Adoration
Reviewed in July 2009

Director: Atom Egoyan. Cast: Devon Bostick, Scott Speedman, Arsinée Khanjian, Rachel Blanchard, Noam Jenkins, Kenneth Welsh, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Geraldine O'Rawe, Katie Boland, Maury Chaykin. Screenplay: Atom Egoyan.


Photo © 2008 Sony Pictures Classics/Ego Film Arts
Is it odd that I find myself taking such warm, almost nostalgic pleasure in the sere, uncanny strangeness of Arsinée Khanjian, the hatchet-faced star and leading accomplice in almost all of her husband Atom Egoyan's films? Few things in this world are as reliable as death, taxes, and the profound weirdness of Arsinée's screen persona. Like a more blunt Tilda Swinton or a Semitic Grace Zabriskie, Arsinée is so completely unlike anyone you know, at least from the movies, that in her very improbability she's able to play almost anything. Why wouldn't she be a high-school French teacher, who also happens to be the drama teacher? Who better to stoke a troubled student named Simon (Devon Bostick, wanly Egoyanish) into parlaying an exercise in written memoir into an autobiographical performance piece—and a mighty inflammatory one, disclosing that his mother, an accomplished violinist, lost her life when her husband, a closet terrorist, secretly packed her suitcases full of explosives for a flight back to Israel? Who better to pay a clandestine visit to the single-story home this student now shares with his hardluck uncle (Scott Speedman), ostentatiously costumed in a full-body veil and a facial mask made of gold coins and chains? Who better to dress up as Otherness and passive-aggressively taunt the uncle about his front-yard Nativity scene, his politely submerged xenophobia, his complacent entrenchment in Western arrogance? These are memorably weird scenes, sometimes as charged as Egoyan seems to want them to be, sometimes too frank in their pursuit of intellectual "edge" and their self-flattering blurring of motives and narrative lines. Adoration isn't the arid, impenetrable mess that Ararat was, nor is it a fully deoxygenated feint at a creepy thriller, like Felicia's Journey. There's a real current of danger in what the student unleashes, especially once the details of past rip through the video-chat websites where his own friends and, seemingly, an entire town's worth of their parents haggle out the implications of this luridly sad tale, and of Simon's methods and goals in telling it. Still, those web-based scenes also typify Adoration's penchant for wrestling around with a twisty, compelling flowchart of here-and-now ideas without delving as fully into them as it pretends to. The film wavers between idiosyncratic urgency and florid, grad-schoolish implausibility. Sometimes the film works best when it retreats from its more brazen conceits and digs into more conventional thematics about two-way Oedipal aggression and controversial love affairs, but just as often, Egoyan seems to need these domesticated scenes—crystallized in some elliptically recurring images like the dockside violin recital that opens the film—because the upper and outer reaches of Adoration aren't jelling without some sensational family dramas to push them along. You'll likely want to hang in there for the inevitable flourishes with which Egoyan pushes his last few puzzle-pieces together. Mystery junkies and plot-fetishists will be fairly satiated, I think, but there are no coups de theéâtre here to rival the austere introspections or the merciless logic of Exotica or The Sweet Hereafter. Mychael Danna's music score, like the rest of the movie, is either a richly layered feat or a desperately virtuosic bid for hollow attention, depending on who's listening, and at what point in the film. My favorite aspect of Adoration is that no one else would have made a film about these people, exploring these ideas and taking these kinds of mysterious risks toward quite these enigmatic ends, but it all amounts ambiguously to being either the best of Egoyan's weaker films or the shakiest of his good ones. B–


Awards:
Cannes Film Festival (2008): Prize of the Ecumenical Jury

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