Film

BOMBED-OUT ATOM

Despite a payload of sex and stars, Egoyan’s bid for the mainstream misfires

BRIAN D. JOHNSON October 17 2005
Film

BOMBED-OUT ATOM

Despite a payload of sex and stars, Egoyan’s bid for the mainstream misfires

BRIAN D. JOHNSON October 17 2005

BOMBED-OUT ATOM

Despite a payload of sex and stars, Egoyan’s bid for the mainstream misfires

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

ROBERT LANTOS is on the phone, and he has a beef. Canada’s foremost movie mogul is berating Maclean’s for running a shot of director Atom Egoyan and his wife, actress Arsinée Khanjian, in a recent photo spread accompanying a story about the Toronto International Film Festival. “Every single photograph showed movie stars,” says Lantos. “But for Where the Truth Lies, you ran a picture of the director. People don’t care about directors. People care about stars.” I suggest that Egoyan added a splash of CanCon to a sea of Hollywood faces, and that he may be as familiar to Canadians as Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth or

Alison Lohman—the foreign stars of Where the Truth Lies. But Lantos, its producer, won’t hear of it: “Movie stars sell movies. Only a small elite cares about Atom Egoyan.” What’s deeply ironic in all this is that no one has played a more instrumental role in elevating Egoyan’s stature than Lantos— who served as his producer on Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter,

Felicia’s Journey and Ararat. But with Where the Truth Lies, Egoyan’s career has hit a perilous crossroads. This Canada-U.K. co-

production cost $30 million, twice as much as anything he’s ever made. And it needs to draw a wider audience than he’s ever reached. “In that world,” says Lantos, “people go to movies for different reasons than those who are looking for capital-C cinema.” So he’s selling Where the Truth Lies as “a steamy film noir,” loaded with nudity and sexual controversy. But ever since Cannes, where the movie got tepid reviews, and failed to snag a major U.S. distributor, the film’s prospects have been shaky.

Lohman is miscast as a journalist, but Bacon, who acts his pants off, is superb

Egoyan’s tenth feature is his straightest piece of storytelling—although “straight” might not be the right word for a showbiz intrigue that toggles between the ’50s and the 70s, with scenes that include a ménage à trois and a druggy bout of lesbian sex to the tune of White Rabbit—with a young woman costumed as Alice in Wonderland going down on a nude Alison Lohman.

Basing his script on a breezy novel by Rupert Holmes, Egoyan did the opposite of what most filmmakers do to books: he made it more complicated. The story concerns a young female journalist (Lohman) investigating the breakup of a sleazy American comedy duo who are linked to the mysterious death of a hotel worker (Rachel Blanchard). In this opulent, well-crafted period piece, Bacon and Firth are superb as the two comics—they literally act their pants off. But the plot has some creaky hinges. And many critics, including this one, were baffled by the casting of Lohman, who’s too childlike to be a star journalist, and who delivers clunky voice-over with girlish line readings as inert as the dead blond at the crux of the intrigue.

Justifying his casting choice, Egoyan says he wanted an actress who would be credible as a 12-year-old in flashback scenes with Bacon’s character at a polio telethon. Lohman, he explains, “is a girl-woman and that’s something that fascinates me.” Erotic scenarios between creepy father figures and vulnerable “girl-women” have emerged as an obsessive refrain in Egoyan’s movies— notably Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia’s Journey. This time it may have created an artistic blind spot, but he defends his obsession. “I love where you have to weigh your sexual instinct with a degree of responsibility,” he says. “I love that zone. And it seems to revolve around older men and younger women.”

We’re sitting in the director’s funky Toronto office, at a small coffee table stacked with boxes of chocolates—a bounty from film festival loot bags. The room is papered wall-towall with memorabilia and yellowing press clippings, evidence of an auteur’s celebrity. But the director relishes the idea that his latest work will not be promoted as an Atom Egoyan film. “This is the big experiment,” he says, holding up the movie’s poster and showing that his name is not featured on it. “We’re trying to downplay all that and see what happens. The film is, by its very nature, a star vehicle and a reflection on that. I wanted to take all my obsessions and filter them through something more accessible.”

When the Motion Picture Association of America slapped Where the Truth Lies with the stigmatic NC-17 rating, the film’s accessibility was suddenly limited. But when the filmmakers appealed the rating, unsuccessfully, they generated a torrent of publicity. And the film’s distributor, ThinkFilm CEO Jeff Sackman, admits the ratings board fiasco became part of the marketing strategy— “you’ve got to make lemonade out of the lemon.” Now the film has been released in the U.S. unrated and uncut. And Egoyan says he’s relieved the MPAA didn’t approve the version he trimmed in appealing for an R-rating—“we’d cut out large sections of the lesbian scenes and the orgy.”

Whether the controversy will help the film is debatable. In a phone interview from New York, Bacon said, “It’s ultimately unfortunate. It’s really not a sex film, and some people will be disappointed by that. Other people will stay away because they feel the basis of it is sexual content, and they’ll be nervous about that.” Blanchard, who’s featured in the ménage à trois, agrees: “It’s a shame, because it’s overshadowing the movie.”

So where does Egoyan go from here? Every day he receives one or two screenplays from Hollywood, which recognizes his ability to craft smart, stylish pictures on modest budgets. So far he’s preferred to write his own scripts. If Where the Truth Lies fails at the box office, Egoyan may have to work with a much reduced palette. But he’s not without options. Having pulled off acclaimed productions of Salome and Die Walküre, he’s in demand as an opera director. And, excited by digital media, he’s just made a no-budget feature called Citadel, which grew from a mass of home video footage that he took of his wife as she visited Lebanon, her birthplace, for the first time in 28 years.

At his office, Egoyan mns upstairs to show me a big old Steinbeck editing console, mounted with reels of celluloid. The film is Krapp’sLast Tape, a European TV movie he made in 2000. It’s cued to an image of a reel-to-reel tape recorder, like the one used by Lohman’s journalist in Where the Truth Lies. “It’s an installation, the ultimate statement of analog” says Egoyan, who loves to mix art and artifact. He then points to a camcorder wired to a small computer in the corner. “This is where I’m editing Citadel.” Picking an envelope off the desk, he adds, “Here’s the latest Hollywood script, which I read this morning. It’s a Sherlock Holmes story, and it’s actually tempting.”

ON THE WEB Brian D. Johnson speaks with Kevin Bacon about Egoyan, Clint Eastwood and sex with journalists, www.macleans.ca/behindthescene

A prodigy of public funding who rose to Oscar-nominated eminence, Egoyan recognizes he’s “the dream-wish fantasy of a lot of cultural bureaucrats.” True to his roots, he seems addicted to artistic risk. It’s enough to make you wonder if, unconsciously, he might have sabotaged the commercial appeal of Where the Truth Lies—this outside view of Hollywood deceit—so he wouldn’t have to play the game from the inside.