VIFF 2019: Guest of Honour

Your familiarity with Atom Egoyan may be a good indicator for your enjoyment of Guest of Honour. Maybe you’ve been waiting two decades for him to match the career highs of Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. Maybe you gave up on him long ago. Or maybe you just caught Chloe on Netflix one night and wondered why such a lurid melodrama came to such an anticlimactically austere ending. Guest of Honour’s pretty entertaining, but frankly, you’re probably best coming to it the latter way.

Look, Egoyan’s best movie this century is a Nazisploitation thriller—a very good one perhaps, but still a sign of diminishing returns for a director with an extremely consistent voice. Remember worked so well not just because it hung Egoyan’s elliptical, revelation-heavy approach on a gut-level revenge story, but because that revenge story was of a piece with his perennial themes of grief, memory, and catharsis. Guest of Honour’s content is similarly provocative, but its cheerfully absurd tale of scandal, familial trauma, and deep-fried rabbit ears doesn’t have the momentum to stop us from coming unmoored.

Luke Wilson plays a priest in this movie. That’s reasonably emblematic of the overall sense that Guest of Honour is messing with you a little bit. Laysla de Oliveira (who also headlines In the Tall Grass, the latest from another Canadian 90s breakout, Vincenzo Natali) is Veronica, the daughter meeting with the priest before a funeral. David Thewlis is Jim, the father whose funeral it is, and also the star of the film—because like many an Egoyan effort, Guest of Honour’s chronology is organized by emotion rather than plot sequence.

So a second layer, then: earlier, Veronica is in prison for a serious crime, and baffles her father by insisting that she doesn’t want to leave. Jim is a food inspector who used to be a restaurateur, and he’s about as happy as that backstory implies. There will be more layers—Veronica before prison, and before that, and before that too. But it’s here, with Jim trying to understand why Veronica would deny herself early release from prison, that the movie is most alive. And that’s because it’s here, first and foremost, that we spend the most time with Thewlis.

Not every good actor could sell a food inspection montage. Thewlis could have sold a movie that was just food inspection. No doubt, Egoyan is in fine form as Thewlis shuffles briskly through Toronto from restaurant to restaurant. Some of the best food sequences in film make you feel warm and happy and hungry, but Egoyan shoots these restaurants so that you feel as careful and methodical as Jim, the food primly appealing but never intoxicating. Thewlis’s performance is where the appetite is. There’s bottomless pathos in watching his character, day after day, restaurant after restaurant, approach those who are succeeding where he failed. He feels a tortured sort of kinship to these people; they see an official with a briefcase that could hold the end of their careers. Thewlis is always this good, and he doesn’t always get to show it off, and that might be reason enough to see Guest by itself.

There’s a link, of course, between Jim’s sadness and Veronica’s self-punishment, between his failures and hers. There’s an endless series of surprises, some of which are surprising, and almost all of which do their part to increase the good-natured seediness of the film’s already-seedy central premise (which I have not spoiled here, but which is probably spoiled everywhere else). Guest of Honour might not come together exactly as you hope, but adult melodramas don’t always come with such slick presentation and committed performances these days, either.