Carry That Weight: The Films of Atom Egoyan

Carry That Weight: The Films of Atom Egoyan

The first shot of Atom Egoyan’s 1984 debut feature, Next of Kin, is a ground-level pan across the baggage claim section at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. The camera is angled so that our gaze is on the various pieces of luggage rather than their owners—a mobile, Bressonian frame placed around a liminal, indistinct space. Seen this way, each bag becomes a locus of mystery and suspense. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a filmmaker whose childhood was defined by migration from Cairo to British Columbia, border crossing forms a modest but real motif in Egoyan’s work, with a special emphasis on the anxious intimacy of customs checks. In Ararat (2002), a young man working on a transnational film production is detained by an agent who intuits—correctly—that he’s smuggling drugs from Turkey into Canada; in Adoration (2008), the plot hinges on the discovery of a bomb hidden in an oblivious passenger’s carry-on. “You have to convince yourself this person has something hidden that you have to find,” explains an officer to his colleague early on in Exotica (1994), gazing intently through a one-way mirror at a man who may or may not have black market items secreted away beneath his sleek linen suit. “Check his bags, but it’s his face, his gestures that you’re really watching . . . look at him carefully . . . what do you see?”

Suspicion and investigation, cataloguing and speculation, concealment and revelation: Egoyan’s films give the impression of rifling through somebody else’s personal effects, of (re)constructing a subject’s life through an arcane yet intimate series of fragments. His is a cinema of unveiling, quite literally in Exotica’s humid strip-club milieu, where schoolgirls gyrate forlornly to Leonard Cohen with their eyes wide shut. He’s interested in characters who cleave their burdens to their chests or else stash them up their sleeves. Whether passive, obsessive, pathetically repressed, or just plain strange, these are people whose souls are weighted down. The films transfer some of that heavy lifting onto the audience; the characters’ catharses are synced to our gradual unraveling of the fanatically elaborate narratives. Egoyan’s plotlines, with their shuffled timelines and accordingly unwieldy relationship to cause-and-effect dramaturgy, inspire curiosity—that most thrilling and weightless of moviegoing sensations—while also requiring completion in the viewer’s consciousness. You can file his movies under “some assembly required.” For the majority of his career, Egoyan has been a filmmaker whose confidence in his abilities to make us pay attention belies his desire to test us, and by extension himself, on the limits of perception and engagement: to “look carefully” at his multilayered, coyly withholding, and often revelatory films is at once an invitation, a challenge, and a necessity.

Next of Kin

The title of Next of Kin refers to the film’s less-than-submerged themes of generational distance. Peter (Patrick Tierney) is a disaffected twentysomething so luxuriously stifled in his metropolitan WASP-nest household that he attempts to convince a family of Armenian immigrants that he’s their long-lost son, an outrageous deception reflecting the ethnic and cultural identity crisis the then twenty-four-year-old Egoyan was experiencing as an Armenian-Egyptian living and working in a North American country. Peter’s preference for the boisterous intimacy of his “second” family seems to emanate directly from the filmmaker, albeit strategically transferred onto a white surrogate—a tricky bit of play with identification. In a larger sense, what Next of Kin signified was the emergence of an entire cohort of ambitious, distinctive young Toronto filmmakers who, whatever their individual influences or aesthetics, were pushing back against the tacky opportunism of Canada’s late-seventies, “tax shelter” era, during which generous government subsidies and a surfeit of “creative accounting” succeeded in transforming Canada’s largest city into “Hollywood North.” The irony was that an initiative designed to kickstart an English-Canadian film industry languishing in the shadow of the U.S. yielded mostly homegrown knock-offs of American genre product. The resistance of the so-called “Toronto New Wave” manifested in a series of movies more stylistically and philosophically indebted to international art cinema, movies that used their host city’s newly thrusting architectural modernism and burgeoning multiculturalism as a subject rather than a backdrop.

