Atom Egoyan (Profile)

Lunch with Atom Egoyan. He arrives late, on the run in a day of interviews. This is Toronto, his home town, but he might as well be on tour. His personal publicist hovers close by; a driver waits at the curb outside the restaurant.

Egoyan, Atom

Lunch with Atom Egoyan. He arrives late, on the run in a day of interviews. This is Toronto, his home town, but he might as well be on tour. His personal publicist hovers close by; a driver waits at the curb outside the restaurant. Affable and full of energy, Egoyan takes a seat in the corner booth, a dark wood enclosure with a thick curtain that can be drawn for privacy. Should it be open or closed? "Closed," Egoyan suggests. The curtain is drawn and suddenly the booth feels strangely private, like a sleeper compartment on a train. It is the kind of place where secrets could be revealed, with the awkward intimacy that you would expect to find...in an Atom Egoyan film. The only question is, how to catch the waiter's eye?

It is the sort of dilemma Egoyan can appreciate. He has built a career out of creating coolly hermetic worlds on film, dramas that are ripe with understated menace and employ none of the usual tricks to catch the eye of the audience. His latest movie, Felicia's Journey - which opens the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 9 to 18) this week - tells the eerie story of a gentle serial killer (Bob Hoskins) closing in on an Irish girl (Elaine Cassidy) adrift in the industrial barrens of England. There is not a single scene of violence, but there is an overwhelming sense of violation.

Egoyan's films are all about violations of innocence and trust. And, as he eventually reveals over lunch, the theme is rooted in a trauma from his own teenage years that he has been reluctant to discuss until now. "It was a really primal adolescent experience," he says. "The way in which people can camouflage things is absolutely vital to my experience of growing up."

Born in Cairo of Armenian parents, Egoyan immigrated to Victoria with his family at the age of 3. Now 39, he is the most accomplished Canadian director of his generation. With eight features to his credit, he has received two Oscar nominations, five Genies, four prizes from Cannes, five honorary degrees and a French knighthood. He lives in Toronto with his Armenian wife, Beirut-born Arsinée Khanjian, and their five-year-old son, Arshile. Khanjian, who has appeared in all his films, is now a rising star in her own right . And their creative marriage has become the quintessential Canadian immigrant success story, an artful romance of two outsiders working their way from the margins to the heart of the cultural elite.

The name Atom Egoyan, meanwhile, has become synonymous with the peculiar identity of Canadian cinema, which has acquired a reputation for introversion and sexual pathology. But despite his reputation for chilly abstraction, there is a deeply personal sense of compassion that runs through all of Egoyan's films, a fixation on the secrets and lies buried at the core of the nuclear family. From Family Viewing (1987) to The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Egoyan returns again and again to tales of bereft parents and lost children, stories in which sexuality keeps striking uncomfortably close to home.

Anyone looking at Egoyan's recent movies cannot help but notice a disturbing pattern. In 1994's Exotica, a father mourns the violent death of his daughter by ritually doting on a young stripper costumed as a schoolgirl. In The Sweet Hereafter, a father carries on an incestuous affair with his adolescent daughter. And now in Felicia's Journey, a pregnant teenager slides into the clutches of a paternal predator. Three movies. Three stories of father figures obsessed with teenage girls. It is one thing for a director to keep coming back to the same themes - Catholic redemption for Martin Scorsese, technological mutation for David Cronenberg - but the pattern in Egoyan's work is so specific, so personal and ultimately so creepy, it raises the question: What is at the bottom of it?

The obsession goes back to an experience Egoyan had as a teenager growing up in Victoria, which he has finally agreed to talk about. "There was a young woman," he says, "whom I adored from a very young age, and who was inaccessible to me for the longest time. Later on, it was revealed that there was an abusive relationship with her father. All the clues were there. But it wasn't a society at that point that could read them or respond to them, and I felt kind of helpless about it. So rather than address it, I went into denial over it, like everybody else."

The father's behaviour left Egoyan with a distressing lesson in life and art. "I suppose the thing that confused it more than anything," he says, "is that he himself was an artist, and it was so obvious what was going on, from the work he was doing and presenting publicly and the way he was behaving. But no one could actually talk about it. There was this incredible shroud of secrecy. And I was completely, madly in love with her. From about 13 to 18. And it wasn't until the last year when it became more..." Egoyan pauses. "I feel weird about it, because it's her story," he says. "The pain that she went through was a lot more than mine. I was an observer."

