(b. January 1, 1960 Cairo, Egypt)
Atom Egoyan occupies a distinct position within Canadian filmmaking — that of auteur. His unequivocal authorial vision and inimitable style are sustained throughout a body of work that includes 10 feature films. Egoyan is the most consummate filmmaker of his generation, and his films appeal to national and international audiences alike and, increasingly, receive greater critical acclaim and commercial success.
Born in Cairo of Armenian descent and raised in Victoria, B.C., Egoyan moved to Toronto at 18 to study international relations at the University of Toronto. While studying, two formative encounters fused to inform his life work — fluency with his ethnic heritage and the cinema. Egoyan produced several short films at the Hart House Film Board while furthering his knowledge of Armenian history and politics. Often submerged and mediated, the residual effects of the Armenian genocide shadow Egoyan’s work to date. The recurring themes of ritualized trauma from dispossession to alienation to “baggage,” in general, arose from the unsaid of Armenia’s past, posing an indomitable challenge to representation in the present. Egoyan’s films work at the intermediacies of memory and fiction almost by necessity.
Archaeological in impulse, Egoyan’s approach to truth and character is incessantly layered. His films relentlessly highlight the act of looking from both structural and thematic perspectives, fully exploiting possible implications from knowledge to voyeurism to comprehension and insight. At the same time, the oft-used Canadian filmic tropes of identity and its uncertainty, image and technology, and communication or the lack thereof compete for equal thematic screen time. The content, aesthetics and production contexts of Egoyan’s films are decidedly interstitial. Multi-directional, they spring from national and diasporic contexts, between art cinema narration and the recent adoption of popular genres, chiefly the thriller, that coalesce into an unprecedented brand of filmmaking. Still, Egoyan remains our resident “spokes-filmmaker” for Canada’s brand of New World modernity.
Renowned actor Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan’s long-time collaborator, helps to solidify the label of international art-cinema auteur. Khanjian’s roles now approximate a signature effect in the films; her performances span from characters such as telephone sex trade worker, frumpy hotel cleaner, pregnant strip club proprietor to Ontario Censor Board member, cultural translator, cooking show celebrity and art history professor. The consistent participation of numerous actors — Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Polley, Elias Koteas, Gabrielle Rose, Maury Chaykin, among others — also provide identifiable Egoyan markers across a range of films. The reliable makeup of Egoyan’s habitual crew further strengthens auteurist coherency. Paul Sarossy’s cinematography, Mychael Danna’s musical compositions, Steve Munro’s soundscapes and Phillip Barker’s designs routinely conjoin to imbue and consolidate the look and sound of the films.
Key Egoyan sensibilities emerge in Next of Kin (1984) and continue throughout Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989) and The Adjuster (1991), though these early features share a fascination with surface affectation particular to emerging filmmakers of the period. Side-stepping the banal, seemingly superficial exteriority serves to foil signature Egoyan thematic obsessions with social taboos, specifically sex, technology and looking and relations locked into the hermetic horrors of family closets. The films follow a strict interwoven structure loosened by enigmatic abstraction and oblique ethnic references. Surprisingly, the effect is sustained suspense and an arch brand of humour fed by a formally procured self-conscious chilly distance. Driven by loss of all kinds, characters are chronically detached, and shape their relations toward one another through absurdist speech and the non sequitur, yet, uncannily, they prompt compassion all the same.
While detachment is partially upheld through a seemingly mundane surface, these early works all utilize video and the televisual and/or photographic reproduction to work against its remote effects. Themes integral to the image assist in teasing out the various narratives’ reiteration of the slippery slope between image and identity, between the video image and death, between replication and reality, between the false and the true. Without exception, representational technologies as practice and mediating motif continue to recur throughout Egoyan’s career. Across a range of usage from familial and sacred, as record and fetish, to voyeuristic enactment, bordering on pornography and surveillance, the use of video in Egoyan’s universe stresses the role of mediation in ordering experience.
The films of the mid-1990s offer a more profound exploration of contemporary anxieties. Calendar (1993), a work both raw and tender, wrestles with belonging and identity from here to Armenia and back again. The dissolution of home and tradition and its uneasy, lived effects command its 12-part calendar structure. Travelling to Armenia to procure 12 photographs of sacred churches for a calendar is the pretext for Egoyan (playing the photographer protagonist) to interrogate historical memory and illuminate its unattainable retrieval, in spite of the precision of imaging technology. With Exotica (1994), perhaps an apt title for all of Egoyan’s enterprise, original trauma (Armenia’s genocide) shifts into the more familiar terrain of terrifying psychic dispossession. Increased production values and less plot fragmentation than in earlier films make room for more fully fleshed but equally disaffected and obsessive characters. An exotic pet store owner, a stripper and a government tax auditor, to name but a few beleaguered souls, collide at the strip club Exotica. Here, these orphaned adults ceremoniously work through their individual baggage of inheritance or soul murder — from abandonment to straight-out child abuse. Trepidation combines with the sublime to create the film’s sense of wonder, the epicentre that also, not surprisingly, coalesces around the sticking point of life in Toronto, or more sub-textually, Canada — “difference.”
