Moments of entry

Atom Egoyan on childhood mysteries and Guest Of Honour

by Anne-Katrin Titze

David Thewlis as health inspector Jim Davis in Atom Egoyan’s absorbing Guest Of Honour
David Thewlis as health inspector Jim Davis in Atom Egoyan’s absorbing Guest Of Honour

Guest Of Honour is the story of restaurant health inspector Jim Davis (David Thewlis) and his daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), a high school music teacher who finds herself in prison. Anything but linear, the film touches on many aspects of social interactions that a year ago seemed normal. Restaurants in Atom Egoyan’s movie are fighting not to be shut down, because for some that would mean the end of their existence.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Guest of Honour leaves many gaps so that I in the audience felt a bit like the child Veronica [Isabelle Franca, as an adult played by Laysla De Oliveira] trying to figure out what is going on with the adults. How can I put these puzzle pieces together? Am I missing something? Am I making things up? Which is great because it relates to childhood memories.

Laysla De Oliveira as Veronica in Guest of Honour
Laysla De Oliveira as Veronica in Guest of Honour

Atom Egoyan: Yeah. We’ve talked about that before, right? The role of childhood fables and this idea of the fables that parents can construct for their children. And the children who are left to form themselves in this space where they don’t have all the information. In this case they can’t have the information because the father [Jim played by David Thewlis] could not explain to the eight-year-old daughter what the nature of that relationship is. It just wouldn’t be appropriate. By the time he can explain it, she wouldn’t believe him. That’s the trap they find themselves in.

AKT: And then the church comes in.

AE: And it’s strange because the church comes in as this place where there’s some sort of equilibrium and resolution but it’s outside of the bounds of the church. The priest [Luke Wilson] actually has to break a vow in order to bring that sense of resolution. And to bring in the memory of Alicia in the service for someone else. We see him [Jim] at the end make the choice that is going to reverberate through the film.

By having his service at this church there might be a possibility for the narrative to be completed. Also the priest is asked to almost perform a pagan ritual with the rabbit feet. Weird things are being constructed which are not tradition, but new traditions are being made because of the personal contact with these individuals.

AKT: For these narrative gaps, are you the “subject supposed to know”? Do you know everything about the story?

Jim Davis (David Thewlis) with Benjamin
Jim Davis (David Thewlis) with Benjamin

AE: Yes. I do. I need to. There are conflations of the characters. I think there has to be a map but there are still surprises. There are still things that I discover through performance which are gifts that are given back to me by the performers. But I need to have a narrative structure in mind. What the chronology might be. That can be sublimated but only after it’s understood.

You were saying that the child is trying to put pieces together but in this case, the parent is also trying to understand aspects of the daughter that are also mysterious. When she mentions the ribbons in the drawer, she doesn’t necessarily know that the phone is also there and that the father will find this old phone. We don’t know if that’s part of her intent. You are left in a space where you are seeing an intention without knowing if the character expects the full reveal. That’s what’s unusual about the construction of it.

AKT: The father at one point asks his daughter “What’s wrong with you?” And she answers “You are.” That’s a core line of dialogue.

AE: It’s also a wonderful moment of performance where she’s able to be both accusatory but also generous in saying that “Everything that’s wrong with me, everything that’s right with me.” We’re also able to see him absorb that, that he’s able to accept that as a gift. It’s so beautifully played. I think David does a wonderful job at that moment.

AKT: Oh yes, with all the nuances.

Arshile Gorky with his mother image in They Will Take My Island
Arshile Gorky with his mother image in They Will Take My Island

AE: It’s so nuanced, right? As is so often the case in any relationship, people are looking for moments of entry. The viewer is also looking for these moments of entry and they’re not formulaic.

AKT: The first shot in Guest of Honour stands out for its colours. The green and yellow are startling because they don’t really belong together. The green is like that of kitchenware from the 1940s, milky and pungent, and in the foreground warm yellow leaves of nature. The same colour combination comes back later in the bathroom.

AE: The displacement of chronology is actually that first frame. You’re seeing two different seasons in the one frame. And the structure that amplifies.

AKT: The green bandshell. The colours return in the bathroom?

AE: The green tiles, yeah you’re right. That was actually not conscious. That’s the one where he plants. You’re absolutely right, it’s a similar sickly green. You’re highly sensitized to those things, the way that opening frame works.

AKT: If that hadn’t been the opening frame, I would not have noticed the colours. I did think of that Rohmer statement that every film had a colour. This one is the combination of pale green and warm yellow.

AE: Yes.

The MetLiveArts will host the world première of They Will Take My Island on Tuesday, January 26 at 7:00pm (EST). Atom’s film collaboration with composer Mary Kouyoumdjian on Armenian American abstract painter Arshile Gorky.

Read what Atom Egoyan had to say on working with composers Mychael Danna and Shannon Graham, ethnic restaurants, Alice in Wonderland, a Catholic funeral, and rabbits.

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