The seethingly cerebral thrillers of David Cronenberg led to the first stirrings of auteurist interest under the auspices of the Capital Cost Allowance, culminating in the commercial breakthroughs of The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981). Next of Kin slotted more logically alongside other, more modest Torontonian curios like Ron Mann’s free-jazz odyssey Imagine the Sound (1981) and Peter Mettler’s impressionistic social portrait Scissere (1982). Even more than his experimentally minded peers, Egoyan’s work displayed a continuity with the angry-young-man thematics of previous local heroes like Don Owen and Don Shebib, whose Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964) and Goin’ Down the Road (1970) anticipated Next of Kin’s alienated protagonist, while also staking out its own ambivalently technophobic territory. Perhaps taking off from Cronenberg’s medium-is-the-message allegory Videodrome (1983), Egoyan’s next film, Family Viewing (1987), centers on Van (Aidan Tierney), a taciturn young man who’s mortified to discover that his father has taped over an entire collection of home movies with footage of his own perverse philandering. (Turnabout being fair play, Van is secretly sleeping with his dad’s mistress). Family Viewing’s combination of grainy, medium-cool visual textures with florid, deadpan psychodrama was novel, and while reviews were mixed in American precincts—“hopelessly arch” was the verdict of the New York Times—Egoyan quickly became the sly, owlish face of the Toronto New Wave, a symbol of a city’s cinematic progress and, more excitingly, its promise as well.

Fulfillment followed via Egoyan’s fourth feature, The Adjuster (1991), which premiered at the New York Film Festival and was invited to the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes on the strength of an impeccable formalism. A signature image: claims expert Noah (Elias Koteas) methodically and inexplicably shooting an arrow out of his bedroom window, muscles pulled taut across his bare back, an Apollonian figure aiming directly at an unseen target—a hint from director to spectator to look and think beyond the frame.

The Adjuster

In Next of Kin, Family Viewing, and Speaking Parts, Egoyan had mixed and matched from a repertory of fearless if stilted actors, including David Hemblen, Gabrielle Rose, and his partner Arsinée Khanjian. The Adjuster benefitted immeasurably from the casting of Koteas, whose terse, impacted acting style proved a perfect fit. Playing a resourceful manipulator whose personal and professional control-freakery meets its match and then some in a pair of married, obscenely deep-pocketed foils (Maury Chaykin and Rose), Koteas is like a walking Rorschach blot, as oddly remote from himself as he is from others.

“I wanted to make a film about believable people doing believable things in an unbelievable way,” Egoyan wrote in his director’s note, an explanation that could just as easily be inverted to say unbelievable things in a believable way. Beginning with Noah’s in-home archery exhibition and proceeding through a series of controlledly surreal set pieces pitched between sketch comedy and performance art, The Adjuster observes a certain absurdist logic by which anything that can be done—by the characters and by the director—is worth trying. By the end, every non sequitur has been accounted for, while the link between its wealthy antagonists’ cathartic, self-subsidized fantasias and Egoyan’s own filmmaking process has been made explicit, with Chaykin’s Bubba painstakingly laying dolly track through Noah’s home for Peter Sarossy’s camera to follow as the scene continues. In a parallel and similarly self-reflexive plotline, Noah’s wife, Hera (Khanjian), toils for the Ontario Censor Board, systematically cataloguing smut in the interest of a public decency she enthusiastically repudiates in private.

