Bright Lights Film Journal

Atom Egoyan’s Adoration: A Return to Form(s)?

“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 setup of Adoration is highly reminiscent of Exotica, eliciting a series of false assumptions out of the audience’s conventional expectations and a series of apparent coincidences. The assumptions will be transformed and the coincidences resolved into what New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden aptly termed “the everything-is-connected school of filmmaking.” The results are nowhere near as shattering as in Exotica, but the theme of deception is more fully integrated into the narrative structure. The film opens on what we eventually discover to be the teenaged Simon’s dramatic monologue in the character of the son who was a baby in the womb of the Irish woman whose boyfriend (and the boy’s father) tried to use as a terrorist vehicle, planting a bomb in her luggage that, if not discovered, would have killed 380 people. Our first assumption as viewers is that Egoyan has changed the facts of this 1986 episode slightly, making the woman an Ontario violinist. We then are led to believe that the French teacher has assigned this story as a translation exercise, and encouraged Simon in what she thinks is an exercise in dramatic projection. For quite a ways into the film, we also believe that Simon is channeling his actual experiences, and that Sabine is the only one who thinks it is a fiction.

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.

Now, I don’t take issue with Egoyan’s argument that Simon’s actions are quite realistic in view of the way we presently, and younger people particularly, tend to project our own emotional distress onto broader historical events. But I do find that he simply mirrors rather than analyzes or complicates in any way that tendency. This effect is exacerbated by the fact that Sabine, the only character who does suffer real-life consequences from Simon’s masquerade, seems to suffer only briefly from losing her job before immersing herself fully in her pursuit of Tom. The lack of any concern for economic reality is compounded by the screenplay’s tiptoeing around Tom’s relationship with money and its significance in our evaluation of his character. Because Tom chose while in his early twenties to remove Simon from his grandfather’s influence and raise him in his deceased parents’ house in Toronto, Tom has apparently found it extremely difficult to make ends meet. He complains at one point to Simon that Toronto is too expensive and that he is having trouble paying the mortgage on the house. His money worries are an important subplot in the film, leading to an early scene with the executor of the grandfather’s estate (apparently quite substantial) and to Tom’s subsequent request that Simon allow him to sell the mother’s valuable violin. What the film leaves unclear is whether Tom’s money woes are the result of character flaws or simply living beyond his means as a tow-truck driver. There are various hints as to his problems with anger management, which suggest an instability that could be leading him to be spending money on his own vices, but these concerns are never either laid to rest or verified. This ambiguity unproductively complicates our reading of the relationship between Tom and Simon, since we never know if the tension between them is based solely on the mysteries of the past or is also rooted in Tom’s behavior as guardian.

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.

It is highly gratifying to see Egoyan return to mine the lode that worked so well for him in the nineties and to make a movie that is worth watching on its own merits rather than on the strength of his past oeuvre. At the same time, it is with mixed feelings that I watch Egoyan retreat from the laudable engagement with the Faustian temptations of big-budgets, established stars, and less hermetic scripts. As his great influence and elder Canadian colleague David Cronenberg has demonstrated with his masterly recent films in a Hollywood vein and with the brilliant work of the major Hollywood star Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), the rewards can be substantial if the many pitfalls can be successfully navigated. So it is with pleasure, excitement, and trepidation that I read that Egoyan has already wrapped his next film. Pleasure, because it is always good (because not so common) to see a director of his caliber being able to move straight from one project to the next. Excitement and trepidation because Chloe (premiering at either Venice or Toronto later in 2009), a remake of the 2003 French thriller Nathalie, stars Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, and up-and-coming teen actress Amanda Seyfried, and was produced by none other than Canadian ex-pat Ivan Reitman, of Animal House and Ghostbusters fame (and, if we go even further back, veteran producer of vintage Canuxploitation, including Cronenberg’s first two features, Shivers, 1975, and Rabid, 1977). It is his first film not to include Khanjian; the funding by France’s Studio-Canal means it is also his first film made without any Canadian money. Here’s hoping we will soon be welcoming the prospect of a productive and well-funded big-movie Egoyan and not fending off flashbacks to the disastrous Where the Truth Lies (2005).