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Posts Tagged ‘The Sweet Hereafter’

It took me a while to catch up with Atom Egoyan’s Adoration. I frequently feel with Egoyan that I am seeing a different film than everyone else; typically his films are celebrated and deprecated for what seem to me the wrong reasons. The fact that he is so good at articulating his intentions doesn’t help, because much of what he has to say is in some sense benign misdirection, geared to flattering the critics who represent his constituency.

I admire greatly Egoyan’s sheer mastery as a director, his ability to compose image and sound into richly textured aesthetic experiences. And while I deeply respect his intention to challenge his audience to question and reflect on narrative, I am also frequently vexed by the artificiality of his constructs. In his more recent work, he has seemed limited by his own artistic persona. Ararat was brilliant in finding a way to approach an historical atrocity without trivializing it, but came crashing to earth when the filmmaker seemed to be imitating his own earlier work; Where the Truth Lies was cinematically ravishing, but somehow quite naïve in its awareness of the particular narrative demands of its genre.

Others have observed that Adoration represents a return to his earlier films, which I did not find encouraging at all. But once again that strikes me as entirely wrong. I was delighted to discover that it is in fact a real step forward. Yes, all the obsessive Egoyan concerns are here. But, delicately, somewhat tentatively, they are infused with a new depth of feeling. The film strikes me as his most deeply personal.

Adoration has a remarkable theme that is profound and vital. It’s about how people project their own personal traumas onto collective ones. How hatred is passed on through false ideas and how false ideas are made real through belief. Like all of Egoyan’s films, it’s also about the fact that the truth is hidden and requires a personal struggle to discover.

Egoyan is the filmmaker as skeptic. Since storytelling relies on belief more than anything, Egoyan pushes his stories right to the edge between the credible and the absurd, and fragments his plot so that we will be engaged by a desire to understand, and in the process reflect on our own activity in making meaning. He wants us to question, not believe.

His persistent foregrounding, in almost all his work, of image-making technology is both metaphor (for the recessive nature of truth) and reflection (of the fact that we are watching a movie and that watching a movie is a process that invokes illusions).

Egoyan his distilled these concerns almost obsessively with each film, and yes, in some ways Adoration brings us back to his first film Next of Kin, which was also an adolescent quest for identity defined by a struggle towards and away from family.

The protagonist here is Simon, an orphaned adolescent. The mystery at the core of the story has to do with his parents’ death, and in particular his father’s role in it. Egoyan’s films have frequently focused on adolescents (Next of Kin, Family Viewing, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) and without exception have dealt with individuals trapped by traumatic experiences, trapped by the past. Usually these are private, familial traumas, although in Ararat it was a mass collective trauma (the Armenian genocide). In Adoration we get both, although the collective trauma never actually happened, and the film suggests that, in a way, all trauma is individual.

This may, still, be Egoyan’s most optimistic film. In spite of being critically celebrated, the word on the street about Egoyan’s work has always been that it is “cold,” indeed he has done as much as anyone to form the perception that Canadian cinema is chilly and perverse. But in fact the emotional distance in Egoyan’s films has always reflected a passionate and ultimately compassionate concern for human suffering, and that has never been more clear than in Adoration. One of the factors in the film’s warmth is the wonderful central performance from Dylan Bostick, radiant with a combination of sensitivity and inner strength. He warms the film up in a way that someone like Sarah Polley, for all her tremendous nuance as a performer, doesn’t do. Egoyan is also the father of a boy around the age of this character, and, as myself the father of a boy that same age (and also one a few years older) I was deeply touched by the film’s awareness of the acute ethical and emotional sensitivity that teenaged boys are capable of.

The other rap on Egoyan is that his films reflect Canadian government/institutional imperatives (i.e. Telefilm’s agenda) rather than what audiences actually want to see. It is true that from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s, “create a cinema that is culturally significant and successful with festivals and critics, and financial success will follow” was the governing dictum of feature film funding in Canada (as a film festival programmer I was part of this system). Egoyan both crystallized this agenda (government agencies badly needed any kind of perceived success – unlike the private sector for which success ultimately is an objective business matter) and benefited from it with a career. But I must say, in a time when the Telefilm agenda has become a largely laughable attempt to imitate Hollywood success without anything like the system that can make that success happen (nor the ability to recognize, nurture and advance talent), the sincere and mature artistry of Egoyan’s work is lookin’ pretty good.

Indeed, while in many corners Egoyan was perceived to have lost his way after The Sweet Hereafter, there is no question that his expressive mastery has grown from film to film and he is now one of the most artistically mature filmmakers now working.

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