Guest of Honour Atom Egoyan

David Thewlis in Guest of Honour

Atom Egoyan on the puzzle-box structure of his new film Guest of Honour

The Canadian filmmaker on editing, becoming your parents and adding a touch of Armenian.

In Guest of Honour, David Thewlis plays Jim, a former restaurant owner turned health inspector. As the film opens, Jim’s daughter Veronica (Laysla de Oliviera) is making funeral plans for her father. She explains all of the particularities of her life to a priest (Luke Wilson), including the fact that Veronica has only recently gotten out of jail for improper contact with a 17-year-old student when she herself was a high school teacher. As Guest of Honour unfolds, director Atom Egoyan unwraps increasing levels of tragedy and trauma surrounding the two characters.

When I spoke to Atom Egoyan last fall after the film had played Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (FNC), I opened our conversation by speaking about the decision to make the character a health inspector. The first few sequences in which he’s seen focusing almost entirely on the minutiae of his job prove to be rather fascinating to watch, but also pretty telling of a man who seems to have a strange, self-flagellating vendetta.

“He’s focusing on ethnic restaurants, for sure, and he seems to be targeting those restaurants,” says Atom Egoyan. “Given his background as a restaurateur and the adventurousness of his pursuit, plunging into the cuisine of other cultures… it’s almost as if he’s taking that impulse and punishing it. When his daughter tells him that everything she’s absorbed was through him, there’s that sense that all these things he’s doing reflect on aspects of his own life that he’s trying to erase or reconfigure. It’s not such an odd choice given what we know about him and how calculating he can be. (…) I think it’s happened in a few of my films, where you have insurance adjusters or lawyers… there’s something about the job that allows them to express neuroses they wouldn’t be able to express otherwise.

“I had this bar in Toronto about 15 years ago called Camera,” Egoyan continues. “We always passed the health inspection, but there was always this idea that this person had a lot of power when he came in. In doing the research, I came across this story about this very famous brasserie in Manhattan that did not survive a health inspection and was closed down. It had completely destroyed the owner. I just really liked the idea that someone who has that kind of control and is able to play with that has so little control over what’s happening in his own life. For that period of time where he’s doing the inspection, there’a something meditative about that. The inspection itself is very structured.”

Atom Egoyan Guest of Honour
Atom Egoyan

Another aspect of Guest of Honour centres around the heredity of personality — the way we inevitably become like our parents, even if we try to live our lives in a way where we won’t repeat their mistakes or take on their bad traits. But what Guest of Honour (and nearly everyone’s life) suggests is that there’s no getting around it.

“You really can’t, right?” says Egoyan. “I have to try not to be like my parents. Before, it seemed obvious, but now it’s like — that is what my father would have done. The curious thing about Veronica is, from the glimpses we get of the mother, she would’ve been a very different person if the mother had still been present. That would’ve been balanced out, in some way. But the other thing is that she was around a man who was deeply grieving. We don’t see those events in the film, but we do see her teenage years. That was a very troubled time, but we don’t see it.”

Guest of Honour has a few things in common with Egoyan’s previous film, the Christopher Plummer-starring Remember. The most obvious commonality is that both films have a bit of a puzzle-box structure that peels away at layers of an ostensibly straight-forward story in order to keep the viewer guessing. (Remember is more linear in its structure, but it does have some narrative tricks up its sleeve.)  Guest of Honour’s actual narrative is almost entirely contained in the sequences featuring Wilson as the priest, but that doesn’t form the actual meat of the story. For Egoyan, the decision to tell the story in such a nonlinear way came early.

Remember was a challenge I gave myself,” says Egoyan. “The film before that was The Captive, and there were maybe too many timelines and I was really pushing it as far as I could. I thought it was a genre film; it’s almost like a formula, what with the father losing his daughter and so on. I’d done Chloe with Liam Neeson and we’d become sort of close; I saw all the Takens and I thought ‘Oh, my God!’ I wanted to play with that formula. After that, I wanted to see if I could tell a linear story, which was Remember. That one just moves forward. (…) It was always written with the five timelines. To make the film in 20 days, you need to have an extremely structured script that you can break down in order to actually shoot the material. What you’re really trying to do is get as much material as possible because when you bring it into the editing room, you might have to completely restructure. In the case of The Sweet Hereafter, that was completely restructured. This one actually felt pretty close to the script.”

Guest of Honour Atom Egoyan
Laysla de Oliviera in Guest of Honour by Atom Egoyan

As it turns out, a lot of Egoyan’s work happens in the editing room — and has happened in the editing room for years.

“Even now, it’s interesting watching Guest of Honour. If I was still editing, there are still little things that I would change,” he continues. “You can’t keep fiddling — although now you can, thanks to digital. I went back to a film I made, Devil’s Knot, which I was never really… I put it into the computer and sort of just fiddled with it while I was editing this film. There’s ways you can do that now which you can’t with film. It’s still kind of malleable. I’m not going to re-release it, but if it’s shown in a retrospective, for example, I might have a better version of it.

“The problem with my filmmaking is that there are camera moves that are attached to dialogue,” he explains. “Once in a while, there might be a bit of dialogue that you feel is unnecessary but it’s attached to a camera movement. You might want to take it out, but it would make a shot too abrupt. It’s tough to stop editing. You could just keep going. At some point you’ll have to deliver to the composer and when you get the music back, you realize that you need to go back because the music is making you feel something different and you want to change the rhythm.”

The last act of Guest of Honor is set in an Armenian restaurant — a sort-of return to form for the Armenian-Canadian Egoyan, who has not explicitly tackled Armenian content since his 2002 film Ararat.

“It’s a culture I feel comfortable with, obviously, and I wanted it to feel authentic,” he explains. “It’s weird — I was thinking about my very first film, Next of Kin. There’s a big Armenian party scene in that, too. It’s kind of interesting to go from Next of Kin to Guest of Honour and there’s still this idea there. It was very moving yesterday because all of my Armenian family who lives in Montreal was at the screening, and I thought it was so beautiful to have this energy of a tribe. It’s not how I was raised. My parents moved to Victoria and we were the only Armenian family there. So there was this idea of the fantasy. Maybe if I was raised within it, I would just take it for granted, but to me, it’s warm. It’s not even something that I feel when I’m in Armenia, necessarily. It’s very specific to this diasporic culture. Any of the cultures examined in this film — the German, the Italian, the Chinese, the Salvadorian — if I was one of those people, I could’ve set it in that culture, but it wouldn’t have been as authentic. There wouldn’t have been those nuances.” ■

Guest of Honour by Atom Egoyan comes to on VOD on Friday, July 10. Watch the trailer here:

Guest of Honour by Atom Egoyan

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