That Khanjian is Egoyan’s supreme collaborator is hard to argue against. She’s appeared in twelve of his features, winning a best-actress Genie Award for Ararat and etching a number of memorably bold, intensely physical performances. In The Adjuster, her fearless abandon in pantomiming masturbation in a variety of environments consolidates the film’s daring. One way into the homemade cinematic labyrinth of Calendar (1993) is to see it as scenes from a marriage, with Khanjian cast as the wife of a lachrymose photographer (Egoyan) who attempts to extend his infatuation through a camera lens but ends up helplessly documenting her romance with a third party while they’re all overseas. Egoyan’s decision to play the shutterbug manifests at first as a Woody Allen–like gambit, especially in the early-nineties context of the film’s release—an alternate title could have been Husbands and Wives—but the director’s celebrity (such as it is) is of minimal importance to the film. As in Next of Kin, the theme is culture clash: both Egoyan and Khanjian’s characters are Armenian expatriates, and the husband’s professional, mercenary mandate to shoot portraits of twelve historical churches for an exoticizing mass-market calendar exposes a growing disconnect within his marriage as well as with his birthplace. Unable to speak the language, he’s rendered a bystander; in the words of Gang of Four, at home, he feels like a tourist. Calendar’s ingenious structure is split between the handheld, docufictional passages in Armenia—twelve in all, each corresponding to a picture in the completed calendar—and a set of disarmingly artificial episodes back in Toronto, where Egoyan arranges in-home dinner dates with the multicultural employees of an escort service. Ostensibly presented as potential revenge fucks, these brief encounters are something else entirely: gradually, we see that the women are going through a series of scripted motions at their host’s behest, in a humorously compulsive—or is it simply creepy?—attempt to ritualize and sublimate the pain of his recent separation.

A puzzle box with multiple keys, Calendar is at once the most playful and most cryptic of Egoyan’s early films, and its rigorous minimalism was catnip to the academic and critical constituencies fixing to anoint him as the great hope of English-Canadian cinema. In the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum called the film a “flat-out masterpiece,” analyzing it as an inventory of the director’s recurring interests—“video, photography, voyeurism, sexual obsession, troubled families, and personal identity”—while arguing that it connected more directly, and effectively, to pressing questions of ethnicity and history: “[it] all dovetails into the issue of tribalism . . . and it’s hard to think of another subject in the world at the moment that has more immediate relevance and resonance.” As a precisely triangulated meditation on artistry, assimilation, and commodification—with an additional layer of meaning concerning the ontological relationship between photography and video—Calendar showed how formidable its maker’s skill set could be even as the vast majority of the Armenian scenes were purportedly improvised, smuggling an unprecedented spontaneity into Egoyan’s fixed system.

Calendar

If Calendar represented Egoyan’s sensibility at its most casually expansive, Exotica was a return to the pent-up, lurid abstraction of The Adjuster, with an even more involuted plotline. In place of “believable people doing believable things in an unbelievable way,” the director conjured up a company of morosely cosmopolitan caricatures, ciphers skillfully puppeteered through a shapely roundelay of fateful run-ins, expository monologues, and painfully excavated traumas—an average of one per customer. The film has the skin of a psychological thriller, with Bruce Greenwood’s lonely tax auditor Francis scanning as potentially capable of violence as he returns nightly to the eponymous strip club to gaze at the bookish dancer Christina (Mia Kirshner). Francis’s obvious fondness for Christina’s jailbait act rhymes ominously with his relationship with his preteen niece (Sarah Polley), as does the fact that the “babysitting” gigs he pays the latter for involve her practicing music in an empty apartment with no children in sight.

The question of what Francis is hiding, and how his tragic backstory intersects at multiple vertices with that of his client Thomas (Don McKellar), a pet store owner smuggling hyacinth eggs into Toronto, is one that Exotica takes its time answering. As a diversionary tactic, the film offers up its main location’s sweltering hothouse atmosphere as its own self-contained form of enticement, and with the help of a marketing campaign that played up Exotica’s (and Exotica’s) overtly sexualized elements—including Khanijan as a pregnant, bewigged madam and Koteas as a purring, insinuating master of ceremonies whose patter splits the difference between Gig Young in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and Joel Grey in Cabaret (1972)—the film was a box-office hit straight out of the gate, riding Miramax’s post–Pulp Fiction imprimatur to more than $5 million in the United States alone. Three years later, a Cannes competition slot and two high-end Oscar nominations for The Sweet Hereafter (1997) would solidify Egoyan’s status in the front ranks of North American directors.

