I LOVE ATOM Egoyan movies the way Socrates loved beardless youths, so it was with great anticipation that I went to see his latest, Felicia's Journey. Egoyan is one of the few filmmakers who uses experimental narrative techniques and still is able to appeal to a mainstream audience.
His usual style is to begin in media res, and then flash forward and backwards, filling in pieces until, by about two thirds of the way through, a plot starts to appear out of the seemingly disjointed segments. In this way, he turns romances and dramas into mysteries. Each of his films is a puzzle set out for the audience to decipher, and because of this they bear repeat viewings, as the earlier scenes acquire greater sense in light of the later ones.
His last film, The Sweet Hereafter, was his most commercially successful. It was an intensely sad story detailing a tragedy that befell a small town. While the reverberations of this horrific event are felt throughout the film, the nature of the trauma is only revealed after all of its aftereffects have been shown. This technique actually made the short scene where the terrifying event occurs much more effective.
In Felicia's Journey Egoyan breaks from his usual style somewhat. While there are still flashbacks, there are no flash-forwards, and the story largely proceeds in a standard form. There are mysteries, but they don't differ greatly from those found in other thrillers and suspense films. This probably wouldn't matter if he had altered the pace of his story to reflect this more standard style, but, if anything, he slows the film down, until, in spite of its many virtues, it winds up being a largely unsatisfying effort.
The story follows a young Irish woman named Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), who is, remarkably enough, on a journey. She's searching through a small English town for her missing boyfriend, who she fears may have joined the English army.
In the course of her travels she repeatedly runs into Joseph Hildritch, a somewhat creepy but extremely helpful man played impeccably by Bob Hoskins. Hildritch is a catering manager at a local factory, and is apparently obsessed with a 1950s cooking show hosted by one-named chef Gala, a beautiful French woman. Hildritch spends his evenings watching tapes of the show and recreating the dishes featured therein. Alone in his giant house, he toasts the television set before beginning each of his enormous, fat-drenched meals.
Gala is played in flashback and on videotapes by Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan's extremely talented wife. All of her scenes are simultaneously creepy and charming, a hard combo to pull off.
Hoskins also manages to combine creep and charm, although his character heads inexorably towards the creepy side until his every appearance on the screen feels like an open-mouthed kiss from an aged aunt. While it's impressive that Hoskins' talents allow him to get such strong effect, I'm not sure that utterly creeping out an audience is the best strategy for a film.
Of course, we don't go to films just to "feel good," unless we're the type of lowest common denominator drones who enjoy nothing more than lining George Lucas' pockets. Still, when a film is intentionally manipulative of feeling, it tends to go for (in descending order of economic incentive to the producers) good feeling, heartache or horror. To make a movie that just slowly makes the audience's skin crawl, and yet to make it a rewarding film, is a tall order.
David Lynch has pulled it off on occasion, and Paul Morrissey and David Cronenberg have based their careers on it, but outside that troika there aren't many who've had much success with the formula. The sheer creepiness of Hoskins' character, who, one can say without revealing too much, has a penchant for hidden cameras and a very pro-abortion stance, by itself doesn't scuttle Felicia's Journey. In fact, it's kind of fascinating, but Egoyan doesn't do enough with it to make it worth the film's 116 minutes. His usual course would have worked better, with more layering and more intertwining stories, but just laid out cold like this the story of a lonely and deranged old man and the beautiful young girl he seems to befriend winds up committing the greatest of cinematic sins: it's boring.
Which is not to say that there's nothing to recommend Felicia's Journey, as the acting is superb and the cinematography impeccable. Still, from Egoyan at least, I expect a good bit more.
Felicia's Journey opens Friday at The Loft cinema (795-7777).