The adaptations of The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and Felicia’s Journey (1999) (novels by Russell Banks and William Trevor, respectively) effortlessly mesh with Egoyan’s preoccupations, as both stories' claustrophobic worlds turn on the themes of loss and violation. The Sweet Hereafter recounts a small B.C. town’s painful recuperation from a tragic bus accident that claimed most of its children. The individual grief of the parents is imparted, but it is the responses of a persistent lawyer seeking to assign blame and a young survivor who entreats acceptance beyond the accident to include incest which take precedence. More linear and seamless than extant works, the film’s tone and subject matter are nevertheless Egoyan’s.
While a menacing ambiance often girds Egoyan’s films, Felicia’s Journey’s thriller roots amplify this tendency. Third in a series of films that revolve around endangered young women and their eerie, ritualized encounters with father figures, we witness a sensitive and sympathetic serial killer stalk an innocent stray Irish girl. In spite of the film’s source, the radical changes in production contexts and locale (his first co-production and the shift to the industrial setting of Birmingham, England, and rural Ireland), signature Egoyan fixations remain. Egoyan’s diasporic constants, such as home and family, betrayal, the impossibility of return and the dangers inherent in detachment and impaired sight that result are dramatized to different ends in Felicia’s Journey. The protagonist’s criss-crossed trauma takes the opposing routes of vulnerability and violence. But the stalker complements his emotional image bank of looped home movies of his departed, fetishized mother with his own Peeping Tom-like video productions, replacing the good object to horrific effect.
With Ararat (2002), Egoyan widens the standard intimacy of his palette to produce the first film to wrestle with the Armenian genocide of 1915. Ambitious in scope, the film memorializes the atrocities of the Armenian holocaust, but it also conveys its residual effects from a multi-focal perspective across generations traversing the diaspora. Beyond the immediate narrative, Ararat’s complex lattice structure directly queries the representation of history itself, exposing its inherent constructed nature through wildly opposing modes of address. The sophisticated treatise on “past-ness” and the official record builds upon and expands Egoyan’s incessant experimentation with the dubious promise of the image. While a contemporary Toronto tale pivots around two families in crisis, a film-within-a-film dramatizes eyewitness accounts of the siege of Van in eastern Turkey and the ensuing death march in epic scale. A fictionalized celebrated Armenian director (played by Charles Aznavour) directs scenes of slaughter in a rival filmic register; attempts at flat-footed accuracy meshed with melodrama to signify Turkish atrocities.
The staged excess, however, underscores the futility of replication. Distancing Brechtian techniques notwithstanding, the limitations of history as spectacle exceed simple lessons on how visualizing history confines. Just when the re-enactments of massacres allure, a counter-narrative suggesting fabrication often intervenes. Each modern-day character in the framing narrative is associated with the film production, also titled Ararat, serving to intertwine their individual, familial and communal lives. Ararat opens with the great Armenian painter Arshille Gorky struggling to perfect his celebrated The Artist and His Mother. Gorky’s fraught life is Ararat’s touchstone (both the outer frame and the film-within-a-film), its psychic structural and visual motor. Gorky survived the massacre but not its legacy — his unremitting attempts to render memory are also Egoyan’s. Ararat’s mastery lies in dually sustaining belief in the possibility of representation and its fallibility, in looking both ways.
The constant, perspicacious depth-probing in Egoyan’s films also extends to a range of creative projects that span several artistic mediums to include opera, music and the visual arts. No doubt, Egoyan’s intellectual scope and creative dexterity inform all of his endeavours, engendering a crosshatch effect across art forms. With the Canadian Opera Company, he successfully launched Salome, his directorial opera debut in 1996, followed by his own Elsewhereness in 1998 and Gavin Bryar’s Dr. Ox’s Experiment. Egoyan proved his musical acuity with the attentive aural direction of Yo Yo Ma in Sarabande, a telefilm inspired by Bach’s Cello Suite #4.
Egoyan’s art installations have similarly gained distinction to include works completed for the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the Venice Biennale and Le Frenoy in France. His latest projects span from Evidence (2002) to Notorious (2000) (a video installation that commemorates Alfred Hitchcock) to Diaspora (a short film with music by Philip Glass, which is part of the program Philip on Film) to Hors d’usage, a soundscape work based on reel-to-reel tapes of Montreal residents. Krapp’s Last Tape (2000), a film adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s play, attests to Egoyan’s tremendous formal latitude, one that defies the supposed restrictions of film as a popular medium.
Egoyan’s affection for the thriller genre (which stretches back to the television work he did at the beginning of his career) and his interest in its inherent but usually unrealized capacity to explore repressed histories, both personal and social, were evident in his three subsequent feature length films: Where the Truth Lies (2005); Adoration (2008); and Chloe (2009).
