Venice 2019: Atom Egoyan's Muddled Story of Guilt 'Guest of Honour'
by Alex Billington
September 9, 2019
What a strange, strange film this is. Egyptian-Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan has returned the festival circuit again with another peculiar feature film, this new one titled Guest of Honour (the extra "u" still included because this is the Canadian title and they use British English up there) which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The film focuses on a father-daughter relationship and the various events that have lead them to the situation they're currently in - the daughter is in prison, the father is lonely and frustrated. And despite his attempts to secure her early release, she isn't interested and intends to stay in prison. It's an odd study in guilt, various layers of it and different characters that must deal with it, but it never amounts to much. And the filmmaking feels so slight and unexciting that it's just more puzzling than satisfying to watch.
The two main characters of Egoyan's Guest of Honour are Jim, played by David Thewlis, a widowed father who works as a food inspector in the city, and his daughter Veronica, played by Laysla De Oliveira. She works as a high school music teacher who takes flirting with a student a little too far, ending up in trouble and thrown in prison for an illicit relationship that didn't actually happen. How this all goes down is a bit odd, but it's also about following along with the film and thinking one thing before the truth is eventually revealed. Her history goes back to her childhood, during which time she observed her father start an affair with another woman - her piano teacher - while her mother was sick. By the end, everyone is feeling guilty for the things they did, and no one really knows how to reconcile with themselves or the turbulent feelings.
It's pretty obvious what Atom Egoyan is trying to say with this film, as it's expressly stated in the big speech. It's about how everyone sees things that aren't really there, they see what they want to see or think they see, even if it isn't true. And then they end up ruining things because of it. One person ruins their life because of this, another ruins their relationship, one hurts the other person, and everyone just ends up worse off than they were before. All because they made an observation and an assumption, never taking a moment to step back and realize their mistake. That mistake is already made, and so it has consequences and ramifications that play out beyond just the moment - far into everyone's lives. That is the lesson this film is trying to teach us, but it's all so blatant and obvious it isn't very memorable or meaningful. It's easy to forget and move on.
At the very least, Thewlis is enjoyable to watch in his role even though he is—as is much of the film—very strange. He doesn't really show any emotions and while this is part of the character he plays, it keeps us at a distance from understanding him or feeling any emotions as viewers. At first it's amusing to see him do his job, criticizing and checking restaurants, acting as the great arbiter of control in the name of public health. But cutting back from other storylines to him doing this job over and over gets tedious. And the film gets stranger as it goes on, despite Egoyan's attempts to tell us a story that is packed with meaning. It's possible to appreciate his attempt and understand his points, boosted by some poignancy by the end, but I otherwise didn't care much for the film itself. I doubt many will end up ever recommending this film after watching it.
Alex's Venice 2019 Rating: 6 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing