Egoyan and Me

‘When all this is over, there’s nothing of me that you will be able claim as yours...’

This is not a direct quote. These words are a thought, easily formulated by any survivor of a psychological or physical ordeal. It’s a refusal to remain a victim. It’s inner strength’s own private statement. It was with a confident smile that I offered a version of this thought to my academic experience.

Overall, my film education was far from traumatic, but I remember clearly the all-encompassing sense of disenchantment, the disappointment with the lack of genuine stimulation of one’s talent, and the absolute outrage of witnessing my grades being lowered for not seeking a specific tutor’s approval.

The library at the now defunct Psalter Lane Campus was great, though, and it could’ve easily hosted the moment of that most private thought. It was in my first year at university, amidst the rows of over-handled, sticky video boxes, that I became properly acquainted with the work of Canadian film director Atom Egoyan. As with a handful of other filmmakers that I previously admired, his cinema reflected back a lot of what I held as being precious cornerstones of the art of capturing time.

Slow pace was in perfect harmony with the gradual reveal of intentions in his completely character-driven films. With great recognition, I would also witness, film after film, his sobriety of tone and precise aesthetics – akin to David Cronenberg, a fellow cerebral Canadian – and his understanding of the cinematic potential of the opacity of the human face, of which Michelangelo Antonioni (who redefined modern cinema) was master. But, above all, I would recognise something a lot less tangible.

The cultural displacement that his upbringing (of Armenian descent) generated in him can be seen as the most crucial influence in his films. The rigorous detachment with which events and behavioural patterns are observed can only be attained by feeling removed from the generic traits of the dominant culture. That was something which I was experiencing most acutely at the time (having arrived from Portugal to live and study in England), but in truth had been present throughout my entire life (with my African family roots).

All these aspects can be found in the semi-elliptical masterpieces The Adjuster (1991), Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Yet, in direct contradiction to the personal identification I felt, it’s the latter that marked the beginning of my falling out of love with the man, in the shape of Ararat (2002).

Despite being rich in details that I admired and appreciated for being quintessential Egoyan, the aspects connecting the much-disputed Armenian genocide of 1915 at Turkish hands with fictionalised personal trajectories were uncomfortably heavy-handled. The lack of subtlety which punctuated the film was evidence of a director being too close to the material. Then along came 2005’s Where the Truth Lies, the campiness of which sealed my unconscious farewell to his work. Almost ten years would go by, with his subsequent films being glimpsed from afar. Until now.

The Captive (2014) is a psychological thriller revolving around the abduction of a young girl, the impact this has on her parents, the truncated investigation that ensues and the association of the responsible paedophile ring behind it with the pillars of the local community. It’s old-fashioned and Hitchcockian in the best possible sense.

So what are the reasons for its poor reception? From the booing at the last Cannes Film Festival to the general consensus of most reviews, the film has taken a serious beating, which does not correspond to the undeniable quality of filmmaking displayed.

The only two so-called justifications for this could have something to do with, firstly, the fact that Dennis Villeneuve’s delayed release of the similarly-themed Prisoners (2013) overlapped with its appearance, and, secondly but more importantly, with an audience’s perception.

Ill-placed expectations have corrupted the vast majority of film viewers to the point that the choice of revealing the culprit from the outset can become detrimental in the appreciation of a film. Everything else – the cohesive tone, the clarity of intention on the part of the filmmaker – is instantly disregarded, as if a ‘whodunit’ would always be better to cope with, because then it becomes a matter of identifying plot holes or being taken by surprise. It’s an utterly selfish approach to a film.

Why is The Captive great for me? To put it plainly: because I can recognise all the hallmarks of Atom Egoyan’s cinema in it. The very familiar fascination with the procedural, the well-observed human behaviour leading to questionable methods under duress and the perfect understanding of grief – it’s all there. As the narrative moves back and forth in time, echoes of his best previous films made me smile, like a re-acquaintance with the special traits of an old friend.

The acting is so perfectly-tuned – from Kevin Durand’s terrifying presence to Mireille Enos’s powerhouse of barely contained emotion – that, in the non-verbal finale, there’s a thought you can clearly read on a face made less opaque: ‘There’s nothing of me that you are able claim as yours...’  

João Paulo Simões

Film Listings

Hosted by Samantha Holland

Pride

Matthew Warchus, UK, 2014
Saturday 14 February | 3.30m & 7.30pm | Film Unit, Sheffield SU | £2.50.
This film tells of the unlikely alliance forged between striking miners in 1984 and a London-based LGBT group who supported them. Set in deepest darkest Wales, the film tells the tale of how the group had to circumnavigate the embarrassed NUM to take their donation direct to the miners. Link


Away We Go

Sam Mendes, USA/UK, 2009
Sunday 15 February | 7.30pm | 215 Sharrow Vale Road | £3 OTD
A quirky road trip movie, Away We Go follows a couple expecting their first child on their travels around the US to find the perfect place to settle down after their original plans are disrupted by their relatives. This film garnered mixed reviews, but offers ways to think about what constitutes ‘home’ and what’s important in life. Link


Films/Coffee/Music at #9

Monday 16 February | 7pm | Café #9 | Free
This month, a selection of shorts from the 50s and 60s with a popular music theme, and covers of Everly Brothers hits performed live to complement the movies. All You Have to Do is Dream and it’ll be the Age of Aquarius! Café open till 9pm, with warming drinks and snacks available. Link


The Blue Angel

Josef von Sternberg, USA, 1930
Sunday 22 February | 2pm | Showroom | £7.10
In cahoots with Sheffield’s Magic Lantern Film Club, the Showroom is showing this fabulous Marlene Dietrich showcase as the first of three in a Film Bites season. It’s a stunning movie, in which Dietrich’s character lures an uptight schoolmaster far away from respectability via the machinations of lust and immorality. Link


Don’t Look Now

Nicolas Roeg, USA, 1973
Thursday 26 February | 6pm | Showroom | £8.10
A meditation on death, this eerie film has a well-deserved reputation for building suspense. Showing as part of the Philosophy at the Showroom season, you will be invited to consider what this film says to us about why we watch horror, and how we can be terrified of things we know cannot be real… Link