Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan crafts movies that can seem like little puzzle-boxes, meant to be looked at, contemplated, thought of from a different perspective and then approached again. They invite engagement, drawing in viewers without necessarily providing answers to the thorny ethical and philosophical questions they tend to invoke.
As Egoyan explained during a recent interview in Los Angeles, he sees his films falling in line with a tradition of European enigma that draws from the classical art films of Antonioni, Bunuel and Bergman. "That to me is very intoxicating," he said. "There's something essentially erotic about that feeling, that feeling that something is promising a possibility, and that can be quite charged and dynamic, as opposed to something which affirms a formula you already anticipate."
In Egoyan's 12th feature, "Adoration," which premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival and opened Friday in Los Angeles to mixed reviews, many of the themes and preoccupations that have arisen in his body of work -- from early films such as "Family Viewing" (1987) to the Oscar-nominated "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997) -- again come to the fore. Among the ideas coursing through the film (written by Egoyan) are the effect of technology on communication, the weight of personal and cultural history on human interaction. There are also formalistic questions raised regarding film language, as the movie slides between fantasy and reality and shifts temporally.
Which is not to make the film sound too rigorous or forbidding. The story revolves around a teenage boy (Devon Bostick) -- orphaned when his parents died in a car crash and now living with his uncle -- who refashions a school assignment into an experiment of identity. When he presents the story of a man who plants a bomb in the luggage of his unsuspecting wife as that of his parents' fate, he sets off a firestorm of controversy online and forces resolution on lingering issues within his family.
The filmmaker reveals context in what could be called a "need to know" basis, often withholding crucial connections until later in the story. There are two early scenes in "Adoration" in which a mysterious woman arrives at the home of the teenager and his uncle dressed in a heavy robe and full mask that obscures her face. She engages them in a conversation on the meaning of the Christmas decorations they are putting up, and returns the next night. The scenes are somehow at once forcefully direct while also taking on an enigmatic, dream-like quality.
"It's challenging," said Egoyan, with professorial patience, about the esoteric quality of the exchange. "You don't know quite what you're supposed to feel. I love the feeling of having the viewer's mind racing with possibility as to what something might mean, and that feeling that they might be missing something, that their entire system of understanding something might be subverted at some point. I find it actually quite thrilling."
The masked female is played by Arsinee Khanjian, a longtime regular in Egoyan's films (she is also his wife). For actor Scott Speedman, known to American audiences for his roles on TV's "Felicity" and in the vampire/werewolf mash-up "Underworld" franchise, his role as the boy's uncle in "Adoration" was his first experience working with Egoyan.
"It's a lot simpler than I envisioned," Speedman, who is from Canada, said of working with one of his home country's most heralded filmmakers. "I imagined the guy in the black suit with sunglasses behind the monitor not talking much, the auteur stereotype, but he's right beside the camera watching you and he's way more open and much more collaborative than I thought it would be."
Perhaps the most unusual part of the experience, from Speedman's point of view, was that they shot the confrontational final scenes between his character and Khanjian's -- where the true nature of their relationship is revealed and past sins accounted for -- early in the film's shooting schedule.
"It allowed us to not push on the other scenes, not worry that this was an interesting enough performance," said Speedman of the unexpected relief provided by how the scene fell in the shooting order.
Egoyan recently finished shooting "Chloe," starring Liam Neeson -- "horrifying" was how Egoyan described weathering the death of Neeson's wife, Natasha Richardson, during production. He plans to have that film finished in time for this fall's Toronto International Film Festival.
Whether shooting his original stories, literary adaptations or someone else's script, Egoyan works to inject his films with an unsettling uncertainty that invokes broader enigmas.
"I do think the viewer has to be prepared that nothing is what it seems," Egoyan said, "and the reason it is not what it seems is not what it might seem. The characters themselves don't quite know how to identify what they're feeling."