No surprise when the lockdown conversations – you know, the ones on Zoom or Skype with family and friends – turn to what films and TV you’re currently watching, the hidden gems and what to avoid.
Some names have a strong Marmite effect, and this month the Canadian Armenian director Atom Egoyan in particular seems to be one of those love/hate auteurs.
I’ve heard nothing but bad things lately about his 2009 film Chloe, currently showing on Mubi.com (yes, Mubi is cool, especially if you’re an early adopter on one of those free-for-the-first-few-months deals).
No, I’ve not caught that particular film, and I’ve been told several times to avoid it – is it really that bad? But I always end up defending some of Egoyan’s earlier work that has stuck with me. No doubt these are very different kettles of fishes, but I also reckon they show a smart, thoughtful and wide-ranging film-maker at work.
For example, Egoyan wrote and directed Felicia’s Journey (1999), starring a young Elaine Cassidy (brilliant), and Bob Hoskins at his best as a sinister serial killer with a Brummie accent called Hilditch. Roll the trailer…
I’ve written about the film before – it’s a powerful reworking of William Trevor’s novel. Among Egoyan’s major changes he introduces the character of Gala, played by his wife and frequent collaborator Arsinée Khanjian.
Gala, who is idolised by Hilditch (is she his mum?), is an eccentric TV chef who may have come across as OTT at the time but makes perfect sense in this Post Nigella Epoch.
Anyway, between you and me there might well be a copy or two of the full film floating around out there on the likes of the YouTubes, so catch it while you can.
* * *
Then there’s Calendar (1993). This is Egoyan in a more personal, experimental, indie phase: it’s low-budget, intriguing and odd. Odd in the best sense.
The plot involves a right gobshite of a photographer (played by Egoyan himself) who is taking pictures of Armenian churches, many of them gobsmackingly beautiful. His wife (Arsinée Khanjian again) is with him on the trip, acting as translator.
Roll it there, Colette…
Actually that trailer doesn’t quite do it justice. This is definitely not a comedy road movie in the vein of, say, Sideways.
The photographer’s pictures are for a calendar. The calendar in turn turns out to be one of the film’s story-telling devices, alongside a landline phone (remember them?), and a pen-and-paper notebook (ditto).
Oh, and an answering machine (double ditto), a dining table with wine and dessert plates, the photographer’s video camera and so on. A serious load of devices there, which also reinforce the structure and symmetries and rhythms of the story.
Much of the film is in Armenian, with no subtitles. This seems deliberate. When it comes to the conversations in Armenian between the wife and their driver guy, most of the audience – like the photographer himself – will have to rely on her translations. So this is a film very much about language. Language and (mis)understanding.
We’re both from here, yet being here has made me from somewhere else
There’s a telling moment about half an hour in where the photographer says he thinks an old pagan temple “looks like a bank”. He gets pissed off that their driver – who knows and cares far more about these temples and churches – might be getting ideas above his station, as someone who’s about to start acting as “a guide” who can demand more money “or whatever”.
All these moments from the Armenian trip are intercut with scenes months later in yer man’s flat back in Toronto. The photographer’s marriage has collapsed and he is shown dining in, with a succession of women from a dating agency or escort agency or suchlike. Who all speak Armenian.
Just two main settings then, Armenia and Toronto. The exterior / rural / traditional / “foreign” as opposed to the interior / urban / modern / “home”. Or so it seems.
It’s two contrasting worlds on so many other levels too: in the visual composition, in the serious repetitions, in the overall filming styles and acting – improv and naturalistic versus staged or formulaic or contrived; grainy bleached video versus rich film palette; two very different POVs; two very different music soundtracks etc etc etc etc. This film has a list of binary opposites as long as my two arms, if they were much longer arms.
Mixed in with the themes of obsession and jealousy are questions of identity and belonging. The photographer says – in a voiceover, so this may well be internal monologue rather than direct speech – that he’s being made to feel a stranger. As he puts it, “We’re both from here, yet being here has made me from somewhere else.”
Maybe the biggest question of all in this story, though, is “Who gets to tell the story?”
Psst: once again, you might well find a copy of the full film on the YouTubes out there….