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Inept, Righteous, and Extremely Prolific

Adoration, Dir. Atom Egoyan, Now playing at AMC Loews Village

Atom Egoyan’s ambitious eleventh feature Adoration plays like a retrospective of the director’s three decades of film work. Revamped plotlines involving role-play and cultural intolerance recall Next of Kin (1984) and Calendar (1993). Themes of voyeurism and obsession resurface from Exotica (1994), and those of loss and memory from The Sweet Hereafter (1997). The epic scope and budget of Ararat (2002) integrates with the non-chronological, mystery genre structure used in Where The Truth Lies (2005). And the final, convoluted result is Adoration.

Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan on the set of Adoration. © Sony Pictures Classics.
Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan on the set of Adoration. © Sony Pictures Classics.

The film is Egoyan’s latest installment in a series of films that deal with characters at odds with a media-saturated society. Family Viewing (1987) and Felicia’s Journey (1999) paint a stark portrait of media technology corrupting people’s ability to connect to others. Adoration, however, sings a more celebratory tune. In a world of affordable video cameras and blogs that invite the opinions of all, Adoration praises the democracy of mass communication in our contemporary world. “There is a freedom and exchange,” Egoyan says about media in a recent interview, “that is very exciting.”

Egoyan admits that problems arise from this kind of open media exchange, foremost that identity becomes increasingly abstract. Abstract characters plague Adoration. Their voices are loud and unabashed, like heated YouTube user comments or peevish online restaurant reviews. But characters defined only by political argument have limited capacity for the personal revelation that nourishes a compelling story.

Adoration’s impetus for drama arrives when teenage Simon (Devon Bostnick) delivers a fictitious monologue (presented as fact) to his classmates. The monologue describes Israeli security stopping Simon’s mother from boarding a plane; they find a bomb in her suitcase, secretly planted by Simon’s Muslim father. Simon tells this false autobiography in order to initiate the intense political debate that follows. In a later episode, Simon’s teacher Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian) falsely poses as a devout Muslim in order to challenge Simon’s racist uncle.

Simon and Sabine are symbols more than human beings. A feeling of soullessness looms over their dramatic scenes, set in front of Christmas Nativity scenes and in internet video chat-rooms filled with earnest Canadian teenagers. Granted some interesting moments of acting break through, but while they spend their screen time pursuing their social agendas, no one challenges their overwrought and condescending behavior. These characters are righteous and socially inept, and it all makes for a tedious viewing experience.

Can you do that again, only more pretentiously? © Sony Pictures Classics.
Can you do that again, only more pretentiously? © Sony Pictures Classics.

Adoration is so empty of dramatic thrust that one wonders why Egoyan is so firmly cemented as one of contemporary cinema’s leading auteurs. Adoration marks Egoyan’s tenth appearance at Cannes, where over the years he has earned four major awards and served on the international jury. At the 1987 Montreal Film Festival, Wim Wenders publicly requested that his prize for Wings of Desire instead be given to Egoyan’s Family Viewing. Egoyan received widespread critical acclaim for The Sweet Hereafter, his beautiful film adaptation of the Russell Banks novel. The film earned Egoyan directing and screenwriting nominations at the 1997 Academy Awards and demonstrated his ability at a less austere form.

Fans expecting something close to The Sweet Hereafter will be disappointed by Adoration. While capable of creating nuanced, character-driven drama, Egoyan emphasizes ideas at the expense of crafting a convincing story, and he adopts needlessly postmodern storytelling techniques to get his point across. In his early films, Egoyan analyzed a media-crazy culture by employing a self-reflective approach. By depicting stories of characters obsessed with video technology, Egoyan points to his own role of image-maker and director of the film in which others are filming. Any judgment a viewer applies to a character must ultimately boomerang back onto himself, and thus the viewer becomes a player in Egoyan’s story on par with his characters.

In Adoration, the most overbearing directorial presence asserts itself in the non-chronological structure, a device that forces the audience to interpret scenes before Egoyan provides context. One of the stronger scenes occurs as a flashback: Simon’s parents are alone in their bedroom on the eve of the mother’s flight to Israel. The father explains that he must take a different flight two days later. Since Egoyan has not yet revealed that Simon’s classroom monologue is fiction, the scene proves incredibly uncomfortable; a viewer can’t help but consider his own anti-Muslim sentiments toward a man who apparently is about to kill his pregnant wife in an act of terror. Manipulating the chronology of events becomes a narrative tool that flexes Egoyan’s directorial muscle, and in turn, allows the director to include his audience in his indictment of cultural stereotypes. Somehow, dishonestly, this seems to leave Egoyan at the top of the moral pile, holding the high ground from which he twitches his marionettes around.

This kind of assertive off-camera presence by Egoyan certainly has precedence. In Rear Window’s title sequence, a curtain rises above James Stewart’s window, aligning Stewart’s voyeurism with that of Hitchcock’s audience. In contrast with the Hollywood tradition of making filmmaking invisible, Hitchcock constantly reminds his viewer that he is there, becoming a detail himself when he makes his cameo in a distant window, manipulating time as he winds a clock. The connection to Egoyan lies in the director’s off-camera engagement of the audience as active participants, whose interpretations define the drama even more than the character’s actions. Hitchcock posited suspense as a situation in which the audience knows something that the narrative characters do not. Egoyan employs the structure of a mystery in Adoration to the opposite effect: characters know a truth that is slowly revealed to the audience. The key distinction between these two directors’ goals is that Hitchcock engages a dialogue with his audience in order to expand its interpretation of his characters. Egoyan angles for a specific catharsis for his viewer, and thus chooses to underscore the distance between his audience and his characters.

It’s clear why Egoyan is a hero for cinéastes and promoters of social awareness—categories that intersect at Cannes. Born in Cairo in 1960 to Armenian immigrant parents, his message is personal, and indeed Adoration contains food for worthy thought. For a viewer who doesn’t mind forgoing entertainment for some intellectual resituation, Egoyan’s films are rarely less than watchable and often lend elegant and expansive insights on cultural diaspora and ethnic intolerance. But even a viewer interested in these ideas might tire quickly of Egoyan’s masturbatory obsession with his own brilliance. Adoration is for those not only willing to be compliant with Egoyan’s theoretical exercises but also to accept his specific lesson in political correctness. In a final attempt to bridge the lives of the characters in the vein of Crash and Magnolia, Adoration ends with multiple, unbelievable plot twists designed to add sweeping cinematic closure and leave the viewer with a “wow.” In fact, the effect is facile, silly, and empty.


Malcolm Wyer

Malcolm Wyer--in the name of literary theory--aims to push poetry to the brink of extinction.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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