Egoyan never talked to the father about the incest, but ended up in awkward negotiations with him about the terms of his own romantic intentions. "When the father realized I was serious about her," he says, "I had to make promises to him which I ultimately couldn't keep - in terms of keeping my relationship with his daughter platonic. It was a very strange time, because I was living a double life." Complicating things even further is the fact that, for the girl, the incest had an element of romantic delusion. "And that's what The Sweet Hereafter explored," explains Egoyan. "What is the experience of incest on the victim when it's not the obvious exercise of violent power, but this blurring of love?"

Egoyan says that he himself had an "ideal upbringing." His parents, Joseph and Shushan, who met at art school in Egypt, are both painters. His mother, now 65, recently mounted her first solo exhibition in Victoria. And when Atom was 10, he remembers going to the provincial museum for a show of his father's work called Birds - "which was a very attractive title to the population of Victoria, until they realized these were canvases of dead birds. My father would suspend dead birds around the house. It was a little bit gothic."

His parents, who supported their art by running a small furniture store, "gave me great work models as to what an artist does," adds Egoyan, who worked in the store from a young age. "I became very aware of the mechanics of operating a small business. That gave me a very practical sense of how to manage a production, and how to be modest. And I became very aware of the making of art, and the appreciation of art. I was around it all the time. A lot of my father's friends were artists. And my sister [Eve Egoyan] is a concert pianist doing very unusual music."

But as an Armenian child trying to assimilate, Atom endured a degree of culture shock. He did not speak English when he first went to school. "I remember very clearly episodes where my parents had to explain to the teacher, 'If he says this it means he has to go to the bathroom, and if he says that, it means he's hungry.' I remember saying to a teacher in Armenian, 'I'm hungry,' and then being shown to the bathroom."

Egoyan developed a love for the absurd at an early age, crafting teenage plays in the spirit of Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter, then short films as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. By the time he made his first feature, Next of Kin (1984), at the age of 23, he says he had become "really aware of the fact that identity is possibly a construct."

Much of Egoyan's work dwells on blurred identity, a Canadian "construct" if ever there was one. In Next of Kin - which opens with a shot taken from a camera on an airport baggage carousel - a young man joins an Armenian family in Toronto by pretending to be a long-lost son. In Family Viewing, a young man learns that his father is erasing the family's home videos by shooting sex scenes with his new wife. A series of shadowy father figures began to emerge in Egoyan's films - the seductive insurance man in The Adjuster, the grieving accountant in Exotica, the manipulative lawyer in The Sweet Hereafter. But none are as dark as Hilditch, the mild-mannered monster played by Hoskins in Felicia's Journey.

Based on the 1994 novel by Irish author William Trevor, it is a spare drama that brings two characters together with quiet, claustrophobic intensity. Felicia is a naïve 17-year-old from rural Ireland who has come to the English city of Birmingham searching for Johnny, the lover who has left her pregnant. Lost, alone and unable to find him, she is befriended by Hilditch, a quiet catering manager who has made a macabre pastime of collecting and disposing of homeless girls.

Living alone in the gloomy house where he grew up, Hilditch seems locked in a time warp. He spends his nights preparing elaborate meals while watching black-and-white videos of a 1950s cooking show hosted by his dead mother. Played by Khanjian, she is a comically flamboyant character with a French accent who cruelly exploits her son (Hilditch as a chubby boy) on camera. Hilditch's video archive also includes tapes of his victims, recorded with a camera hidden in his Morris Minor. Egoyan has been developing the idea of fetishized video artifacts ever since Family Viewing. And by grafting it onto Trevor's novel, along with the burlesque horror of the cooking show, he has placed a surreal signature on an essentially realistic drama.

Repression builds in Felicia's Journey with the claustrophobic weight of English weather. Cutting between past and present, Egoyan shifts from Ireland's green fields to Britain's bleak industrial landscape, and from the sharp intolerance of Felicia's Irish-Catholic father to the insidious comfort of her English benefactor. The movie is an underhanded thriller, bereft of catharsis. And as Egoyan slowly tightens the noose of suspense (which turns out to be a slipknot), the stalking, predatory camera seems more sympathetic to the killer than to his prey. "The camera betrays the feelings of the person behind it at all moments," Egoyan explains. "I was far more fascinated in Hilditch than in Felicia. The story of a young woman looking for the father of her child is not as interesting to me, dramatically, as this monster who is responsible for evils beyond description, yet doesn't seem aware of it."

Egoyan's empathy for Hilditch popped into alarming focus during the filming. Hoskins fell sick on the day he was to improvise the videotaped scenes of the victims talking to Hilditch in his car. So Egoyan played the killer's role, which is largely off-camera. "I put on his gloves, I put on his coat, and I had to go through a serial rejection of each of these women in a car," the director recalls. Hilditch's side of the dialogue does not appear in the film, "but when you see him grab one of the women, it's my arm," says Egoyan. "What I realized in the process is that so much of my job is about trying to seduce people. The darkest side of what we do as directors is make people do something they wouldn't do otherwise - and what is Hilditch if not a director?"

