Atom Egoyan’s latest is a self-serious dud that finds the director trying and failing to recall his once impressive weighty themes.
There’s a certain level of absurdness that is only manifested in an auteur’s twilight years, reaching for that kind of ephemerality that once symboled success, but failing to achieve any semblance of that depth. There hasn’t been a clearer example in recent years than Submergence, by director Wim Wenders — one of the worst films that hit theaters that year. Atom Egoyan has struggled with similar issues of fading relevance and his ability to recreate what once made him a celebrated filmmaker, and his latest film certainly comes the closest to absolute failure out of any that he’s made, even if it is ridiculously fun. The main problem with Guest of Honour is that it too obviously wants to be taken seriously. Jim (David Thewlis) is a health inspector, fastidious in his work, shown carefully examining every bit of dust and assessing all health codes to justify a restaurant’s pass/fail status — all of this while his daughter, Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), a high school teacher, is in jail for abusing two of her students…or did she? There’s a thematic undercurrent of guilt, how every one of the characters is burdened by it, even periphery characters getting in on the iniquitous fun. As the byzantine plot finishes unfolding itself, near the end — with a drunken speech that hints at violence to come (a suggestion never realized), the planting of rabbit excrement as a sort of extortion, and a funeral that doesn’t ultimately tie any of this together — we’re left with a series of sequences clearly aimed at expressing some unclear theme, some lesson to be learned. But there’s nothing to be found in this mess except for inexplicably self-serious absurdity, and the unmistakable feeling that we’re being asked to consider, say, the death of a rabbit (and the ill-intended scattering of its droppings) as some sort of deep metaphor.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | July 2020.