Atom Egoyan

September 24, 2009

In the preface to her study of Atom Egoyan, Emma Wilson refers to the film-maker's fascination with Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973), two seminal films that are not only instructive in situating Egoyan as an international auteur, but which serve also to contextualise his work thematically and stylistically.

In this text, Wilson revisits themes that she has explored to great effect in a number of her previous books, including Alain Resnais (2006) and Memory and Survival: The French Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (2000).

The "return" enacted here in relation to memory and childhood in Wilson's own writing is one that emerges throughout her exploration of Egoyan's work. She argues that his films "encourage us to suspend the distinction between film images and memory images", suggesting that "they work as an imaginary collection of images - a collage or family album - with which the viewer is invited to identify, to insert his or her own family history". Calendar (1993), for example, reflects on "nostalgia for a homeland and love for a lost woman" through a retrospective return to images shot in Armenia for a photographer's calendar.

The importance of Egoyan's Armenian heritage (he describes himself as "Cairo-born, Canadian-bred and of Armenian descent") clearly informs his creative practice, from films to gallery installations. Wilson writes particularly well on this aspect of Egoyan's filmic and personal identity, and her analysis of his 2002 film Ararat is powerfully illuminating. If I have a criticism of this admirable book, and it's a minor one, it is that its contemplation of memory in Egoyan's films occurs only in relation to the films themselves; there is no broader exploration or theorisation of memory or, more importantly, "postmemory", a term used frequently by Wilson but one that is not adequately explained here. There has been a great deal written in recent years on memory and trauma in film studies, some of it by Wilson, and for the specialist reader the terrain is familiar and unproblematic, but for the general reader, there is a danger that aspects of the book are rendered less accessible.

Wilson surveys a number of the themes in Egoyan's films, summarised as "traumatic loss, mourning, mania, manipulation, fantasy and sexuality". Connected with all of these is a concern with technology, particularly video, which is used frequently in Egoyan's films to explore the relationship between differing levels of illusion and relations of proximity and distance.

Structurally, the book takes us, chronologically, through Egoyan's ten feature films to date, from Next of Kin in 1984 to Where the Truth Lies in 2005, finishing with an informative interview in which Egoyan talks with self-reflexive intelligence about spectatorship and point of view in film, alongside children and the family.

The book opens with a brief preface that sketches an overview of Egoyan's career, but more introductory and concluding material might have been helpful. Wilson writes with clarity and passion and often describes details from the films with such vivid expression that one is moved immediately to want to view or review the film being described (and this surely compensates for any sense of detachment experienced by the reader unfamiliar with his work). This persuasive book brings Egoyan's films vibrantly alive, while at the same time offering compelling, intelligent and thought-provoking analysis.

Atom Egoyan

By Emma Wilson. University of Illinois Press. 184pp, £44.00 and £12.99. ISBN 9780252034305 and 076206. Published 7 May 2009

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