'Guest of Honour': Film Review | Venice 2019

Overcooked rabbit stew.

David Thewlis and Laysla De Oliveira play a restaurant health inspector and his daughter, a high school music teacher, sifting through their troubled history in the latest drama from Atom Egoyan.

Bunnies haven't been so misused onscreen since Michael Douglas made the mistake of pissing off Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. In the hopelessly convoluted and solemnly silly melodrama Guest of Honour, a fat, fluffy white fellow named Benjamin gets his droppings passed off as rat turds in a bizarre abuse of power; an unfortunate bunch of hippity-hop cottontails get the chop to supply the delicacy of fried rabbit ears; and in just one WTF? moment in a screenplay littered with them, a character apropos of nothing informs us that rabbits are considered lucky because they live underground: "They communicate with the spirits of the underworld." Oh, right, that explains everything.

The leaden symbolism of that information in a movie that delves into the circumstances surrounding one or more deaths isn't even the most dispiriting element of this over-plotted soap, which continues the mystifying career drift of the once-interesting Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan.

Juggling multiple timelines, narrative frames within frames and flashbacks upon flashbacks, the writer-director's script also plants vague self-referential echoes of work from his good period, notably The Adjuster, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. But that latter allusion, hinting at a tragedy involving a busload of high school students, is a protracted tease that turns out to be misdirection. Guest of Honour feels like a failed attempt to tame the unwieldy story of a complicated novel. But in fact it's an original screenplay, which means Egoyan has gone out of his way to create the overly fussy structure, perhaps in a bid to lend the psychologically wobbly drama some weight.

Egoyan's two most recent misfires, The Captive and Remember, at least played like bad versions of recognizable genre pieces — the abduction thriller and the Holocaust revenge fantasy, respectively. But this new film, while it's more convincing on some levels, solidly acted and capably shot in autumnal shades in the multicultural Ontario town of Hamilton, doesn't really approach any viable dramatic model even if it does deal with the familiar Egoyan theme of festering emotional damage.

At heart, it's an exploration of the fractured bond between a father and daughter that begins when former high school music teacher Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) goes to see local parish priest Father Greg (Luke Wilson, really?). She's there to make arrangements for the funeral of her dad Jim (David Thewlis), and since he wasn't a churchgoer, Father Greg wants her help to get to know the man and "his spiritual path" before delivering Jim's eulogy. "He sounds like one of those people you hear about but never see," says the priest in what could be a script note, when he learns that Jim worked as a restaurant health inspector, traveling the city and giving passing grades to eateries in compliance with government standards or shutting down those that fail to measure up. That's frame No. 1.

We then rewind to Jim visiting Veronica in prison, where she declines to pursue early release and insists on serving her full sentence, saying she deserves to stay in jail. Frame No. 2 stirs in fragments of information about Veronica's music students being the victims of some terrible abuse of her authority. That seems impossible given the joy she brings to her job while chaperoning them on a bus trip to perform all over the province. Her exuberant dancing while she conducts the student orchestra tags her as "hot teacher," a designation confirmed by the smoldering desire of 17-year-old Clive (Alexandre Bourgeois), who can barely hide his erection behind the timpani; and the persistent attentions of creepy, stalker-ish bus driver Mike (Rossif Sutherland).

Veronica's magnetism was evidently just as irresistible in childhood, since intermittent jumps back in time reveal her at age 8 (Isabelle Franca), when she started music lessons with Alicia (Sochi Fried). She cast an instant spell on the teacher's young son, Walter (Alexander Marsh), who's like Pip seeing Estella for the first time in Great Expectations, only with crazy eyes. Veronica is a piano student while Walter's talent is playing music on water glasses, with the deceptive transparency of those vessels adding another symbolic layer. Even man of the cloth Father Greg proves less than forthcoming when it's revealed that he actually knows quite a bit about Jim.

Further detours off that flashback dig into what happened to Veronica's beautiful Brazilian mother (Tenille Read), Alicia's role in their lives, and disturbing developments connected to the teenage Walter (Gage Munroe), all of which contribute to cloud Veronica's feelings about her father and herself. The one constant in her life was her childhood pet, Benjamin, the only pure innocent in the movie.

Woven around these plot threads are extensive scenes where we tag along with Jim on his restaurant calls, behaving like he's on a holy mission as he inserts meat thermometers or shines a flashlight under kitchen fixtures looking for infestation evidence. Thewlis makes him a bit of a self-important pedant, so by the time his devastating losses and personal torments are divulged, there's not much impetus to care about him. A former restaurateur himself, Jim's pain prompts him to misuse his own power, notably when he plants a health-code violation on the premises of one family business, using the threat of closure to extract information about the crimes that landed Veronica in prison. Which, in the end, don't add up to much more than a disproportionate sense of guilt with roots stretching back to an earlier time.

Composer Mychael Danna's overused score gets a little cutesy on Jim's professional rounds, taking on ethnic flavors that reflect the specialty of each establishment being checked — Chinese, Indian, Mexican. The longest and most narratively bogus interlude takes place in an Armenian restaurant (run by the director's wife and frequent muse, Arsinee Khanjian), where those crisped bunny ears are on the menu. It's at a private function there that Jim becomes the "guest of honor," giving the film its title. He also gets inexplicably invited up to the microphone to give a drunken speech in which he gets a tad too loose-lipped about extracting vengeance. For what, it's never exactly made clear, given that Veronica's transgressions are largely in her head. But that detail apparently is unimportant in this increasingly batty drama.

Production companies: Ego Film Arts, The Film Farm, Playtime
Cast: David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Luke Wilson, Rossif Sutherland, Alexandre Bourgeois, Arsinee Khanjian, Gage Munroe, Sochi Fried, Tennile Read, John Bourgeois, Isabelle Franca, Alexander Marsh
Director-screenwriter: Atom Egoyan
Producers: Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss, Atom Egoyan
Executive producers: Sebastian Beffa, Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, Valery Guibal, Francois Yon, Laurie May, Noah Segal, Adrian Love
Director of photography: Paul Sarossy
Production designer: Phillip Barker
Costume designer: Lea Carlson
Music: Mychael Danna
Editor: Susan Shipton
Casting: John Buchan, Jason Knight
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Playtime

104 minutes