While the director frequently draws criticism for receiving public funding despite a spotty track record with his recent films, he also gets an endless supply of second chances having made the best film this country ever produced, The Sweet Hereafter. Ironically, Egoyan’s new film Guest of Honour proves why he still merits esteem as one of Canada’s top directors. Any decline in Egoyan’s work is evident in the writing of his films and not in their realisation. Even Egoyan’s stronger recent films, like Chloe (sorry, haters!) and Remember, feature scripts by other talents. Guest of Honour is classic Egoyan with its strange puzzle that shifts fragments of memory, trauma, and desire with considerations for technology and Canadian experiences outside the mainstream. One just wishes the pieces came together as effectively as they did in Egoyan’s other works.
The Guy Nobody Sees
Guest of Honour is an intricate psychosexual puzzle that masquerades as a character study. The film stars David Thewlis as Jim, a food inspector keeping the restaurants of Hamilton shipshape. This aspect of the film is actually quite fascinating. Food inspectors aren’t nearly as popular in movies as chefs, bartenders, or servers are. However, Guest of Honour probes larger questions of bureaucracy and the Canadian mosaic as Jim visits one ethnic restaurant after another. He applies western logic to customs from other cultures. Note his disapproving glances towards naan bread baked on the walls of a traditional oven. Or his prickliness when the owner of a Middle Eastern bistro (Arsinée Khanjian) processes furry rabbits in her kitchen.
Thewlis moves through the kitchens of Guest of Honour like a spy. He inspects floors, steam trays, and refrigerators with approving nods and stern looks. The stoic and stiff Jim is a stickler for rules. The power play between the health inspector and the hyphenated Canadians whose restaurants he inspects speaks to the larger challenges of enforcing norms of the white majority on an increasingly multicultural society. This terrain is often where Egoyan excels: excavating aspects of life that go unseen. To the point of the writing, though, Jim literally has a line that says he’s the guy nobody sees. On-the-nose declarations aside, the film deftly explores tensions of multiculturalism that persist in Canada’s increasingly diverse urban centres.
“What Veronica Did”
However, when Guest of Honour folds elements of espionage and revenge into Jim’s routine, it stumbles. The film features a fractured narrative with Jim’s daughter, Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) in two timelines. In one thread, Veronica visits a priest (Luke Wilson) as she prepares Jim’s funeral. As Veronica tells Father Greg about her father so that he can prepare the service, they discuss Jim’s life Bridges of Madison County style. This tired narrative structure sees the younger generation talk about their elders in blunt expository dialogue that contextualises flashbacks. As with the Meryl Streep/Clint Eastwood romance of Bridges, the flashbacks bring the goods to Guest of Honour. What’s between them, however, isn’t up to par.
Veronica’s story becomes increasingly ridiculous as it broaches “what she did.” Cue the other timeline in which Jim visits Veronica in prison. They also discuss “what she did” as Veronica’s potentially wrongful conviction fuels Jim’s revenge quest in later years. Egoyan unfolds the saga of “what she did” in a protracted leg-puller of crosscut scenes. He can be a master of the drawn-out tease, but Exotica this film is not. The more Veronica reveals her actions and, especially, the motivation that led her to prison, the more ludicrous the story becomes.
Showing vs. Telling
The backstory involves Veronica’s short-lived tenure as a music teacher and insinuations of inappropriate conduct with a student (Alexandre Bourgeois). This salaciously juicy material is the sort of risqué terrain in which Egoyan is always brave enough to tread. However, Guest of Honour favours “telling” over “showing” as the Jim/Veronica and Veronica/Greg exchanges frame dramatic episodes featuring little more than people reading text messages. The chronology of events doesn’t entirely add up, either, which isn’t aided by the fact that the actors don’t age with the shifting timelines. (Another point of confusion.) There’s also a hugely creepy presence in Rossif Sutherland as a bus driver with the hots for Veronica. Unfortunately, Sutherland mostly serves as a red herring within the fractured narrative. Instead of elucidating the mystery, the puzzle pieces merely reveal the implausibility of the conceit.
Egoyan nevertheless pulls it off with his signature flavour. The dank squalor of Hamilton is a refreshing alternative to Toronto’s concrete jungle, or the northern Ontario settings that cheaply evoke generic “Canada.” Every location in Guest of Honour is perfectly stale and dated to match Jim’s arcane bureaucracy. A hypnotic score by Mychael Danna and moody cinematography Paul Sarossy accentuate Egoyan’s thematic considerations on technology, sex, and belonging. Guest of Honour is darkly enigmatic as Jim probes the darker recesses of his psyche. Thewlis also hasn’t relished a part this good in years and his downplayed performance is the work of a true character actor enlivening a lead role. Guest of Honour meets enough criteria to be worthy of the Egoyan canon even if it’s not his best work. As health inspections go, Guest earns a conditional pass with hope that Egoyan will soon return to code.
Guest of Honour is now streaming in select virtual cinemas and on VOD.