There is a discreet charm about all the mundane and dull moments which appear as fragmented memory projections overriding anything that is happening in the present. Dream-like, cladded with the saturated colours of an almost mythological construction, they seem to operate as distinct units seeking attention. They threaten to compromise the beautiful, harmonious continuity of now and Atom Egoyan carefully connects them through a slow choreography of flashbacks, setting out for a promising, poetic exploration of the residues of the past.
Nevertheless, the balance is somewhere lost, and the film seems to be falling through the cracks, indulging in the moment of a missed return, a lost connection, a quasi-reflection.
The film opens with a sequence that sets the sombre tone which seeps through the entire film, alongside snippets of tragic irony. Veronica, a young woman who has just lost her father visits the priest who will conduct the funeral service. With too little information about the personality of the deceased for a decent eulogy though, the priest (Luke Wilson) seeks to find out as much as possible from his daughter, played by Laysla De Oliveira. What starts off as a predictable conversation almost taken out of a TV drama though turns out to be an unexpected set of revelations made by the priest himself. It would appear as if Jim, wonderfully played by David Thewlis, had led his life like an invisible persona. He was constructed almost like a projection of the interactions, the opinions and assumptions of others, his daughter included. Having spent a long period in prison, Veronica relies on past memories, flashbacks of a previous state of normativity. These projections offered as flashbacks serve as a kaleidoscope slowly revealing Jim’s multifaceted life like a slow drip of the residue of his and Veronica’s old normal. Both their life trajectories become intertwined and each person’s story appears as if an inversion of the other.
A high-school music teacher with charisma, Veronica finds herself in a predicament when a colleague who is obsessed with her tries to set her up by fabricating a story around her inappropriate involvement with a student. The attempt is soon discovered but instead of reporting her colleague, Veronica decides to almost follow his script and play along. She organises a prank with her students in what appears to be an abuse of power from her side, in the form of grooming her teenage students. She decides to confess to something she never did and go to prison. In the meantime, Jim, a meticulous food inspector and loving father sees his organised life descending into chaos. His daughter wrongfully accused; her persistence not to press charges; the dark secrets from her past slowly emerging. Their meetings in prison seem like a vanishing point of her recollections of his past and his understanding of her present.
However, the secret that haunts Veronica about her past crimes and the guilt that comes with it doesn’t seem enough to justify her almost self-imposed imprisonment and isolation. Yet, this is not the only issue which prevents the film from reaching its true potential. There are too many iterations of that can of worms with the label “hidden guilt” on the tin, ranging from historical events and political attitudes to socio-cultural norms around sex, lies and home video-recordings. These are not always articulated or justified for that matter with enough conviction. They appear as if glimpses of images, thumbnails swinging from a pendulum, going back and forth in time, switching between false and true, event and recollection, documentation and intuition. Veronica’s relationship with her student and his acting as a catalyst forcing her to acknowledge her past crimes is represented in an almost opportunistic way; by virtue of his resemblance to another young man from her past. Jim’s confrontation of his own guilt for prioritising his self-righteousness and his daughter’s professional and personal reputation over her individual choices, through a drunken rant in the most unexpected place. All the proxies for Jim and Veronica’s relationship: Benjamin the rabbit; the priest; Veronica’s music teacher. Some of those associations remain wide open.
Nevertheless, this is perhaps also a strong point in the film as it affords enough agency to its viewers to decide for themselves what these associations can be and what they could mean, if at all meaningful. Still, it is a far far away from the Egoyan's previous work despite some premises being repeated particularly in relation to his film Exotica. However, the glimpses or thumbnails which articulate memories, assumptions and thoughts are substantial enough to work as independent units and allow the film to unravel among them. In-between home videos of happy family pastimes, close-ups of Ben the rabbit, and long shots of Jim’s slow disappearance into the saturated backgrounds of the restaurants he goes to inspect, surfaces a film which might still be interesting to watch. The slow pace which is interchanged with quick edits of the some of the flashbacks offers a conventional yet suitable style allowing the beautiful performance by David Thewlis to surface as one of the most compelling elements in the film.
Info: The film is available to watch in the UK from 5 June via Curzon Home Cinema: https://www.curzonhomecinema.com/film/watch-guest-of-honour-film-online
Guest of Honour (2020)
Writer, Director: Atom Egoyan. Actors: David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Luke Wilson. Genre: Drama. Duration: 105 minutes. Country: Canada. Producer: Atom Egoyan, Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss. Cinematography: Paul Sarossy. Music: Mychael Danna.