Exploring the world through global cinema

The Story In Your Eyes

This week, World On Film returns to the work of celebrated Canadian director Atom Egoyan as his most well-known feature takes us through the trauma of loss and beyond to:

The Sweet Hereafter

(1997) Based on the novel by Russell Banks        Screenplay & Direction by Atom Egoyan

Ian Holm stars as Mitchell Stevens, a damaged man intent on inflicting his suffering upon a community with enough problems of their own, in ‘The Sweet Hereafter’.

And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say, all? No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say, —
`It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!’

(You can find a trailer at the end of the previous post)

When I last ventured into the world of Atom Egoyan, he demonstrated his intimate understanding of human suffering and the gaping void that fills the lives of those who must carry on. The veteran auteur has a particular skill at consciously identifying and realising on screen the various nuances of tragedy and loss, be it due to the death of a loved one or simply the end of a relationship, where a thousand feelings of remorse, anger and longing pull the victim into their own abyss of suffering. The sheer weight of that anguish seems to burden the passage of time until its hands slow down, bereft of mercy and conspiring to prolong the torture far beyond that which seconds, minutes and hours would claim has actually been endured.

The manipulation of time is very much an Egoyan trademark: his films often break up the linear narrative and present the viewer with a collection of events they must rearrange as the film progresses in their efforts to understand what is going on. Exposition is something to be doled out sparingly in order to create suspense and help the viewer understand the sense of disconnect suffered by the characters when tragedy has struck. Effective, non-linear narratives are much harder to create than they look, and as demonstrated in the previous post’s similarly-constructed White Material, when overused, will collapse under their own excessively-clever weight. The latter film perhaps also demonstrates that non-linear narratives will need to be composed of an especially compelling story if the viewer’s intrigue is not to be swapped with frustration and disappointment once they have it fully reassembled.

Old wounds are re-opened as a cross-examined town is forced to relive their collective nightmare.

To ensure his dramatic tile puzzle would be so rewarding, Egoyan turned to American author Russell Banks’s 1991 novel, ‘The Sweet Hereafter’, exploring the aftermath of a devastating bus crash in a small town that kills many of the local children. As the grieving locals struggle to carry on following the disaster, an opportunistic lawyer appears on the scene and attempts to rally them together in a lawsuit against anything that will award the highest amount of damages. Driven by the anguish of their loss, many of the parents agree, with only the crash’s one survivor finding clarity in the changed circumstances of her own life and able therefore to see through the madness and greed around her.

“[Film-maker Atom Egoyan] has a particular skill at consciously identifying and realising on screen the various nuances of tragedy and loss, be it due to the death of a loved one or simply the end of a relationship, where a thousand feelings of remorse, anger and longing pull the victim into their own abyss of suffering.”

The conspiring interloper is practically the subject of a film in and of itself. Far from being the two-dimensional stereotype of the shyster lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (played by Ian Holm) is a web of wretched complexity far within the realm of the pathetic. His daughter, once the apple of his eye, now an unrepentant drug addict, has the final embers of his divorced and solitary dying compassion in her thrall whenever she requires money to feed the habit. Stevens perceives the world around him through this imprisonment and has unsurprisingly strong opinions on the fate of children in modern-day society. It is far easier to blame ‘society’ for his daughter’s loss than accept that the situation may have happened of its own accord. His denial thus forms the solid foundations of his outward persona as a would-be moral crusader. Devoid of an actual cause, his every declaration is akin to Olivier taking to the stage, wrenching the townspeople’s anguish back to the surface and igniting the flames of vengeance. However, not all of the bereft, most notably grieving father Billy (Bruce Greenwood, nowadays more famous for his role in Star Trek) and sole-survivor Nicole (Sarah Polley), buy into the performance. Seeing Stevens’s true nature for what it is, they find themselves confronted with its infectious spread throughout the residents, particularly among those close to them.

The quest for truth unravels the townspeople, revealing their hidden lives beneath.

