Adoration, the challenging, teasing, smart new film by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, received its American premiere on April 25 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film is a cunningly made construct of Egoyan’s trademark non-chronological style, shattered pieces of time reflected, refracted, recollected and reorganized into ever-shifting shapes and deepening ambiguities of meaning; his fascination with the unintended consequences of new technologies for our relationships with each other and with ourselves; and the subjects of love and loss, deception and betrayal, ignorance and revelation that have long dominated his work.
Simon, an orphaned teenager living with his downwardly mobile uncle in Toronto, turns a French-class translation assignment into a first-person narrative about a foiled bomb plot involving his father and young pregnant mother. A fiction, it is presented, with the encouragement of Simon’s eerie French teacher, as fact to the class, who, parking their skepticism, listen open-mouthed as Simon relates his story of would-be mass murder with uncanny sangfroid as a perpetual snow falls outside the windows.
Not long afterwards the story becomes the subject of heated chatroom discussions and from there spreads across the Internet as both Simon and his teacher lose control of the story and its effects to raving web mavens and addicts.
As the story proceeds, layers of illusion and deception are stripped away (or, alternatively, added on, like laminations) until, at the end, we are left with a near-reversal, if not complete undermining, of our understanding of many of the relationships and meanings established in the first half of the film. Yet, for all the heady cerebralness of the film, it never loses contact, and in fact resonates the more strongly, with the emotions locked in the story’s core.
And “locked” is the deliberate word here, for the main characters are all emotionally locked in states that cannot move from, and even at the end, are only partially thawed from in the heat of a small, hopeful fire under a snowy sky.
Constructed like a cross between a triple concerto, with Simon, his uncle and the teacher as soloists, and a cubist painting scrolled over time – a fantasy of overlapping and clashing perspectives tied together with a somberly lyrical tone and the incisive probings by the characters caught in a web only partly of their own weaving – Adoration is a deeply thought-provoking exploration of the consequences of love, its illusions, and the monsters they create.
Egoyan, as usual, draws out strong, complex performances from his cast; in particular, from Scott Speedman as the angry, frustrated uncle, a man with the reflexive suspicions of the neo-redneck and the impulses of an almost saintly grace thwarted at key moments by moral cowardice.
Unfortunately, the overall characterization of Simon does not always ring true: at times too grown up for his age and circumstances (a hint of pubertal hysterics, of residual childhood, might have made him more credible), at others almost sociopathic in his opaque affects; something of an overdetermined enigma. The character of the teacher, the linchpin of the story, also remains a cipher: her creepiness does not skirt the pathological and gratuitous (which Egoyan himself seemed to acknowledge during the Q&A after the Festival screening), despite the ultimate would-be justificatory revelation, and skews the story’s moral balance: Arsinée Khanjian, who plays the part, seems aware of the problem but does not try to force a solution, allowing the ambiguities to linger, like troubling echoes.
Tying the film together is one of the most beautiful and effective scores of recent memory, composed by long-time Egoyan collaborator Mychael Danna.