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.
Elle was one of those films that came around the time of the Academy Awards. It has a lot of interesting elements, but it features a lot of elements some would first find unwatchable. Is it worth it?
The film begins with a cat witnessing the rape of her owner Michele LeBlanc (that’s right). The masked rapist immediately leaves. Michele just calmly cleans up themes and resumes her life, but doesn’t call the police. Michele returns back to her job as CEO of a video game company where her male employees either lust after her or view her as a ‘bitch.’ She tries to maintain a relationship with her son Vincent but feels detached as she feels he’s being controlled by her pregnant girlfriend. She has a troubled relationship with her mother who is narcissistic and has a thing for younger men. She’s having a love affair with Robert, the husband of her best friend and business partner Anna, but also has caught the eye of her new neighbor Patrick, although his devoutly Catholic wife Anna is unaware of this. Michele also has a troubled past.
The reason why Michele doesn’t call the police is because she has a sordid past. She is the daughter of a mass murderer who was arrested and imprisoned over 40 years ago when Michele was 10 years-old and even involved Michele in his murder spree. His parole hearing is coming up and the events from the past still haunt her. Her friends plead for her to report the rape to the police but Michele won’t, fearing the police have it in for her. Life is hard for Michele as she receives harassing text messages form a man claiming to watch her. She’s also the victim of a hacked video game which shows an alien with her face being raped by another alien. She learns the male colleague who made the hacked video game is infatuated with her but not the rapist. Her ex-husband learned of the news and tried looking out for her safety.
Christmas only adds to the stress as her mother falls into a stroke and her dying wish to Michele is to see her father. Michele tells her son Vincent she believes he’s not the father of his girlfriend’s child. The rapist returns for the third time, but Michele takes of the mask to discover it’s Patrick. Even though she now knows, she still doesn’t call the police nor have an alarm installed in her house.
Michele goes to visit her father in prison only to learn he hung himself. On the ride home, she gets into a car accident. She calls her friends instead of an ambulance, but the only one who responds to the call is Patrick. Michele gives Patrick a shocking confession of her feelings toward him which leaves Patrick shocked and confused. Then the day of the celebration of the launch of the new video game. At the party, she confessed to Anne her affair with Robert, which breaks Anna’s heart. The story ends with a tensely climactic moment and an ending that comes across as triumphant.
The thing about this film is that it deals with a complicated cat-and-mouse situation. Michele wants to get her rapist arrested but she is afraid to call the police, feeling they’re after her. That could also explain why she wouldn’t call an ambulance after the car crash: because of her past. She has a sense of who did it, but she feels an attraction to him. She is caught in situations in her work, in her family and even within her circle of friends at the same time. It’s enough to make anyone snap. It even turns her into a spiteful bitter person to whomever she meets up with. You hope that her rapist is caught but you’re left wondering how will it end? Will he be caught? Will Michele be the one who ends up killed? Will her rapist end up her new lover? It keeps you intrigued.
One thing about this is that this film is a psychological thriller that succeeds in taking subject matter that is disturbing and even unwatchable and turns it into a story that becomes positive in the end. Normally I am very nervous about the subject of rape in a film. In fact the very opening scene of the rape (as witnessed by the cat) and her bleeding vagina in the bath really had me questioning what Paul Verhoeven was up to. I’ll admit I had a mistrust to Verhoeven because I know he has a reputation for films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. I still haven’t forgotten the misogyny of the latter and I was anticipating misogyny in the film at first. Even the scene that appears like Michele is consenting to the rape of Patrick makes me wonder, in addition to knowing Michele actually gets sexual satisfaction from it. In the end, the film delivers a strong female character who is able to piece the puzzle together. It’s at the end we see Michele as if she triumphed in the situation.
SPOILER ALERT – IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING, BYPASS THIS PARAGRAPH: The ending is a surprise as well. Throughout the whole film, you see Michele as a bitter, hurting, troubled woman with the world seemingly against her or bothering her in every which way. However it’s right after Patrick is killed that everything magically becomes right. We see how Rebecca isn’t as hurt over Patrick’s death as she’s moving out, and makes it obvious she knew what Patrick was up to. We see how Vincent has been able to get better in his career and relationship. We see how Michele is finally able to make peace with her father. We also see how Michele makes peace with both Josie and Anna as they’ve both left Robert, and even resumes the strong friendship with Anna. It’s like life for all during the time of Michele being raped was what was causing friction in the lives of Michele and those around her, and it was Patrick’s death at the hands of Vincent that set everything right for all. Normally something like that wouldn’t work in terms of a story. I mean how is it possible for a rape victim to recover from what happened seemingly overnight? But the way it was played out in the story made it look very believable and made it look like the story ended on the right note. Quite an accomplishment, especially for a psychological thriller.
This film is actually an adaptation of a French novel titled Oh. I’ve never read the novel but David Birke does a very good job in creating a story that’s both a psychological thriller and a big puzzle that somehow is able to get all the pieces to fit in the end. Paul Verhoeven also did a good job of directing. I will admit I did get suspicious with him, especially after seeing certain scenes. However it’s in the end that I feel he did a very good job of creating a strong female character despite appearing to push the envelope at times. However making the story work also came down to Isabelle Huppert in her performance of the protagonist Michele. She had to portray a character who seemed to have everything pushing her to snap but somehow keep her composure throughout the ordeal, despite being bitter and spiteful, and appear triumphant in the end. She accomplished that feat excellently. Supporting performances of note include Laurent Lafitte as the troubled neighbor Patrick and Anne Consigny as Anna: the friend caught in the love triangle.
Elle begins as a film that one would expect to be misogynist, but instead paves the way for a female character who triumphs in the end. It’s the film’s surprising twists and turns that make it.