The International Herald Tribune, France
August 29, 2009 Saturday

A director tests his own borders

Atom Egoyan ventures into new territory with an 'erotic mystery'

by KATRINA ONSTAD


ABSTRACT
His new film ''Chloe,'' is a star-studded break from form for him, the
first of his features for which he has not written the screenplay.

FULL TEXT
On a frosty March morning here the stars stood still while others
orbited around them, as tends to happen on a movie set. An assistant's
arms wrapped Julianne Moore in a lime popsicle-colored parka; someone
else crouched below Amanda Seyfried, lifting her blouse to hold a
heating pad belt to her torso.

Inside a cavernous restaurant the director Atom Egoyan waited for a
small correction in the lighting to begin shooting a scene for his new
movie, ''Chloe,'' which will have its premiere next month at the
Toronto International Film Festival.

With the cameras rolling, the two actresses sipped Chardonnay at the
bar and began verbally circling each other. Ms. Moore played a married
gynecologist; Ms. Seyfried was the prostitute she enlisted to gauge
the fealty of her husband (Liam Neeson). Sexual taboos;
miscommunication; a shoot from the depths of an icy Toronto winter -
all of this looked very much like a typical Egoyan film, except it
wasn't.

''Chloe'' - which Mr. Egoyan describes as an ''erotic mystery'' - is a
star-studded break from form for him, the first of his features for
which he has not written the screenplay. He has spent more than two
decades fashioning complicated puzzles like ''The Sweet Hereafter''
and ''Exotica,'' in which characters misread one another and the
world, cornered by sexual desire and technology. Now he was playing
hired gun to Ivan Reitman, producer of a string of top-grossing
populist comedies like ''Animal House'' and ''Ghostbusters,'' and
director of ''Kindergarten Cop.'' Mr. Reitman stood on the sidelines,
hands in pockets, surveying silently.

The odd pairing - they are even physical opposites, with the bearlike
Mr. Reitman towering over the diminutive Mr. Egoyan - seems like a
meeting of the mainstream and the margin. But besides Canadian
citizenship, the two share something else: a need to stretch.

Mr. Reitman was interested in putting aside the guffaws and overseeing
''a more delicate piece.'' And at 49, Mr. Egoyan exuded a youthful
restlessness. ''There's a definite ceiling for the type of films I've
done,'' he said over lunch during a break in filming. ''And as an
artist there is a point where you're trying to find and test how wide
your sensibility can go.''

It helped, he said, that the script in question was by Erin Cressida
Wilson, who has unpacked perversity in an Egoyan-like fashion with her
screenplays for the S&M drama ''Secretary'' and the Diane Arbus
fantasia ''Fur.'' ''She can write in this very linear fashion that I
couldn't even if I tried,'' Mr. Egoyan said. ''It's an extreme
examination of how to re-eroticize a marriage.''

In 2008 ''Chloe'' was blessed by that rare alignment of casting and
financing. (The film's budget is an estimated $20 million, with
backers including Studio Canal and Montecito, Mr. Reitman's company.)
After the cast signed on, two of the three leads appeared in surprise
hits, increasing their celebrity currency: Ms. Seyfried with ''Mamma
Mia!'' and Mr. Neeson with ''Taken.'' ''We've had incredibly good luck
pulling this together,'' Mr. Reitman said. ''It's been a joyful
experience so far.''

And then within a few days of my set visit, Mr. Neeson's wife, the
actress Natasha Richardson, fell on a ski slope in Quebec. What had
seemed a minor injury bloomed into something much worse;
Ms. Richardson was soon transferred to Lenox Hill Hospital in New
York, where she died. After the news media descended on the city for a
glimpse of tragedy, Mr. Egoyan was left in Toronto with an absent star
and an interrupted change of course.

Mr. Egoyan was first nominated for the Canadian equivalent of the
Oscar, the Genie, at 24. The film, ''Next of Kin'' (1984), is a black
comedy about a lonely young man masquerading as an Armenian
adoptee. Mr. Egoyan's reputation built slowly throughout the 1990s
with critically lauded independent films: ''The Adjuster,''
''Exotica'' and ''The Sweet Hereafter.'' ''The Sweet Hereafter,''
which Mr. Egoyan adapted from a Russell Banks novel, starred Ian Holm
as a lawyer trying to prey on a small town suspended in grief after a
school bus accident. That 1997 film earned him the ''surprise'' Oscar
nominee slot for best director (and best screenplay adaptation),
though he was crushed by James Cameron's ''Titanic.'' ''At a luncheon
James Cameron took me aside and said: 'You know, in a way, we made the
same movie. They're both about large metal objects crashing through
ice,''' Mr. Egoyan said, grinning.

Although he claimed to love ''Titanic,'' and financed his early films
in part by directing trashy television shows like ''Friday the 13th,''
any trace of mass audience ''pop'' is virtually absent from
Mr. Egoyan's oeuvre and, possibly, his life. He was born in Egypt to
Armenian parents who had been painters, and was raised in Victoria,
British Columbia.

''Atom has no lowbrow side; he doesn't even have a middlebrow side,''
said the novelist Douglas Cooper, who has known Mr. Egoyan since they
roomed near each other at the University of Toronto. Typical dorm-room
activities included conversations about Harold Pinter and how to
depict genocide in art.

