Atom Egoyan on having his 'antenna' up with 'Guest of Honour' film

TORONTO — He didn't realize it at the time but looking back, Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan figures he might have sensed something was on the horizon when he made his latest feature, "Guest of Honour."

Now available on major digital platforms for rent or purchase, the psychological drama stars acclaimed English actor David Thewlis as Jim, a ruthless restaurateur-turned-food inspector who targets many restaurants run by immigrant proprietors.

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Toronto actress Laysla De Oliveira plays his daughter, Veronica, a high-school music teacher who was imprisoned for alleged sexual misconduct with a student.

Jim's job of protecting the public from illness and shutting down eateries that don't meet standards seems to take on added resonance as the COVID-19 pandemic forces restaurants to grapple with financial, health and safety challenges, Egoyan notes.

"It's a very odd moment in our evolution to have a character like that, as we of course are understanding how fragile the (restaurant) systems are and how much we need them, really," the Oscar-nominated writer-director said in a recent phone interview.

The story also taps into current conversations about race and justice by questioning power structures and to what extent should rules be changed, policed and interpreted, Egoyan added.

"I didn't write the film when I knew we were going to be thrown into this place," said Egoyan, who premiered the title at the Venice Film Festival last September.

"I think the interesting thing about when you're writing and making a film, or I guess conceiving a film, is that if you're doing your job right, your antenna are up and maybe you're just sensing that there are things in the air."

Egoyan wrote, directed and produced the Hamilton-shot film.

The story begins with Veronica recently released from prison and talking to a priest, played by Luke Wilson, about how her late father wanted his funeral at the church.

Through various timelines, we learn both she and Jim have been haunted by secrets from their past, which prompt both of them to make disastrous decisions.

Rossif Sutherland plays a school bus driver who becomes involved in the case of Veronica and her student.

"I've always been fascinated by that notion of characters who are pushing boundaries, who are making very extreme decisions and choices, which can seem outlandish, but I do think that human beings are capable of anything," Egoyan said.

Such characters can be found in many of Egoyan's films, from "Chloe" to "Exotica" and the two-time Oscar-nominated "The Sweet Hereafter." Their actions are often driven by unresolved trauma, secrets, guilt and a search for identity.

Cinephiles can dissect the auteur's work through Criterion Channel's spotlight on Egoyan this month.

Egoyan said he embarked on "Guest of Honour" after his son worked as a busboy at a restaurant "run by a very distinguished chef" who had "a very bad experience with a food inspector."

"I used to hear the stories about this from our son ... it felt quite extreme, what was happening, and there seemed to be a personality conflict," Egoyan said.

"I realized first of all, the power a food inspector had to close a restaurant if they so chose. But also there were so many opportunities for corruption as well, which wasn't the case here."

Rabbits are a big motif in the film: Jim has one as a beloved pet that's won ribbons at pet fairs. Meanwhile, one of the restaurants he inspects serves rabbit meat.

"The rabbit is just really super personal to me," said Egoyan, who was born in Cairo, Egypt and grew up in Victoria, B.C.

"I've always had rabbits, and I've actually won those ribbons at various pet fairs, when I was a child in Victoria. And so those are actually the ribbons that my rabbit won."

In recent months the pandemic has put on hold Egoyan's plans to direct several opera productions, including the postponed "Jenufa" at Opera de Montreal and "Death in Venice" at Pacific Opera Victoria.

While he has a number of film projects "in the air," he feels it's "a weird time to be creating because we're sort of in a moment of flux."

"It seems like everything is being shaken," he said.

"Our responsibilities as artists, first and foremost, is to be aware of everything and to read as much about everything that is being said about this moment and give us some time to absorb it fully. Because it's all very shocking and it's very much a moving target. We don't know where it's going to resolve."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 14, 2020.

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