REVIEW: Egoyan's Cool Intellectualism Takes on Genocide
by by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE: 11.15.02) -- Atom Egoyan is exploring his roots yet again. Of Armenian heritage, born in Egypt, yet calling Canada home, he explored these multinational conflicts way back in "Calendar." In that 1993 film, Egoyan directed himself as a photographer who goes to Armenia to photograph churches for a calendar. Always looking through his camera lens at his wife, their guide, and the landscapes, this emotionally atrophied photog can't make any spiritual connection with anyone or anything. When asked if he it would have made any difference to him if he had been sent to France to shoot French churches, he replies, "No!" A job is a job."
Now, in "Ararat" (which Miramax releases today), Egoyan has Edward (Charles Aznavour), a highly-respected Armenian director helming a film about the 1915 genocide in which Turks have been accused of brutally slaughtering more than 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children. In a pivotal scene, one so emblematic of Egoyan's craft, we watch a young pregnant woman, flung against a cart, being raped by a Turk. Her daughter crouches under the wheels in horror.
But Egoyan is not going for an easy horror, and his chronicling of this event employs a distancing conceit. Egoyan clearly doesn't want us to be cringing in the cinema so we can afterwards congratulate ourselves for being so moved. But we do get horrified. Then we recall that what we are watching is a film about the making of a film of a historical event. What's on screen are actors playing actors who are playing victims. Also we've already been told that the director and screenwriter (Eric Bogosian) of this film-within-a-film are nudging history a little bit this way and that. Even Mount Ararat, all 16,945 feet of it, is picked up and moved about for effect. So we eventually ask ourselves, "Are we watching a true event or a manufactured one?" "Does this scene even capture the essence of the horrors of the actual annihilation that took place, or is it a TV-movie-of-the-week commercial-oriented take-off?"
We shouldn't be surprised with the technique. Egoyan's cinema has always been one of emotional displacement. Take "Speaking Parts" (1990). There, in a hotel where room service includes gigolos on call, everyone is connecting with each other through VCRs and video-conference phones. Even nearby mausoleums have videos of your loved ones so you can watch the deceased walk away from you over and over again. At the time of its U.S. release, The Washington Post's Desson Howe noted: "Egoyan keeps the viewer at an emotional distance from the human characters (when anything passionate is about to occur, he cuts away from it)."
In "Exotica" (1995), much of the action takes place in a strip club where Francis (Bruce Greenwood), a tax adjuster, is one of dozens of voyeurs not allowed to touch the objects of their desire. His passion is a former baby-sitter-turned-stripper dressed up as a school girl whom he fantasizes is his murdered daughter. In the "Adjuster" (1992), an insurance adjuster thrives on his customers' sorrows, taking them on as lovers and family members. He's even married one. His problem: he can't confront his own emotional problems. This film caused Roger Ebert to opine: "I am willing to guess that [Egoyan] is one of those people who loves puzzles and paradoxes, who sees the world in a wry, skewed way, who is vastly amused that what we take for granted might be a complete deception."
Then in "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997), Egoyan's most successful film to date, a lawyer who gets involved in the monetary aspects of a tragic school bus accident can only communicate with his drug-addicted daughter over the telephone. As for Felicia's "Journey"(1999), a serial killer videotapes his victims before their demise when he's not watching tapes of his beloved/hated mother's cooking show.
Which brings us back to "Ararat." Besides Edward and his cast and crew, we have an airport customs agent played quite well by Christopher Plummer. His name is David and he unhappily has a gay son, Philip (Brent Carver), who is in a relationship with Ali (Elias Koteas), an actor of Turkish descent. Ali gets a part in the film as a vicious Turk. The film, by the way, has a distraught historical advisor, Ani (Egoyan's wife Arsinee Khanjian). Ani's son, after sleeping with his stepsister who detests Ani, is being held up at the airport by David, who suspects he's smuggling drugs. It's sort of like "La Ronde" without venereal disease. The question Egoyan asks in this film is whether trying to feel something is that much better than just avoiding the realization that you're numb.
If only Egoyan took a chance. The main problem with his "Ararat" is that it's a subject that should overwhelm us intellectually and emotionally. Egoyan's already made his point time and again that modern technology has increasingly distanced us from experiencing the joys of life and the ability to cope with everyday sorrows. But the Armenians don't need any more intellectual game-playing with their past. They need a catharsis.
But even though "Ararat" doesn't achieve one because of Egoyan's astute, cool intellectual powers and directorial finesse, the film cannot be quickly dismissed, especially if you're an Egoyan disciple. You do become concerned about the characters, their relationships, and the issues. If only you could feel them.