“In classic Egoyan style, the humor is always also terrifying. . .”
When I last wrote about Atom Egoyan in Bright Lights, I quoted him on the difficulty of making what he called “the middle film” in the current economic climate. With a budget of just under $5 million, shot in Toronto and Canadian-produced by long-time supporter Robert Lantos’ Serendipity Point Films, Adoration seems finally to fit the “middle film” bill after three films and ten years spent by Egoyan grappling with bigger budgets and multinational co-productions. Awarded the Ecumenical Film Award at Cannes for its attention to “spiritual values,” Adoration has been receiving mixed reviews in limited American release. Nearly all reviewers agree, however, that it is his best work since The Sweet Hereafter (winner of the same award at Cannes in 1997). Nor will I take issue with that assessment. While Adoration does not for me qualify as a return to the form of Egoyan’s mid-’90s peak of Calendar (1993), Exotica (1993), and The Sweet Hereafter, at the very least it represents a return to forms for the Toronto director — to the degree, indeed, that some reviewers and commentators have dismissed the film as self-parody.
To be sure, Egoyan is no stranger to self-parody; one of the pleasures of the underrated Calendar is watching Egoyan send up his own obsessions while playing the lead role he originally wrote for Don McKellar. Humor has been an element of Egoyan’s style since the extremely funny premise of his first feature, Next of Kin (1984) — a young man tired of his bland white middle-class background masquerades as the lost son of an Armenian family. Egoyan’s humor is often deadpan, however, and often undercut by the seriousness of his themes — neither Exotica nor The Sweet Hereafter could scarcely tolerate any humor at all — but in Adoration, Egoyan walks the knife-edge quite well. There is a hilarious (and also frightening, if not as much so as the actor’s recent turn in Blindness) cameo by Egoyan regular Maury Chaykin as an outraged passenger of the El Al flight that was almost bombed in 1986 who self-identifies as a living corpse, come back from the dead as the incarnation of all victims of terrorism. In classic Egoyan style, the humor is always also terrifying, as in the marvelous moment when Simon’s uncle Tom, his French teacher Sabine, and a marginal taxi driver nearly get into fisticuffs over a sandwich and a cab fare, or the ridiculous sequence when Sabine practically forces Tom to tow her car and then tails his truck in said taxi. These scenes are theater of the absurd at its best, both stupid and profound, and testimony to the enduring influence of Samuel Beckett on Egoyan’s filmmaking.
The monologue spreads like a virus. First, we have a chorus of his friends all presenting different points of view and responses to the situation as if it were real. According to Egoyan, he workshopped this part of the script with local high school kids, and the responses are drawn from actual responses made in the workshop. Egoyan films the chat room in a nine-square split laptop screen, with frequent cuts to close-ups of individual talking adolescent heads, an eerie updating of the traditional “Hollywood Squares” game show format. Like the video mausoleum in Speaking Parts (1989), Egoyan terms the conceit “science fiction,” a slightly speculative near-future extrapolated from current technology. It’s an effective update on his long-time concern with the ways in which communications technology mediates identity, especially as the monologue spreads across the Internet and Simon finds himself face to face with “survivors” of the actual incident, Holocaust survivors, and neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers. Personally, I found the latter pair unnecessarily obvious, but there is nevertheless something fascinating in watching Simon try to deal with the unforeseen and unstoppable effects of what the viewer has by now realized was only a projection.
Egoyan never really resolves this thread of the narrative, however, because midway through, the film takes a turn toward the personal. Once Sabine has been fired from her teaching job for the “hoax” she has perpetrated with Simon and begins to spend her time stalking Tom, the narrative focus shifts to a new set of deceptions and the new mystery of what actually happened to Simon’s parents, who, although not, in fact, involved in the terrorist plot, did die tragically in a car crash ten years in the past. Egoyan has explained this shift in interviews in terms of the inability of the open-ended and dialogic Internet to provide emotional catharsis. Simon must eventually travel to his grandfather’s lakeside house in northern Ontario to make a very physical and personal reckoning with his past, burning in a dockside pyre a significant chunk of his personal history. Technology is not totally lost; because (presumably) the house is not wired for Internet, Simon is limited instead to his digital camera, which he places on the pyre frozen on an image from his deathbed interview with his grandfather, which we watch burn into pixels and then shriveled plastic atop the pyre, the only way, it appears, that digital technology can satisfy the demands of emotional resolution.
This turn, while dramatically satisfying, risks reducing the historical significance of the events borrowed by Egoyan for his film and by Simon for his dialogue to the status of therapeutic devices for psychological healing. Egoyan suggests as much when he states that, “People use each other as detonating devices.” It’s a neat metaphor, but it’s also a facile and historically irresponsible one. It raises the same problem as Egoyan’s overlaying of the Armenian holocaust with the personal psychodramas of the protagonists in Ararat (2002). This is not such a serious problem here because Egoyan goes less far in representing the historical trauma than he did in Ararat’s gruesome movie-within-a-movie and because the historical trauma referenced here is one that, in fact, never happened. To choose an act of emotional terrorism (the betrayal of the pregnant girlfriend by the Jordanian terrorist) that resulted only in hypothetical slaughter is, of course, beautifully consonant with Egoyan’s fascination with fabricated realities and self-deceptions. As Chaykin’s lunatic blogger clearly demonstrates, the only fallout of this specific act of terror is psychological. Moreover, this also means that Simon’s personal trauma — losing both his parents to what he has been brought up to believe was a willful act of suicide/murder by his father — is in fact more severe than the more public tragedy whose identity he assumes.
The dramatic turn also seems to have necessitated a woodenness of acting and artificiality of tone in the first half of the film. That is, what first seems to be artificiality reminiscent of the flat style of Egoyan’s early films is retroactively motivated, first, by the fact that Simon is playing a role in the opening part of the film; second, by the fact that Sabine has her own hidden agenda beyond being a flamboyantly unhinged French and drama teacher; and, third, by the fact that all of the characters are wrestling with truths about the past that they keep hidden from others close to them. This same effect worked in Exotica because the perverse sexuality of the opening set-up, for better or worse, is engaging in its own right. The artificiality of a striptease is undeniably more dramatically compelling than the artificiality of a high-school drama project. It worked in The Sweet Hereafter because the acting is muted and powerfully understated. Scott Speedman’s Tom succeeds on this level, but Devon Bostick’s Simon and Arsinée Khanjian’s Sabine do not. Bostick lacks the presence of the young Sarah Polley in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, while Khanjian is weighted with the challenging task of acting as the fulcrum of the film’s disparate threads. Her character works better here than in her similar role in Ararat, and I found the middle section of the film, especially the long scenes between her and Speedman, to be dramatically effective, extremely funny, and emotionally satisfying. But again, this satisfaction is enabled by sacrificing the greater historical and political relevance at which the first half of the film gestures. Basically, Khanjian jettisons the public, French teacher persona of the film’s opening as a façade and instead engages with Simon and Tom on a purely personal and therapeutic level.