Mr. Egoyan has also staged his own operas, as well as those by Strauss
and Wagner. Mr. Neeson worked with him last summer on a Lincoln Center
Festival production of the Samuel Beckett play ''Eh Joe.'' ''I was
very inspired by Atom,'' Mr. Neeson recently said on the phone from
New York. ''He's incredibly bright, with a wicked sense of humor. He's
a renaissance man. There's no one like him in Hollywood.''

And that's intentional. After the success of ''Exotica,'' Mr. Egoyan
spent several months in Los Angeles, a period he jokingly refers to as
''my lost year.'' Meetings begat more meetings and finally he returned
to Toronto to make movies on a smaller scale. The exception being the
2005 Kevin Bacon post-modern noir ''Where the Truth Lies,'' a
Canadian-British co-production that still allowed Mr. Egoyan the
creative freedom he has cultivated - until now.

''I never wanted my films to be tested because test screenings have to
do with clarity, whether or not you feel confused or uncertain,'' he
said. ''Confusion and uncertainty are what the films I write are based
on. But 'Chloe' is being designed to go through that process. We shot
a lot so we could have malleability to change things. I have no
problem with it because that's the intention of this film, to find a
wider audience.''

This found audience would be new for Mr. Egoyan: ''Where the Truth
Lies,'' budgeted at $25 million, took in $872,000, according to
boxofficemojo.com. In May his most recent film, ''Adoration,'' came
and went swiftly to mixed reviews.

That he had slipped, somewhat, from the good graces of the
once-adoring cinephiles, was something Mr. Egoyan admitted he thought
about. He credited good reviews with gaining him attention as a young
filmmaker, and wondered if the changing film world had made it harder
for his kind of movies - what he called medium-size films - to be
seen.

''There was a time when there was a real anticipation of an
independent film,'' he said. ''But the attention span has changed, and
the ability of the critical community to read these films. I think
there's a tremendous pressure on critics and film writers to
concentrate on films that are perceived to be more popular, and I
think it's changed the landscape.''

Before starting ''Chloe,'' Mr. Reitman became a student of
Mr. Egoyan's films. ''I think for how good his movies are, a lot of
them are hard to take,'' he said. ''They're tragedies and very
independent in spirit, so they've had somewhat a limited audience.''
The storytelling in ''Chloe,'' Mr. Reitman added, ''is faster than his
historical work. But it is an Egoyan film in that it's a very personal
look at human psychology, with lots of small moments told through
nuance. It's less enigmatic.''

Ms. Moore was drawn to the story of a lived-in marriage. She,
Mr. Neeson and Mr. Egoyan were, at the time, all in long-term
relationships. (Mr. Egoyan is married to the actress Arsinée Khanjian,
and they have a 14-year-old son.) ''In ordinary adult life, sex has a
different kind of currency than in most movies,'' Ms. Moore
said. ''Atom's films always understand that sexuality is meaningful.''

As research before shooting, Mr. Egoyan traveled to New York and,
through a friend's recommendation, found a bar in a prominent hotel
rumored to host high-end sex workers. He quickly noticed a young blond
woman watching him. The director approached and offered her money to
explain how this retro form of prostitution worked. ''It's very much
alive, and based on eye contact, all the things you'd normally do in a
bar,'' he said. ''But there's a different negotiation, of course, and
that's fascinating. At what point does something that might have
become a date become a business interaction?''

He finished his break and went back to shoot Ms. Moore and
Ms. Seyfried, seated at the bar, enacting exactly that negotiation.

Several months later, in the searing heat of July, Mr. Egoyan locked
up his bicycle outside a cafe in the upscale Summerhill neighborhood
of Toronto, near his home. Over breakfast he described the moment when
Mr. Neeson pulled him aside on the set and told him of
Ms. Richardson's fall. ''He just talked with her, and everything
seemed to be O.K. But there was a feeling of: 'You should go.' And it
just changed the course of everything.''

Mr. Reitman and Mr. Egoyan were in immediate phone contact. ''First
you think, 'Oh my God.' The human side takes over, and you try to
proceed in a way that's respectful and honorable,'' Mr. Reitman
said. ''But there are always one's financial obligations. Films
involve hundreds of lives.'' Mr. Egoyan described a flood of insurers
and completion bonders on the set. He brought together the principals,
and they went over the script, altering sequences for Mr. Neeson's
absence.

But within days he quietly returned to Toronto in a private plane,
undetected by the news media. ''He conducted himself in an
extraordinary manner,'' Mr. Reitman recalled. ''He was under pressure
from the sadness of what had happened, and he channeled it into the
performance of those two days.''

Over the summer Mr. Egoyan attended test screenings of ''Chloe'' with
audiences in Los Angeles and Toronto, reviewing the feedback with
Mr. Reitman. The response has been extremely positive, Mr. Egoyan
said; no clarity issues. But strangely, a complex, Egoyan-esque
meta-narrative has been imposed on the film that was supposed to be
his most direct. It's now the tragic movie about marriage during which
one very famous marriage ended so tragically.

Asked if the film read differently to him now elicited a polite,
conclusive answer from Mr. Neeson: ''I can't go back there.''

To the same question Mr. Egoyan gave a considered response. ''It will
have interesting overtones because it is about how precious a marriage
is,'' he said. ''Maybe it will always be known as the film Liam was
working on when that happened. But ultimately we finished the film,
and Liam is magnificent in it. Now all we can do is wait and see.''