caring hands,” he pronounces, rejecting a pitch from a vending-machine salesman. “It makes us feel loved.”
Hoskins is devastating in the role of Joseph, his rough-hewn face shifting from fastidious control to anguish and rage. Cassidy, despite the fact that she has been acting since the age of 5, has the naturalness of a first-time-lucky amateur. Her Felicia is a young woman of transparent emotions and few defences, but with surprising mettle beneath it all.
As in Egoyan's only other adaptation and his most recent movie, The Sweet Hereafter (1997), the director's touch here is more emotionally direct, less contrived, than in many of his earlier features. Most astonishing about Felicia's Journey is the degree—greater than in the novel—to which it evokes compassion for Joseph. Longtime Egoyan collaborator Danna, meanwhile, has composed a score that is manipulative and obtrusive, but in all the right ways—this is strikingly original, tormented music. Felicia's Journey emphatically is not a feel-good experience. But it is an exquisite film.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804
SOURCE: “Felicia's Journey: Soup to Nut,” in Washington Post, November 19, 1999, p. C05.
[In the following review, Hunter focuses on Egoyan's treatment of the serial killer Mr. Hilditch in Felicia's Journey.]
Felicia's Journey offers something new, at least: the figure of the sociopathic killer as lovelorn lonely guy who only needs a nice hug to set him free.
This creepy but compelling image is at the center of the film that director Atom Egoyan chose to make after the sublime The Sweet Hereafter. Like Hereafter, it is derived from a distinguished text, a prize-winning novel by the highly regarded Irish novelist William Trevor. Its pedigree—including the Whitbread Prize—is unassailably literary, and what distinguishes this serial killer story from many other serial killer stories is what separates serious fiction from pulp fiction: the question of motive. Trevor, unlike, say, Thomas Harris, is at pains to discover what turns a man into a monster and not terribly interested in the flamboyance of that monstrosity.
It is this line that Egoyan follows, and it brings him to the bizarre moral proposition that the slaughterer of at least 10 young girls in England is as much a victim as a villain. You cannot hate Mr. Hilditch. Poor Mr. Hilditch grew up in an unusual milieu. That is, on television. His mother, the domineering, sexy, beautiful Gala (Arsinee Khanjian), was one of the first TV gourmet cooks, back in the old black-and-white days of the '50s. With her dark French charisma and her gigantic maracas, she became a media star, even to the point of endorsing products like a vegetable mulcher. But she also used the son who loved her so desperately, turning him into a little fatty-cakes buffoon. She'd stuff food down his throat, and when he gagged, the camera zoomed in and a nation laughed. See little boy frow up!
Now he's grown up into a fastidious little man who appears to work as the director of food services for a huge factory. He is beloved, if a little weird, as he pads around the plant with little pans of sample food for the hard-hat-wearing forge guys. And how is the bread pudding today, David? Um (gulp), it's fine, Mr. Hilditch.
What nobody knows is that Mr. Hilditch—played with something like Richard Attenborough's smarmy pinkishness by Bob Hoskins—goes home, puts on his apron and vids of his ma's old show, and fixes the meals of the '50s under her guidance with their rich creams and their gleaming breasts of poultry. In his mind, she's somehow still alive, and when he eats, he still occasionally gags. Then he goes out and kills a girl.
The usage of the videotape is interesting, for Mr. Hilditch is a fastidious student of the vid. He has his mother's all arranged by chronology (it's not specified but, yes, these are probably videotapes of kinescopes, since videotape wasn't in wide use in the '50s, so please don't send me any letters), and his experiences with each girl neatly catalogued alphabetically. He may not even know he kills them, at least not in the front part of his brain.
What brings all this to the fore is the arrival of a new girl. This is poor Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), an Irish teenager with her own sad story. Seduced, impregnated and abandoned by a young lout, the poor dear has, even worse, been exiled by her fierce father, because the boy who did her went and, rumor has it, joined the British army, which Dad regards as an act of treason. Now Felicia is over here—the Leeds area—looking for him, though she has no address or phone and, in fact, doesn't even know he's in the service.
At first Felicia is just like the others, easily picked up and manipulated by Hilditch under the guise of his kindness, even as he's veering ever closer to adding her to his tote board. But Felicia is somehow different, more resilient, less pathetic. Mr. Hilditch responds to her more deeply; she stirs something in him he thought long dead; that awakening is the thrust of the movie.
For the record, Egoyan uses the same trick here that he used in The Sweet Hereafter, the buried fairy tale. In Hereafter, it was the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who drew the children from the village to a hole in the mountain (which was a hole in the ice). Here the ur-story is Bluebeard, the fearsome French nobleman who, it is claimed, murdered his wives in a secret room that he kept locked up. A new wife arrived and was forbidden to open the locked room. But she had to.
There is indeed a locked room in Felicia's Journey, which she unlocks, but more to the point, it's his locked heart that she liberates.
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