Interview: ATOM EGOYAN

English Daily #1
Returning to open GAIFF with his sixteenth feature film Seven Veils, the Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan reflects on the mysterious and overwhelming process of creating art. Partially set behind the scenes of Egoyan’s very own restaging of the Salome opera in Toronto, Seven Veils peels away layer after layer, ultimately unveiling the pure trauma that lies behind this spectacle.

There is something ironic about presenting Seven Veils as the opener of a film festival, considering Atom Egoyan’s sixteenth feature shows all the hardship and pain that is put in the opening performance of an opera staging. In stark black-and-white, Seven Veils explores artistic differences, creative clashes, power imbalances and hierarchical exploitation taking place behind the scenes of the contemporary opera world. However, the film is also keen to show that despite — or perhaps because? — these transgressions, genuine art can be created in the process. Art that delves deep into the subconscious, or is able to transcend itself in its reach for the supernatural. It’s a force of energy that cannot be contained, and yet it is captured magnificently in this multi-layered work by the Canadian-Armenian auteur.

With early masterpieces such as The Adjuster, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan established himself as a crafty filmmaker with a predisposition towards tangled narratives that explore the pure trauma buried deep in most human beings. In this regard, Seven Veils can be seen as a return to form, mostly in the ways it ingeniously explores the anguish of theater director Jeanine (a brilliant Amanda Seyfried, starring in her second Atom Egoyan feature) in her obsessive quest to restage the opera Salome. In that piece, Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils holds special meaning, as it’s the purest expression of all the lust, desire and violence that takes hold of the infamous myth that was turned into theater by Oscar Wilde and then transformed into opera by Richard Strauss. For Egoyan, the play becomes a metaphorical space to explore the depths of the human psyche once more, resulting in one of his most personal and ambitious films to date.

You initially presented a staging of the Salome opera in 1996. Recently, you remounted that performance again, and channeled that experience into the creation of the fiction film Seven Veils. How do you see the relationship between your opera and this film?
“Presenting Salome in the 1990s was a very important step for me, because it meant a return to live theater. I spent most of my early twenties doing theater, but when I started making films, I moved away from that. So, when I staged the first rendition of Salome, it was a reminder of how powerful a medium theater actually is. This was a project that I did between Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter —two films that deal with this idea of abuse in a very discreet, and almost hidden, way. The opera deals with it very directly by unveiling the violence of desiring a thing too much, and the consequences of what can happen when that desire is frustrated and withheld from you.”

After Chloe, Seven Veils is your second collaboration with lead actress Amanda Seyfried. Her character Jeanine embodies many of the recurring themes within your oeuvre, including this lingering trauma that is buried deep within the human psyche. You only slowly reveal those deeper, more unsettling feelings though, resulting in a kind of slow burning thriller. What attracts you to this approach?
“When we're going to live theater, we understand that what we're watching is something artificial and, yet, gradually we find ourselves emotionally invested. I wanted to find something in the film form which would allow us to feel such a theatrical investment, where we suddenly find ourselves completely enmeshed in what's happening at an emotional level. There's something very seductive about that. So, the film is full of these veils — different characters, different technologies, different sorts of processes — that hide what lies at its core, which is so raw and unbearably violent. That is where it leads to at the end, but I wanted the journey towards that to be measured.”

Technology and media often work as a veil in your films, either revealing or obscuring the deeper truths of your narratives.
“You’re right that in my earlier films, there's a lot of characters who are trying to reconstruct things based on the technology and the media they take in. In the case of Jeanine, there's the anxiety that she won’t be able to recreate the magic of what she's seeing in recordings from previous stagings of Salome by her old mentor. But, of course, it also unveils her own relationship to her past. So, in the process of remounting this opera, something else is being generated, quite unexpectedly, basically raising questions that can't be answered.”

The cultural landscape looked very different in 1996 than it does now in the 2020s. It seems that this film consciously addresses what we have picked up after the #MeToo movement, mostly the exploitation and transgressive behavior that still surrounds the world of film and theater.
“If I was to be perfectly honest, I would say that when the Canadian Opera Company decided to remount Salome in 2023, I'd have preferred a woman directing it. I think we need new Salome's and new perspectives on that text. But the budgetary reality is that it's very expensive to create a new opera. So, it makes sense, economically speaking, to remount an older version. But knowing that we weren't going to get a new version by a non-male director, I created this female character, which becomes my fantasy of a woman reclaiming this production. I will also say that the opera world is one of those places where you still find this transgressive behavior that one of the actors shows in the film. It’s almost as if some of them are still enabled to be like that, given that they do something so incredibly special that they become a kind of superhuman.”

That ties in to what seems to be one of the major themes of the film: how these supernatural talents can also turn people into monsters. Salome itself is also about monstrosity and what it means to give up your humanity.
“That’s exactly right! Like what creates a monster? What provokes that? And how do we define when an action becomes monstrous? I'm so glad that the film is asking those questions. Maybe this is what ties Seven Veils to my earlier films, because ultimately these intellectual concepts are filtered through complex human beings. And in this case, it’s really embodied by Jeanine, in all her isolation and vulnerability. And then you see the relationships that she has, and how they’re filtered through these technologies that also isolate her. Meanwhile, in the midst of all that, she tries to make something extraordinary.”

To commemorate the centennial of Charles Aznavour, GAIFF also shows your 2002 film Ararat which starred the iconic singer and actor. How do you look back on that experience?
“When people ask me what it’s like to work with stars, they usually think of people like Colin Firth or Liam Neeson or Reese Witherspoon or whoever. I always say that the biggest star I ever worked with was Charles Aznavour, mostly in the way he was able to feed into the world's imagination. I will never forget when he arrived at the airport in Toronto, and I went to pick him up personally. It was so surreal that he was there to play this part and that he had taken the time to study it. I'll never be able to thank him anymore, for being there with the film, for also being in Cannes at the steps to the Palais des Festivals, just in front of the premiere of the film. Usually, they just play the music from the film that’s being presented, so in this case, they're playing music from Mychael Danna’s score, but then they’re also playing his songs. Because the two became sort of kind of connected at this point. So, I can't understate what a privilege it was to work with this great artist. And you know what? He trusted the film. He understood it was complex and that's what he valued about it.”

Hugo Emmerzael

photo by Ulysse del Drago