The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: February 17 - 24, 2000

[Movie Reviews]

| reviews & features | by movie | by theater | film specials | hot links |

Nuclear family

Atom Egoyan before Hereafter

by Peter Keough

Atom Egoyan "THE EARLY FILMS OF ATOM EGOYAN," At the Harvard Film Archive.

Atom Egoyan was all over the sex, lies, and videotape thing long before Steven Soderbergh made a catch phrase out of it and won a prize at Cannes in 1989. In a trilogy of films made between 1984 and 1989, the maverick Canadian auteur, who would gain renown with his Oscar-nominated masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter in 1997, explored with wit, finesse, and chilling insight the media invasions of privacy that shatter our fragile notions of identity, family, and social roles.

These three films -- Next of Kin (1984; February 18 at 7 p.m.), Family Viewing (1987; February 18 at 9 p.m.), and Speaking Parts (1989; February 20 at 6 p.m.) -- highlight "The Early Films of Atom Egoyan," along with a program of Egoyan's early shorts (February 19 at 7 p.m.) and his first film to draw international attention, The Adjuster (1991; February 20 at 8 p.m.). Together they form a compelling, ambivalent essay on narcissism, voyeurism, and the image as fetish -- in cinema in general and for Egoyan in particular. (Egoyan will appear in person at the Friday and Saturday screenings.)

Not much of the later brilliance can be discerned in his early short films, or even in some of the later ones; they seem like the earnest efforts of an average film-school student, notebook sketches of themes and obsessions Egoyan would refine in his more mature work. Heavy-handed social satire weighs down Howard in Particular (1979), a black-and-white tract on industrial dehumanization and old age, and Peep Show (1981), a sophomoric lampoon of pornography's dehumanizing effects. Egoyan's Armenian roots get a stiff treatment in the more recent Portrait of Arshile (1995), a study of the great Armenian painter Arshile Gorky's Portrait of the Artist and His Mother that's more intriguing in concept than in execution. Only in the creepy Open House (1982) does Egoyan demonstrate some of the power of his later narratives, and the recurrent theme of the image's failure to fill the void of the family.

After such a shaky start (or maybe it's just the short form -- Egoyan's films take a while to envelop the viewer in their mood and rhythms), his first feature, Next of Kin, comes as a revelation. Peter (Patrick Tierney), the white-bread scion of well-to-do parents, feels no connection to his parents, life, or future. His folks take him to a therapist, who naturally videotapes the proceedings, and though Peter docilely obliges them, he covertly steals the videotape of another family's therapy session. And so Peter becomes Bedros, the long-missing son given up for adoption as an infant by an immigrant Armenian family. They are overjoyed to take him back into the fold, unfazed by the fact that he towers over them and bears no resemblance to anyone in the family. The new arrangement not only restores Peter's sense of self but heals his adopted family's rifts.

A similar process is at work in Family Viewing, but here it's the grandmother who gets switched. Eighteen-year-old Van (Aidan Tierney), the estranged son of Stan (David Hemblen), shows his distaste for his current ménage (his mother has left and his father has taken up with another woman, who shows a more-than-stepmotherly interest in Van) by visiting his Armenian maternal grandmother in the nursing home. Also visiting the home is Aline (the striking Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan's wife and frequent collaborator), whose invalid Armenian mother looks a lot like Van's granny. When Aline's mother dies, Van switches the old women's identities, and he, Aline, and Van's grandmother -- now Aline's mother -- move into a brave new household.

Stylistically, Egoyan ventured into new terrain with Family Viewing; with its ubiquitous video screens and cameras, it becomes more about viewing than about family. This reflexivity grows more pervasive and fluid in Speaking Parts, a kind of postmodern Grand Hotel. The people who come and go -- and to whom nothing really happens, except as a flickering image -- include Lance (Michael McManus), an aspiring actor working as a hotel housekeeper; Lisa (Arsinée Khanjian again), a co-worker who is obsessed with Lance and rents out all the movies in which he plays non-speaking parts; and Clara (Gabrielle Rose), a screenwriter who wants to cast Lance in a movie based on her family tragedy. The three plot lines interweave with fugal elusiveness until they begin to blur, simultaneously obscuring the distinction between image and reality in a climax that suggests a toned-down version of David Cronenberg's Videodrome.

But it was in the appropriately titled The Adjuster that Egoyan at last attempted to leave the cocoon of the family home (or its surrogate artifice, the hotel) and enter the adult world. Its complex portrayal of an insurance adjuster, his movie-censor wife, and the perverse intermingling of their realms should be deeper and funnier than it is. But the film is preparation, perhaps, for the hothouse blooming of subsequent films such as Exotica (1994). In the context of his past work, and despite the recent misstep of Felicia's Journey, Egoyan's hereafter looks sweet indeed.

[Movies Footer]