‘Seven Veils’ Review: Atom Egoyan’s Cold But Bracing Take on ‘Salome’ – Berlin Film Festival

From his breakthrough work Family Viewing, which dates back to 1987, Atom Egoyan has been exploring the possibilities of different communication technologies by showing screens within screens, stories within other stories and the ways unconnected stories may merge with each other and with real life. Seven Veils is named for the biblical character Salome, whose seductive dancing as she shed those veils earned her a grisly prize: the severed head of John the Baptist, the ascetic prophet who predicted the coming of Jesus Christ.

The title is just as suggestive, however, of Egoyan’s approach to storytelling. One diaphanous layer of Salome’s wrappings drops to reveal another beneath; in the same way, Egoyan story is peeled back, one reveal after another. It is understandable that, after its world premiere in Toronto, some critics described the film as muddled; for anyone unfamiliar with his source stories, this dense thicket of magic-lantern slides could well be bewildering. Happily, Berlinale audiences are made of sterner stuff.

More from Deadline

The original story comes from the Gospels; Oscar Wilde turned it into a play that remains the apotheosis of Decadent literature; Richard Strauss adapted it as an opera. According to lore, Salome is step-daughter to King Herod Antipas, who asks her to dance at a dinner and is so riveted by her seductive performance that he offers her whatever she wants as reward. Salome demands the head of Herod’s prisoner John the Baptist, a man she desires so madly that she would have him killed in order to be able to kiss him.

If anything, it is a wonder that Atom Egoyan hasn’t investigated Salome’s seedy story on film before; its stew of perverse lusts, transactional sex, incest and sickly family dynamics is very much of a piece with his own enduring themes. Not that his work is steamy or lurid in any way: on the contrary, what makes it so distinctive is that he treats depravity with such cool detachment. It is this tension between subject and delivery that makes his films — even the bad ones — so intriguing.

Seven Veils follows this established approach. It begins with an extended shot of an empty opera house humming with dozens of violins tuning up, a single quivering note that becomes increasingly sinister. A young director called Jeanine (Amanda Seyfried) has been asked to remount a production of Strauss’s opera that was originally staged by her former mentor who was, as we learn, also her much older lover. As the metaphorical veils drop one by one, we also learn that her own childhood story has some eerie parallels to Salome’s. Aspects and artifacts of that story, moreover, were appropriated by the dead maestro to become part of his production design that is once again on show in the revival.

Home movies shot by Jeanine’s father, showing her dancing through a forest blindfolded, appear as giant-sized projections on a scrim behind the singers: it is as if her past had returned to both haunt and taunt her. Below this lies a further layer, this time of reality: this is an actual production of Salome, directed by Atom Egoyan for the Canadian Opera Company in 1996. He has reworked it many times since, culminating in a 2023 revival that he has wound into this film, with several of the singers in his fiction played by the real-life performers.

The two fictions — Salome and the story created around its production — are equally complex. Jeanine’s task as director is fraught by the fact that the company’s executive manager is the dead director’s widow. That they are putting on the production at all, particularly with his former favorite student at the helm, is purportedly a tribute to his memory.

There are more malicious motives at play here, however. Everyone, including the sly journalist who comes to interview Jeanine for a podcast, seems to know all about her history with the maestro; she knows she is being systematically undermined, perhaps as a punishment. She has another past with one of the understudies, an unhealthy tow of emotion neither can acknowledge. Meanwhile, he watches her from the stalls during rehearsal with the greedy adoration of Herod for his Salome,. The other understudy is involved with the props artist, who conceives a clumsy blackmail plot to force management to give her lover one night on stage. They will cave in. Why not? Nothing here is being done in good faith.

As in the theatre – which is, after all, a temple to counterfeit emotion — so at home. Jeanine apparently lives in another city. She knows that her husband Paul is having a dalliance with her elderly mother’s carer; when she calls between rehearsals, she sees them scuttling downstairs with their clothes in disarray, the carer smiling much too brightly and her husband insisting that this is what they have agreed all along: that they will both have a new adventure. So tangled, so tawdry: the dreary weight of this failing marriage is  palpable. Worst of all, in the lamp-lit background of these calls she can see a family portrait that shows her as a teenage girl, under the arm of the father who, as even her mother agrees from within the fog of her dementia, loved his daughter “too much”.

And yet Seyfried’s Jeanine never cracks under these pressures; Egoyan habitually gives explosive emotions a wide berth, refusing to allow characters or audience any kind of catharsis. It is an unforgiving kind of stringency; his frigidity leaves many viewers cold. But it works well here and, for those of us with a taste for it, that coldness is satisfyingly bracing.

Title: Seven Veils
Festival: Berlin (Gala Special)
Sales agent: XYZ Films
Director/screenwriter: Atom Egoyan
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Liddiard, Douglas Smith, Mark O’Brien
Running time: 1 hr 49 min


Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.