Of Holm’s contribution, Olivier may not in fact be the best comparison, since he had a reputation for delivering Shakespearean dialogue with a natural authenticity few have replicated. Ian Holm’s lawyer instantly brings to mind the stage and the actor’s mesmerising presence forces the viewer to pay close attention to his alter-ego’s grotesque nature. However, natural it isn’t, neither in performance nor dialogue, which jars with the down-to-earth, more understated performance of the rest of the cast. Perhaps this is deliberate on the director’s part: Stevens is not only attempting to convince himself that he isn’t merely inflicting his personal problems on innocent parties, but is a performer by trade, as all successful lawyers are apt to be. I remain unconvinced at this point.

Just as the non-linear narrative serves to build up the way in which the chief antagonist is bound by events far removed from the quiet mountain town, so it also paints the equally complex set of circumstances that allow Nicole, a seventeen-year-old girl who has seen her contemporaries die first-hand and had her world turned upside-down, to see through the trauma at the wider issues beyond. Likewise Billy, who loses both his children in the struggle and who acted as mechanic on the vehicle that somehow managed to tumble over a cliff. It is very telling that both in their own ways stand apart from the rest of the community in having suffered great personal losses elsewhere. One has lost a family member, the other is forced to realise that a loved one is not who they have claimed to be, which is a traumatic loss of a different kind. Yet both end up in the same place. Their world is already in ruins, and a collective lawsuit will simply destroy what remains of their society.

“Far from being the two-dimensional stereotype of the shyster lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (played by Ian Holm) is a web of wretched complexity far within the realm of the pathetic.”

In times of grief, objectivity falls silent. Yet some of the survivors are able to see the real intent of the stranger in their midst.

The notion of children being taken from their community never to return reminded either director or writer (I am unfamiliar with the novel) of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose tale is quoted liberally throughout. Yet I found it rather grating in its continual appearance, and it would be extremely unsubtle (unworthy of Egoyan) were it not especially relevant in the first place. Angered that the council of Hamelin will not properly reimburse him for ridding the town of its rat infestation, the enraged piper bewitches the children of the community with his flautations and spirits them away to a cave for fates unknown which to the villagers, is equivalent to death. The elders are thus forced to examine the price of their selfishness. “If we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise,” declares Browning’s moral.

Yet in The Sweet Hereafter, the children are the product of loving parents, and although it is the father of the lame child who could be said not to have kept his promises, her lameness is the product of a different cause – indeed, her lameness is caused by the ‘event’, rather than preventing her from taking part in the event like the others. The amorality tale of the film is not really a re-enactment of what happens when one does not keep their word, and the fable merely a vague contextual similarity that has been shoehorned in to add a layer of subtext. That’s the thing about subtext – by definition, it shouldn’t jar.

Nonetheless, when one strips away the brow-beating nursery rhymes and sledgehammer subtlety of certain performances, they will still be confronted by a highly-arresting study of human coping mechanisms and the way in which the vultures circle in those times of weakness. It holds up, in contrast, our response to the toll the swift death of loved ones takes on the psyche as opposed to the ongoing impact a protracted death of ‘personality’ will continue to eat away at the soul.  Left to their own devices, people are by nature equipped to adapt even to the most horrific of changing circumstances. For Banks and Egoyan, the issue is what happens when that process is interrupted – or in the case of some, never allowed to begin – when bereavement is ongoing and the deeply-buried embers of remorse are perpetually fanned. Our ability to move on ultimately defines how we will live in the changed world of the sweet hereafter.

*****

Next Time

“The problem with the film for me then is that Schnoor, who spends only two weeks in Cape Verde, is very much in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of discovery. He is brought into the island community via his own relatives who are happy to meet him, neighbouring farmers welcome him and everywhere the joie de vivre directed his way is what you would expect of someone who went up to the locals and said “Tell me why you think Cape Verdeans are so awesome!” “

A young man goes in search of his ancestral roots in Cape Verde, hoping to gain insight into their character. But is he really in search of the truth or simply fulfilling a greater need to satisfy his inner cravings for self-identity? Discover Cabo Verde Inside next time on World On Film.

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