VIFF 2019 Review: Guest Of Honour
The Vancouver International Film Festival usually begins with an Opening Gala of speeches and an airing of a Canadian Feature Film: usually from TeleFilm Canada. This year it is Guest Of Honour: the latest film from Canadian director Atom Egoyan. It was a good film to open with, but not a great one.
The film begins with a priest, Father Greg, consulting with a daughter who lost her father, named Jim. Greg asks her how to best remember him, but she can’t say because she doesn’t remember him that well. She can speak for what he does remember of him.
Jim was a health inspector for restaurants most of his life. He started as a restaurateur, but failed. He had since become a health inspector. He was very strict in his job, especially to ethnic restaurants. As a family man, he married a Portuguese woman and fathered a daughter named Veronica. Veronica possessed a lot of music talent. That all changed one day when Jim introduced Veronica to a new music school. He met the instructor and she met Walter. Walter would become her partner in her glass harmonica instruction and performances, and later her boyfriend. The instructor would eventually become Jim’s mistress. Veronica knew that as she saw Jim sitting between the instructor and her mother, who was dying of cancer, and saw Jim hold the instructor’s hand.
Moving on into the future, the last time Veronica met with her father was while she was in jail for a crime she wants to take responsibility for, even though she may not have committed it. Jim is willing to do whatever it takes to get her out of jail, but she is insistent in serving her time.
Jim has to go to past videotapes and past references in order to get her justice. Sometimes he even confides to her pet rabbit about his problems and issues. As we flash back to the past, we learn more. We learn something bothered both Veronica and Walter inside. It bothered Walter so much, he committed suicide. Veronica would grow up to become a music teacher for a private school. However she has taken aback with the drummer of the school band named Clive. Clive looks so much like Walter. It even appears that she is more intimate with Clive, including to the bus driver Mike who is in love with her.
Mike is upset that Veronica won’t develop a relationship with her so one day, he sends a lewd text to Clive’s phone through Veronica’s phone during one of their performances. Clive and Veronica notice this. They want to do something, but fear they might be caught and accused of something they don’t want to be accused of. However it all falls apart at the hotel as Veronica is reminded of Walter’s suicide. Whatever problem happened at the hotel, it led to Veronica being sentenced to jail time and stripped of all teaching duties.
Jim tries to think of a way to free Veronica. He gets an idea after he sees a video of a rat inside a restaurant he inspected. The owner claimed someone with hard feelings to the restaurant put the rat in there to fix him. Another time, he comes across an Armenian restaurant with dead rabbits. He is about to close the place down, but they insist it’s for a delicacy of rabbit ears to be served at a private party. They plead with him to have mercy on them, and he decided to go to their special party.
Before the party, it’s evident Jim is up to something. He takes rabbit droppings from Veronica’s rabbit and puts them in a tube. He then goes to a German restaurant appearing to order dinner, but then goes to the bathroom to drop the droppings around, and then alert the manager. While talking with the manager, the real reason Jim is here comes out. He wasn’t to speak to his grandson, who appears in conversation to be Jim’s own son. The grandson is Clive. Clive knows why Jim is here, and is not happy. The situation between him and Veronica is just as humiliating.
Then over at the party at the Armenian restaurant, he arrives and is impressed with what he sees. The owners even treat him as a ‘guest of honor,’ despite what almost happened days ago. They ask him to give a speech. Jim tries to give a nice speech despite being intoxicated. However Jim’s feelings of his intended vengeance towards Mike come out during his speech. The speech lands him in trouble with law authorities. After he finds Veronica’s rabbit dead, he decided on one last act, and this involving the Armenian restaurant to assist with it. It is through all Veronica has told that Father Greg is able to give his requiem to Jim at his funeral. The film ends with one last flashback.
Atom Egoyan is a source of pride for Canadian filmmakers. He is one of only ten Canadian directors ever to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director. Atom has been known for his unique style of filmmaking. At the gala, he flashed back to when he did his first student-film at a school in Victoria. He received a C- and a lot of complaints and ‘advise.’ Some even described it as ‘too artsy.’ Whatever the situation, it would pave the way for his style to have its heyday in the 1990’s and his Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay coming for The Sweet Hereafter.
Times have noticeably changed. His films have been consistently done well and good at telling a story in his own style, but they’re not as well-hailed. Some of the meaner critics could say he is yet another director that had a directing flare and it flared out. This film does feature a lot of mystique in terms of the story. The film mixes the story with a variety of themes like restaurant inspections, music and feeling, family secrets, technology, and rabbits. The film does so in a colorful way, but it’s imperfect. There are some things that don’t make a lot of sense. Sure, Veronica’s music talent would propel her to her career as a musician and teacher, but through glass harmonica? The theme of rabbits also appears to be done in a way that doesn’t make sense. Veronica has a pet rabbit she adores, but also a lucky-rabbit’s-foot keychain. The rabbit becomes a source for Jim to confide in, use his droppings to frame a restaurant for facts, and have the dead rabbit’s feet cut off? Even how his restaurant inspections go from simple inspections to him using them as a way to get justice for his daughter, but pave the way for his downfall? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
It’s not just the confusing elements of those themes, but also the storyline itself. There are a lot of moments in the story that leave many questions unanswered. How did he die? What secret made Walter commit suicide? Did Jim’s affair with his mother have something to do with it? What exactly did Veronica get arrested or convicted for? Is Clive really Jim’s son, or did Jim just say that to the grandfather? What was the significance or Jim’s personal reason of having the rabbit’s feet cut off? Now don’t get me wrong. I know the film is a puzzle and it’s about getting the pieces to fit together. I also know filmmakers leave out certain things to get the audience thinking or even trying to draw their own conclusions or write their own stories. However most of the elements or scenes don’t make a lot of sense. I felt there were a lot of critical things that were missing and it worked against the film rather than for it. Atom does a good job of creating and directing a good story, but I feel he missed in a lot of areas.
Despite the film’s flaws, the acting was one area that did come through well. David Thewlis did a good job of working with his complex role as the inspector/father. He gives his character of Jim dimension and helps it to make the role work for the story. Laysla de Oliveira makes it look like she stole the show. She makes it look like the film is more about Veronica that it is about Jim. She too is able have her role of Veronica make sense and even justify scenes that appear confusing to us. The supporting acting was also good with Rossif Sutherland playing Mike with his hidden inner anger, as well as Luke Wilson as Father Greg and the actors playing the Armenian restaurant owners. The music of Mychael Danna also adds to the feel of the film.
Guest Of Honour is not the best work of Atom Egoyan and has some noticeable flaws, but it does have a lot of qualities too. Especially the acting.