Seven Veils


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Amanda Seyfried in Seven Veils
"Salome’s story has been shaped again and again by men; she is, perhaps, the first recorded subject of the male gaze. Egoyan is conscious that he is not in a position to resolve this, yet strives to bring female perspectives to the fore"

“Neither at things, nor at people should one look,” warns Herod in Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. “Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks.”

Atom Egoyan’s Seven Veils is not itself an adaptation of Salome but, rather, a fictional story about a production of Richard Strauss’ operatic version of Wilde’s take on the Biblical tale – a production very like the one which Egoyan himself directed back in 1996. It centres on Jeanine (Amanada Seyfried), a director whom he acknowledges is partly based on himself, but Jeanine’s situation is complicated by the fact that she has been tasked with reviving a production originally conceived by her now-dead lover Charles (whose widow is one of the producers) and inspired by stories which she shared about her own childhood.

Charles, we are told, liked to stand on the rehearsal bridge, and it’s in that liminal space that we begin, the marvellous opening shot taking in the scope and scale of the theatre before the camera moves around to take in a screen from which a giant pair of eyes is watching everything. It’s a bold beginning to a film which is centred on the act of looking and which frequently implicates its audience by reminding us how our own gaze objectifies the characters we see. Powers is exchanged through glances – and yet Jeanine, despite her position, seems to have less power than anyone else.

We see her reinvented on film, performing for Charles: hastening through woodland, pursued by a man who represents her father. The image is seen in shadowy form as a backdrop to part of the production, further obscured by hanging veils of fabric. We see her in what appears to be old Super-8 film taken by her father, framed as he wished, performing as he commended. When she visits her elderly mother, her father looks down at her from a family portrait on the wall, in which he has his hand on her shoulder. Her mother claims not to remember things now – especially the things which Jeanine finds hardest to forget.

In the opera, Salome is presented by her father to a series of men. Her famous dance is performed as a shadow play. Though we do not see it directly, we see that she is seen.

In the props room, Clea (Rebecca Liddiard) gazes at performer Johann (Michael Kupfer-Radecky), who will play John the Baptist. She is to sculpt his head. Here, though, the act of observation does not seem to bestow power, even if Johann is happy to pretend that it does, to wilfully misconstrue her interest. Clea sees the trouble coming, however, and makes a power play of her own – one whose offensiveness to others seems to stem, at leas in part, from the perception that this is not the natural order of things. What Salome did to John the Baptist, it is claimed, was the first recorded sex crime – but that depends on how we construe what had by then already been done to her.

In the house where Jeanine is staying, she is surrounded by pictures of somebody else’s family, and the relationship between seeing and the sense of being watched is complicated yet again. She also finds herself catching the eye of a young intern (Douglas Smith), whose curly hair she likes to run her finger through as she thinks of how Salome described John the Baptist’s, but she knows that this eager young man can’t see who she really is because he’s too dazzled by her image.

Salome’s story has been shaped again and again by men; she is, perhaps, the first recorded subject of the male gaze. Egoyan is conscious that he is not in a position to resolve this, yet strives to bring female perspectives to the fore. Jeanine’s grief over Charles is interwoven with her slowly growing awareness of the exploitative elements in their relationship. She struggles to take creative control over a project which his widow wishes to see remain exactly the same, perhaps because of her own grief, perhaps out of jealousy. Jealousy also lurks elsewhere backstage, as Clea is dating the understudy who used to date Amber, who plays Salome. Through all of this drama, Jeanine attempts to chart a clear course, whilst the opera’s audience comes to seem curiously irrelevant.

If it sounds like too much, it doesn’t really play out that way. Egoyan has been working on this film for years; one can feel the pressure of multiple iterations, see where what might have stood out, jagged and awkward, has been smoothed by the passing of time until it is almost a mirror. It has been looked at a great deal, and in the process, something terrible has been unmasked.

When the veils are gone, leaving nothing with which men might delude themselves, Salome is just a woman, and a whole person, with eyes of her own. Her reclamation of power seems not an end in itself but a call to arms, something which has echoed down the centuries to the generation of female directors which is rising up today. Jeanine’s choices may seem less radical but they allow her to reclaim herself.

Seven Veils screened as part of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Reviewed on: 17 Sep 2023
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An earnest theatre director has the task of remounting her former mentor's most famous work, the opera Salome. Some disturbing memories from her past will allow her repressed trauma to colour the present.

Director: Atom Egoyan

Writer: Atom Egoyan

Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Douglas Smith, Rebecca Liddiard, Mark O'Brien, Maia Jae Bastidas

Year: 2023

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: Canada


Toronto 2023
BIFF 2024

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