Exotica

For his first literary adaptation, Egoyan cultivated a more restrained, realistic style while mining the same themes of trauma and catharsis that defined his original scripts. Moving fully out of his usual urban Torontonian environment for the first time, the director took on Russell Banks’s shattering novel The Sweet Hereafter, about a school bus accident that devastates a small town and the outwardly empathetic, essentially opportunistic lawyer (Ian Holm) who tries to rally a group of mourning parents to levy a collective class-action lawsuit. The lyrical hook of Canadian rock heroes the Tragically Hip’s sublime 1992 single “Courage” recurs twice on the film’s soundtrack, first on the bedroom stereo of fourteen-year-old Nichole (Polley)—a precocious high schooler left paralyzed below the waist by the crash—and then again via Polley’s sweet-voiced a cappella cover, the use of which places her character’s bravery and resolve in sharp relief: “courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.” Nichole’s climactic decision to thwart the impending legal proceedings by altering her remembrance of the accident is framed by Egoyan simultaneously as an act of supreme moral courage and private retribution against her sexually abusive guardian; while the film is largely faithful to Banks’s text, the director’s handling of the incest subplot between Nichole and her father Sam (Tom McCamus) returns to the unsettling eroticism of Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, and Exotica. It adds another layer to the film’s complex meditation on the intensity—and agony—of parental love, a condition emblematized by a symbolic, mid-film tableaux: a devoted father poised, knife in hand, ready to cut his daughter’s swollen throat in order to save her life.

The Sweet Hereafter

In addition to his decisive and devastating use of the Hip—a weirdly accessible, mainstream flourish for an outré auteur—Egoyan supplements The Sweet Hereafter’s storyline with a fairy-tale counterpoint via the tragic myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, recited by Nichole as a bedtime story during a flashback, a broad, affecting metaphor for a community’s lost generation. (The allusion is not in the novel; it may have been borrowed from Lynne Littman’s apocalyptic drama Testament [1983]). It’s a literary strategy that the director would use again in 2014’s The Captive, a wintry thriller that filters its action through the characters and situations of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, although by the time of that film’s Cannes bow, Egoyan’s luster had dimmed considerably, including in Canada, where a media backlash set in around the turn of the millennium. The same qualities that had endeared Egoyan to critics—fragmented narratives; furtive emotionalism; all those cleanly diagrammed catharses—were increasingly regarded less as innovations than overworn tropes. The glossiness of a movie like the quasi-Hitchcockian Chloe (2009), with its all-star cast (Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore) and fashionably upscale Toronto locations (including a tryst amidst the verdant greenery of Allan Gardens), was like a target on the movie’s back.

One could blame Canada for a proprietary provincialism about our artists whereby notoriety outside the country is at once a metric for success and an invitation for dismissal. It’s also possible that Egoyan’s commitment to his style describes the same repetition-compulsion that drives certain of his characters, while still allowing for interesting surface variations. 2019’s Guest of Honour is a case in point: no matter how obsessively—self-consciously? satirically?—the filmmaker reworks his perennial themes of guilt, surveillance, assimilation, and father-daughter awkwardness, the movie’s configuration is unique: no less than three embedded framing devices, two mysterious deaths, one multilingual Arsinée Khanjian cameo, and more rabbits per capita than Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). As an uptight food inspector clutching his PASS/FAIL badges with the moral dudgeon of a Medieval Inquisitor, David Thewlis recalls Koteas’s adjuster or the tortured lawyer in The Sweet Hereafter: another superb embodiment of a burdened man wearily circumnavigating a twisty narrative universe. He’s looking for a place to lay down his baggage; meanwhile, Egoyan’s career carries on.

A series of Atom Egoyan’s films is playing on the Criterion Channel now through December 31, 2020.