Atom Egoyan’s “Seven Veils,” which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week is built around this year’s Canadian Opera Company production of Richard Strauss’s “Salome,” which Egoyan also directed.
The film repurposes the stage production’s performers, props and sets, but this is far from one of those Fathom Events concert films. It continues Egoyan’s exploration of familiar themes such as semiotics, authorship, trauma, video vs. memory, and the personal vs. the communal.
Egoyan doesn’t play the director here. Rather, Amanda Seyfried stars as theater director Jeanine, who has spent an extended time away from opera and is tasked to remount the COC production of “Salome” and recreate the vision of her mentor, Charles, who died last year. She has to deal with a difficult primo donno, Johann (Michael Kupfer-Radecky, who performed the part of Jochanaan in Egoyan’s real-life “Salome” production). Meanwhile, Clea (Rebecca Diddiard), who works in the props department, must create a sculpture of Johann’s head for the beheading scene and also put together a behind-the-scenes video for the social media channels.
The vision of this particular staging of “Salome” is unmistakably Egoyan’s. It’s a multimedia presentation that features video projections and shadow play. His interpretation speculates that Salome was sexually abused by her father. In the context of “Seven Veils,” the home video from Charles’s staging strongly implies that Jeanine herself likewise suffered abuse at the hands of her father and possibly Charles.
She promises to make “small but meaningful changes” to Charles’s staging, reminiscent of Sarah Polley’s character in “The Sweet Hereafter,” which alarms the opera company’s noncreative staff. The company also only wants to publish Charles’s original director’s notes in the program, steering Jeanine to do a podcast instead of publishing her own.
Complicity seemingly abounds. Jeanine’s mother, Margot (Lynne Griffin), suffers dementia, but in her moments of clarity she seems to suggest she was fully aware of Jeanine’s abuse and that her caregiver, Dimitra (Maia Jae Bastidas) may be carrying on an affair with Jeanine’s estranged husband (Mark O’Brien). The film also insinuates that Jeanine had a relationship with Charles because of the home videos her father made, and that Charles’s wife, who now runs the COC, may have been aware of that relationship.
But there’s no certainty, so Jeanine and the moviegoers must believe whatever they want to believe. Moreover, mighty institutions are more than willing to throw their weight around to protect abusers and organizational reputations.
“Seven Veils” feels like a true return to form for Egoyan, almost as if “Salome” has inspired Egoyan’s entire filmography. To be sure, his work is often challenging, but the themes are fully connected and realized here. The screenplay is intricate and thoughtful. It’s just such a thrill to witness artistry and craftsmanship in every facet.
Perhaps it’s a comment on how omnipresent the inappropriate gazes are that Jeanine’s home videos don’t immediately register as problematic. But in due time Egoyan reveals the evil intents lurking behind these seemingly innocuous imageries, and it’s quite an unsettling realization. “He loved her too much” is code for he scarred her for life.
The multilayers of text and media may seem daunting, but Seyfried’s compelling performance makes the film quite accessible. She guides moviegoers through an often opaque story. The opera singers, such as Kupfer-Radecky, Ambur Braid and Michael Schade, are impressively natural in film.
Some of the mysteries aren’t solved and some questions aren’t answered by the end of the film, but Seyfried powerfully engages the viewers by conveying Jeanine’s internal struggles and epiphany.
This is a sales title at TIFF.
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