Director and screenwriter Atom Egoyan’s latest film, currently making the rounds from its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, to the Toronto Film Festival, to the London Film Festival in October, is first and foremost a mystery.
Many of the veteran director’s films fit into that category, but rarely in the usual sense that involves a crime being solved or a political secret being unearthed. The secrets in Egoyan’s films involve things that are hidden from family or friends, feelings that are suppressed, intentions that are slowly clarified, long-buried resentments that begin to bear fruit — all gradually revealed through what might be called clues, but which are spun together in a completely absorbing human drama. While these are not mysteries in the conventional sense, it does make sense that Egoyan is a great admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, who had a similar fascination with hidden things being revealed.
Although his films are well written and beautifully executed, Egoyan’s main talent is for telling a story that raises the viewer’s interest in finding answers: Why is he doing this? What is going on between them? What happens next? In Guest of Honour, the entire storyline is an ongoing mystery. We are, at first, shown what is happening but given no background or explanation. As the essential facts come together, the underlying puzzle emerges: that of motivation. We are left to piece together the reasons for each character’s behaviour, when many of their actions appear, at first, to make no sense, or have intentions that are buried many layers deep. The closer we come to understanding each character’s Why, the better we understand the characters themselves, and the relationships between them, in a cross between a classic murder mystery and a family melodrama.
In a story that takes place in several different time periods, through multiple flashback, the film’s present-day base camp is a deeply familial one: planning the funeral of a family member. The film opens on Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) meeting with a clergyman, Father Greg (Luke Wilson), to discuss the funeral of her recently deceased father, Jim (David Thewlis). The first question of motive arises already: Jim had left clear instructions that his funeral was to be held at this parish, although he did not attend the church, and did not know Father Greg. Possible and intriguing explanations are suggested in the course of the film.
As Veronica tries to answer questions about her father for the purposes of a eulogy, establishing the film’s central relationship, that of father and daughter, the film goes into the first of the extended flashbacks which make up the main part of the film. Jim was a food inspector, a job that partly defines the character and drives the story. In a montage, we see him carefully investigating conditions in restaurants and markets. He appears painstaking and stern, but we see him join in the celebration at a family restaurant when the place was approved or cleared to reopen. He also gives a friendly warning to a food vendor, displaying his credentials but declining to report the business for hygiene violations on this occasion, an act that seems to reveal Jim as conscientious but kindly – until later events turn this event completely on its head. The same uncertainty, the same overturning of assumptions and rethinking of the seemingly obvious, the insistence that people are complicated and act for mixed and complex reasons, recurs throughout the film.
A second set of flashbacks involve Jim visiting his daughter in prison – on what charge, we do not at first know, but Jim presumes her innocence, while struggling with vague feelings of guilt that he may be somehow responsible for her plight. it is here that the unanswered questions concerning the father/daughter relationship begin to emerge in full force. Veronica’s angry, bitter reactions to her father’s visit, and seemingly pointless and stoic refusal to accept a diminished sentence, are not directly explained, even as the events leading to her arrest are slowly revealed, and Veronica gives her own account of the incident to Father Greg. (One minor spoiler might be in order: no, the story does not lead to the common movie conclusion, with the father having been abusive.) Their story is told backwards, peeling back layers of pretence, self-deception, misunderstanding, or reserve over the years since Veronica’s childhood, each newly revealed layer providing a little more insight, and removing yet another discredited assumption, in an almost morbidly fascinating process.
Because the main characters are so reticent or lacking in self-awareness, the truth is not always revealed through their words and actions, but almost in spite of them. The performance of the key actors becomes essential, and director Egoyan, whom David Thewlis has called “one of the very, very best directors for performance,” one who works intensely with his actors, has each character’s true feelings and personality revealed subtly, through countless means: body language, clothing and possessions, vocal inflection, reactions to seemingly trivial events. For example, Veronica, a friendly but no-nonsense high school teacher, shows another side of herself through her exuberant physical movements while conducting her students’ orchestra. Even Jim’s unusual profession is suggestive. Egoyan commented during a TIFF appearance that the position of food inspector involves responsibility, a guardianship of the public health; but also gives the inspector an uncomfortable level of power, in being able to judge, and even more in having the authority to shut down workplaces, possibly ruin a family’s livelihood.
We see both sides of this position over the course of Jim’s story, and his professional behaviour reveals new facets of his personality with every scene. More insight is provided by scenes in which characters interact with pets (pet rabbits, specifically, which take on a greater symbolism as the film unwinds) and are therefore less cautious about revealing their true selves; and in one instance of alcohol-feuled sincerity. The latter, drunken scene plays with the theme of hidden meanings and misconstruction by means of restaurant owners presenting an elaborate façade to Jim during an inspection, using the fact that they speak a foreign language to more completely deceive him. Even the title, Guest of Honour, offers some ironic commentary relating to a key scene. Finally, the camerawork and music provide generous hints as to what is going on beneath the surface, guiding the audience when the characters’ reticence leaves their feelings obscure.
Further extended flashbacks reveal the source of Veronica’s legal troubles, then delve further into her childhood, slowly and painfully unearthing the source of her animosity and pointless guilt, and still more about Jim himself, finally allowing an explanation of the father-daughter relationship, and coming full circle. It is a film with so much going on, at so many levels at once, that it requires attention to properly appreciate; but is genuinely enjoyable in its unusual, striking, heartfelt study of human relations. David Thewlis and Laysla De Oliveira are both brilliant in their extremely challenging, carefully nuanced roles; their excellent work reinforced by character actor Rossif Sutherland as a key figure in Veronica’s arrest, and Luke Wilson as the mild but evocative Father Greg, along with a well chosen supporting cast. Most of the credit, though, goes to Atom Egoyan’s subtle, carefully written, mystery-riddled script, and his proficiency at bringing it to life.