So what does the director's wife think of all this, a husband who likens his metier to that of a serial killer? "There is a man of immense contradiction in Atom," says Khanjian. "There is one side of him that is very cynical and obsessed with control. He can be very dark and arrogant. But his vision is humanistic. He is obsessed with the human condition, with how innocence can be abused and how a person is redeemed."

Khanjian is her husband's fiercest supporter and most vigilant critic. "She can be brutal with him," says their friend, actor-director Don McKellar. "She challenges him all the time." Khanjian is especially wary of commercial temptations that come his way. In 1994, when Hollywood was courting him with an offer to make an erotic thriller called Dead Sleep, Egoyan says his wife "saw me in the worst kind of delusion." In the end, Egoyan declined to make the film because he wanted to cast Susan Sarandon and the studio insisted he choose from a limited "A-list" of younger, more bankable stars. "We really felt vindicated when Susan went on to win the Oscar for Dead Man Walking," adds the director.

With Felicia's Journey, Egoyan explores the thriller genre for the first time, even if he tries his best to subvert it. And the exceptionally sensitive performances that he draws from Hoskins and Cassidy show a huge progression from the archly distanced acting in his early films. Felicia's Journey is also the first movie he has not produced himself - he made it for Mel Gibson's company, Icon Entertainment International. And it is the first he has shot entirely outside his own country. (Initially, he hoped to set it in Canada, and make the heroine a francophone girl from Quebec travelling to British Columbia, but Trevor insisted the book's Irish themes were integral to the story.)

Felicia's Journey marks a watershed. For 10 years, ever since Speaking Parts, Egoyan has launched his movies at the Cannes Film Festival. And with each outing, his international profile has climbed a notch, peaking with The Sweet Hereafter, which won three prizes in Cannes and was nominated for two Oscars. Then last May, he showed up with Felicia's Journey and came home empty-handed. It was a bit of a shock, given that Egoyan's home-town mentor, David Cronenberg, headed the jury that snubbed the film - especially since it was an open secret that, when Egoyan was on the jury in 1996, he fought to create a special prize for Cronenberg's Crash.

According to McKellar, who is friends with both Egoyan and Cronenberg, "Atom took it very personally. It's sad because we have a very close-knit, supportive film community. And Atom has always really admired David." Egoyan hesitates to discuss what he calls "a really loaded issue." But, echoing widespread outrage, he says he was mystified that the Cannes acting prizes all went to non-actors: "There's a dogmatism to the decisions," he says. "The jury was trying to make a statement. And given that there were professional actors on that jury, I don't know what was going through their heads." Khanjian is more vociferous, calling Cronenberg and his jury "stingy" and "self-indulgent."

Cronenberg pleads innocence. "We just reacted to the performances that affected us," he says. "It's happenstance that it looked like a statement." Asked if he and Egoyan are still speaking, he says they have exchanged phone messages. "As far as I'm concerned, there is no rift between me and Atom."

As Canada's leading writer-directors, who both create severely idiosyncratic films, Egoyan and Cronenberg may seem joined at the hip in the public eye. But their visions are radically different. And by now, as a directorial one-man band, Egoyan has marched beyond his mentor's shadow. Working flat-out for the past three years, he has made two features, staged three operas (Salome, Dr. Ox's Experiment and his own Elsewhereless), and created a delightful short film, Bach Suite #4: Sarabande, for a TV series devoted to cellist Yo Yo Ma. Meanwhile, as he explores his passion for music, there is a mounting sense of operatic urgency to his work - in Felicia's Journey, Mychael Danna's strident sound track drives the drama with martial force.

Now, Egoyan is ready for a moment of silence. "It's been a real whirlwind," he says, "I'd like to see what happens if I just concentrate on something. I miss the solitude." He will get his chance this fall, with Arshile at school and his wife onstage in Japan and France for three months. After making two movies from novels, he keeps getting asked to do literary adaptations - he just turned down an offer from Icon to adapt D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel - and Icon wants to lock him into a multi-picture deal. But the director is keeping his options open. And he has embarked on an original screenplay, which he will only say has "elements of a historical epic."

Egoyan felt a certain romance with the past in making Felicia's Journey, which is, after all, an odyssey to the Old World. The movie is set in the present, but as he points out, the characters are trapped in the past, "so it feels like a period film." In a sense, all Egoyan's pictures feel like period films, stories of rituals and artifacts. They also feel like foreign films, in a uniquely Canadian way - portraits from an artist whose journey keeps circling back to the essential strangeness of home.

Maclean's September 13, 1999