Venice Film Review: ‘Guest of Honour’

Atom Egoyan continues to lose the plot — in various ways — in this hare-brained breakdown of a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship.

Atom Egoyan
David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Luke Wilson, Rossif Sutherland, Alexandre Bourgeois, Arsinée Khanjian

1 hour 43 minutes

It would take more explaining than the film merits to articulate why deep-fried rabbit ears are briefly a plot point in “Guest of Honour,” but so they are: The camera grazes over a platter of the oval-shaped delicacies, looking invitingly golden-crumbed and crunchy, and for a second any reservations you might have about the unusual menu item fall away. Half-baking a ragged pig’s ear of a script yields less appetizing results, though, in Atom Egoyan’s hopelessly muddled, murky blend of family melodrama and investigative thriller, in which a frayed father-daughter bond yields all manner of secondary indiscretions and traumas over a wildly careering 15-year timeframe. Incorporating stray narrative and thematic elements from Egoyan’s earlier (and far better) films into an odd kind of self-pastiche, this unwelcome “Guest” serves only to remind viewers how the director’s gifts have withered.

An Atom bomb even by his unreliable recent standards, “Guest of Honour” does, however, extend Egoyan’s mystifying run of major European competition berths for shaky genre pieces of limited artistic ambition. (After bowing on the Lido, the Ontario-shot pic heads home to Toronto, where it might court a more sympathetic crowd.) While the combination of hot-button subject matter and a fine Christopher Plummer performance at least secured 2015’s crass, twisty Nazi-hunter drama “Remember” an A24 release and respectable theatrical returns, this far less definable item — which offers a rare leading role to British character thesp David Thewlis — seems bound for VOD obscurity in most territories.

So tortured is the construction of Egoyan’s original screenplay, with its steadily inflating timeline and cat’s-cradle of flashbacks within flashbacks, that it’s hard to know where to begin any kind of coherent precis. Egoyan, for his part, opts for a particularly creaky framing device, as former high school music teacher Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) meets with patient parish priest Father Greg (a peculiarly cast Luke Wilson) to plan the funeral eulogy for her late father Jim (Thewlis), unloading the history of their troubled relationship in the process. Suffice to say this will not be a short chat — if Father Greg were played with a shade less faux-concerned smarm by Wilson, you might even feel sorry for him.

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The wholesome-looking Veronica, it turns out, is only recently out of prison, having served time for improper conduct with her devoted 17-year-old student Clive (Alexandre Bourgeois). All evidence suggests that she did nothing untoward, having been framed for sexual harassment of a minor by school bus driver Mike (Rossif Sutherland) — a jealous incel type who makes little to no sense as a freestanding character, but does at least make “The Sweet Hereafter’s” shattered bus driver Dolores Driscoll look like a relative model of her profession. Veronica, nonetheless, was all too glad to go behind bars, for reasons gradually unlocked as we pivot to Jim, a widowed former restaurateur turned perennially crabby food health inspector, given to abusing his petty professional power as part of a personal revenge mission.

“He made a lot of odd choices,” Veronica admits to the priest. The script, for its part, makes several more, as it lurches further into the past to tease out assorted criss-crossing threads of ripe, deranged tragedy involving Veronica’s mother, her old music teacher, her high school boyfriend and, yes, her childhood pet rabbit. Despite their integral collective role in the mountingly ludicrous narrative, none of these figures emerges as a character in any meaningful sense, which limits our emotional investment in the whole stew — though the rabbit, to be fair, is pretty charming. (It’s spared the grim fate of deep-fried ears, but Egoyan’s script otherwise inflicts more indignities on the humble domestic bunny than “Fatal Attraction’s” Alex Forrest can shake a stick at.)

Back in the more recent past, meanwhile, we spend an inordinate amount of time with the rigidly unsympathetic Jim as he scans establishment after establishment for food-handling violations and rodent feces — eventually, in the film’s weirdest of many flexes, fixating obsessively on an Armenian restaurant (whose bemused proprietress is played by Egoyan’s wife and regular collaborator Arsinée Khanjian) that becomes the hapless site of his messy, gut-spilling catharsis.

In terms of craft, it’s at least proficient, with Paul Sarossy’s autumn-chill lensing and Mychael Danna’s overbearing but glassily ornate score even providing sporadic glimpses of Egoyan’s former frosty artfulness. Performances, meanwhile, range from capable to overwrought. You can forgive any of the actors for not knowing how to play things: At once overplotted and under-reasoned, hysterical and stiffly earnest, “Guest of Honour” is finally one of those strenuously diagrammatic mysteries in which everything notionally connects, which isn’t quite the same as everything making even marginal emotional sense.

More perplexing still is why Egoyan has incorporated lightly remixed plot details from previous films — most notably 1994’s “Exotica,” with its comparable nesting of secrets, trauma and procedural inspection — to such cheapened effect. The impression is less one of cleverly metatextual self-referencing than strained grasping for past glories. “Why didn’t he tell me any of this?” a character wails at one point. “Because the script dictates it,” is the only sensible answer, for the film can’t summon any more belief in its heaving, unwieldy mass of soft logic and hard feelings than that. Title notwithstanding, “Guest of Honour” is more a soused party hanger-on, the kind who won’t stop chewing your ear off with tall stories and maudlin reminiscences.

Venice Film Review: 'Guest of Honour'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 3, 2019. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 103 MIN.

Production: (Canada) An Ego Film Arts, The Film Farm production. (International sales: Playtime, Paris.) Producers: Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss, Atom Egoyan. Executive producers: Sébastien Beffa, Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, Valéry Guibal, François Yon, Laurie May, Noah Segal, Adrian Love. Co-producer: Stephen Traynor.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Atom Egoyan. Camera (color): Paul Sarossy. Editor: Susan Shipton. Music: Mychael Danna.

With: David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Luke Wilson, Rossif Sutherland, Alexandre Bourgeois, Arsinée Khanjian

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