By Frank Moher
It’s some measure of the maturity of Atom Egoyan’s career, if not of Canadian film generally, that news that his new movie Adoration will be premiering at Cannes this year prompts mostly a shrug. Don’t they all? By my count, he’s been there six times with six films (Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey, Where the Truth Lies), not to mention the time (times?) he’s served on the jury.
In fact, Egoyan seems to be one of a handful of filmmakers who show up with amazing frequency in the Cannes line-up (Gus Van Sant and the Coen Brothers would be others). Has Cannes become a sort of Bilderberg Group for cineastes?
In any event, Adoration apparently marks a growing-up for Egoyan in another way: he’s grown up. Interviewed yesterday on the CBC Radio art-chat show “Q,” Toronto Film Festival co-director Cameron Bailey noted that “For many years, through the ’90s especially, Canadian films began to be seen as almost willfully weird. You know, that Weird Sex & Snowshoesschematic that ran through a lot of films that came out in that era. So I think often jurors and critics as well, internationally, are looking to Canadian films to kind of shock them a little, to give them a little frisson of something strange and perverse.
“There’s less of that, I think, these days, and most of the filmmakers who pioneered that kind of Canadian cinema have matured. Atom Egoyan is not so interested in exploring the far reaches of human behaviour as much as he is in getting deeper into his characters. So I think if people are still looking for the weird sex, they may be a little disappointed.”
Thank the sweet christ. The “weird sex and snowshoes era” of Canadian film was one of our great national embarrassments. And it seems to me international audiences weren’t so much looking on with lascivious grins as they were wondering, “When is that country going to stop playing with itself?”
The era began, in fact, with a play, Brad Fraser’s 1989 Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. A skillful script, Human Remains became a sensation, first in Calgary, then in Toronto, because it embraced gay, lesbian and bi life at a time when the cognoscenti of Calgary and the mainstream of Toronto were finally ready to do so as well. Good for all of them. But the reaction did have a quality of Britney Spears finally figuring out there’s more to life than Justin Timberlake.
Fraser’s play had two long runs in Toronto, and I’m guessing the city’s film community was out in full force, because soon after, not only did Denys Arcand snap up the film rights (for his ultimately disappointing Love and Human Remains), but Egoyan gave us his 1995 Exotica, about a tax inspector entranced by a young stripper who dresses as a schoolgirl, and David Cronenberg released Crash, the film now known as “No, not that ‘Crash.'” Cronenberg’s Crash (as opposed to the 2004 Oscar-winner) was based on J.G. Ballard’s novel about a cult of fetishists who get turned-on by car crashes, and even have sex in the car carcasses. Now that, my friends, is weird sex.
Egoyan’s film was acclaimed and Cronenberg’s respected, but really, it was like watching them go through a sexually chaotic mid-life crisis on film. Egoyan came out the other side quickly enough, with The Sweet Hereafter (a truly exploitive film, for the way it took a real-life Mexican tragedy and blithely transplanted it to B.C.). It’s not clear yet whether Cronenberg has.
One can only hope. The Canadian obsession with sexual filigrees was nothing more than our rube side showing. Yes, there are many varieties of sex and sexuality. Yes, there are many ways to have a good time. But at some point — say, around 25 — that should cease to be a point of obsession. If our filmmakers are finally emerging from adolescence, and with them our film industry, we may eventually make some movies that get the world’s attention for the right reasons.