Starring Colin Firth; Kevin Bacon; Alison Lohman and Rachel Blanchard, Where the Truth Lies is a murder mystery involving a Hollywood duo (reminiscent of the comedy team Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis). Based on a novel by singer Rupert Holmes, the film follows journalist Karen O’Connor (Lohman) as she digs further and further into the past and the conflicted, repressed history of her subjects in a quest that becomes increasingly more obsessive. Like its predecessors, Where the Truth Lies is less about the mystery than the difficulties and impossibility of resurrecting the past. Visually, the film looks quite different from its predecessors with long time collaborator Paul Sarossy creating a sun-drenched, West Coast look which, perhaps paradoxically, feels as sinister and morally murky as Egoyan’s earlier work.
With the more intimate Adoration, winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes, Egoyan was on somewhat more familiar ground aesthetically. Adoration focuses on Simon -- an orphaned teenager (Devon Bostick) who lives with his uncle (Scott Speedman) -- concocts a tale about his parents’ death as part of a class assignment. In the story, Simon claims that his father was a terrorist who killed his mother (by planting a bomb in her suitcase). Egged on by his teacher (Khanjian), who encourages him to play out the fiction despite the consequences, the boy isn’t prepared when the controversy about the story moves to the internet , sparking a wide range of reactions from grief and confusion to explosions of psychotic rage. (Egoyan’s curiousity and his skill at connecting with the zeitgeist are especially apparent here.) Like Next of Kin or Family Viewing, much of the conflict is sparked by an oppressive patriarch (played here by Kenneth Welsh) determined to control his family and edit its history for his own purposes.
A remake of the French thriller Nathalie (2003) Chloe focuses on a well heeled Toronto couple -- Catherine, a successful physician (Julianne Moore, an actress whom Egoyan had wanted to work with for years), and her husband David (Liam Neeson), a professor -- who lead an apparently idyllic life. But when David misses his flight home (and his surprise birthday) a furious and disappointed Catherine concludes that he is having an affair. She enlists Chloe, an escort, to confirm her suspicions, and Chloe dutifully reports back to her about her encounters with David. Each account grows increasingly more graphic, drawing the women closer together, until Catherine suspects that Chloe isn’t what she seems. Chloe, however, doesn’t take rejection lightly.
Written by Erin Cressida Wilson (who also adapted the Mary Gatskill short story which became Steve Shainberg’s 2002 film Secretary), elegantly shot by longtime Egoyan collaborator Paul Sarossy – Toronto has never looked quite as chic – and fuelled by a kind of simmering, eroticized contempt for Catherine and David’s comfortable, rarified lifestyle, the film boasts a stellar cast led by Amanda Seyfried as the decidedly enigmatic Chloe. Though not the best received of Egoyan’s films, Chloe may be one of Egoyan’s finest efforts as a director perhaps because the script duties were handled by Wilson. There are numerous reasons to recommend the film: the slow, careful build-up of suspense; the deliriously sultry exchanges between Catherine and Chloe; the layered portrait of Catherine -- on the outside a confident career woman, on the inside, an emotional wreck so consumed by jealousy she’s willing to risk her family’s well being to expiate her jealousy. In addition, the portrait of Toronto is one of the most distinctive ever committed to screen. The movie was produced under the auspices of Canadian expatriate Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Picture Company.
Egoyan also made his first feature length documentary, Citadel (2006), though calling it a documentary is in some ways misleading as there are substantial fictional elements. The film begins as a relatively straightforward essayistic on Beruit, with Arsinee Khanjian, who grew up there, serving as a guide. Like his three recent features, the film includes thriller or suspense elements.
Such evident, unfailing commitment to innovation and the moving image, regardless of medium, typifies Egoyan’s output, solidifying his atypical position in Canada’s swiftly evolving film industry. Egoyan’s zealous production signifies his exemplary role throughout this shifting landscape. As auteurist hallmark and chief architect, Egoyan has helped to shape and define the contours of contemporary Canadian film, triggering, and exceeding, its promise.
In 2013, Egoyan completed and screened The Devil’s Knot, a courtroom drama about the notorious West Memphis three murder case made infamous through a series of documentaries by Americans Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Produced and financed in the United States (though Egoyan used his regular cinematographer and editor as well as many Canadian actors), the movie starred Colin Firth (whom Egoyan worked with on Where the Truth Lies) as a lawyer who defends one of the accused and Reese Witherspoon as the mother of one of the young victims. Very much an Egoyan film, the movie is more a epistemological procedural than a thriller, examining assumption, prejudice, and stereotype (many of them involving class and religion) and questioning how we rush to conclusions in this type of tragedy. Canadian actor Kevin Durand (Edwin Boyd) delivers a phenomenal, disturbing performance as one of the accused’s fathers. The film had its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
Updated November 2013
Additional notes by Steve Gravestock