Directed and written by Atom Egoyan

With Arsinee Khanjian, Ashot Adamian, and Atom Egoyan.

In terms of craft, originality, and intelligence, there are few young filmmakers in the world today to match Atom Egoyan–a Canadian writer-director with a bee in his bonnet about video, photography, voyeurism, sexual obsession, troubled families, and personal identity (not necessarily in that order). But of his half-dozen features to date, the only one I’m comfortable calling a flat-out masterpiece is his fifth, Calendar–in some ways the least premeditated or worked over of the bunch. (Its successor, Exotica, which showed at Cannes in May 1993, will probably surface in New York later this year, which means it probably won’t get to Chicago before next summer.)

There are various ways of categorizing Egoyan’s six features, but perhaps the most useful involves distinguishing between the relatively low-budget ones, which happen to be my favorites–Next of Kin (1984), Family Viewing (1987), and Calendar (1993)–and the slicker, more expensive ones: Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), and Exotica (1994). Though all these movies have similar preoccupations and many have similar formal structures, a few distinctions between them are worth noting. Egoyan is an assimilated Armenian who was born and raised and continues to live in Toronto, and all his features include performances by his wife, Arsinee Khanjian, an Armenian actress who was born and grew up in Beirut’s Armenian community. But the only Egoyan movies that can be said to directly address his Armenian roots, as well as his ambivalence toward them, are Next of Kin and Calendar. The other four, by contrast, tend to place their focus more on elements of Canadian culture, especially those bound up with puritan repression in Ontario and with sexual aberration, including incest. (It’s worth mentioning that Egoyan is far from the only Canadian who associates incest with puritanism and repression; check out David Cronenberg in Dead Ringers and Guy Maddin in Careful, for instance.)

What has always seemed problematic about Egoyan’s slicker (and to my mind more pretentious) productions, for all their virtues, is that they exploit various sexual hang-ups more than they try to understand them. In contrast to his low-budget films, which at least on the surface are more naturalistic, Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, and Exotica all have the shape and feel of allegorical fantasies, but closed, claustrophobic ones, without road maps or commentaries. This isn’t to say they’re pornographic, at least in any overt way, or that analysis is entirely absent from them. What bothers me is that they use ideas about both pornography and analysis as come-ons to the audience, but the painful and difficult material we’re drawn into ultimately loops back on itself without leading to any new understanding.

In other words, these films are structured like the obsessions they deal with. Because of that, narrative progression in the usual sense is generally kept to a minimum; at most one sees the gradual exposition of an already existing situation, or variations on a theme. There’s no real character development or advancement of any didactic argument; as in all of Egoyan’s movies, internalized emotional states count for much more than plot points. These films are often alluring, at least initially, insofar as they’re hypnotic and mysterious. Yet they never quite explain enough to entirely dissolve the mysteries or break the hypnosis; at best the denouements merely round out the descriptions of the obsessions involved. As political statements about human potential they qualify as defeatist, and it’s not all that easy to separate diagnosis from disease. They’re spiritual stripteases that never quite reveal a naked soul; at some point, it seems, the equivalent to a fig leaf in Egoyan’s imagination steps in, a spiritual counterpart to the Ontario censor board.

To be fair, Calendar has virtually no narrative progression either, and there’s no denouement to the mysteries it sets up. But because the tone is more comic here, and the sexual tension less guilt-ridden, one doesn’t emerge from this picture feeling cheated. It also helps a lot that the protagonist is played by Egoyan himself. Implicating himself more directly than ever in his own material, he becomes at once more modest and more relaxed; his touch is lighter and funnier and his directorial hand is surer. But the biggest difference between this and Egoyan’s previous work is the subject matter itself.

Egoyan has written, “In conceiving Calendar, I wanted to find a story that would deal with three levels of Armenian consciousness: Nationalist, Diasporan, and Assimilationist.” The film has two basic time frames, intercut and interwoven in a number of inventive ways. The first involves a trip to Armenia taken by a North American photographer and his wife (Egoyan and Khanjian, respectively the assimilationist and the diasporan). He is taking photographs of ancient rural churches for a calendar, and their guide and driver (Ashot Adamian, the nationalist) speaks in a language only the wife can understand. (None of their conversations are subtitled, so unless we speak Armenian we have to depend, like the husband, exclusively on her for translations of what’s being said.) In this time frame just about all we see are the wife and the guide, from the vantage point of both a video camera and a still camera operated by the husband. But as we see and hear their conversations in front of various churches, we also hear the husband, alienated by the growing rapport between the other two, speaking petulantly to his wife.

The other time frame is later, after the husband has returned home and the wife has remained in Armenia. It’s marked by the 12 successive pages of the finished calendar, which is located beside a water cooler in his apartment; on top of the water cooler is a telephone and answering machine. We see a series of scenes of the husband sitting in the adjacent room with various young women–one per month–pouring wine and making small talk, music playing in the background, until each woman asks to use the phone. Each then retreats into the room with the phone and the calendar, where she speaks seductively to someone in a foreign language. (Each woman speaks in a different language on the phone, but all of them speak English with the husband.) Around this time, Egoyan’s character usually takes out his notebook and starts writing in it, and we hear his reflections offscreen, in the form of an ongoing letter to his wife about the cause of their separation. (Whether this separation is temporary or permanent is one of the many issues the film leaves open; we hear the wife calling from Armenia on the answering machine twice, but the husband refuses to pick up the phone either time, and his overall behavior often suggests he’s paranoid about the exchanges his wife had with the guide.)

The repetitions in both time frames make the film seem at times like a minimalist exercise, but in fact the constant and varied interweaving between the two blocks of material–which often includes sound from one time frame overlapping the other–is dense and intricate, and some of the visual compositions in both settings are breathtaking. (Egoyan is especially canny in the way he varies his placement of the wife and guide in relation to the various churches.) Some of the video footage is played in fast-forward or reverse, alerting us to the fact that the husband/photographer is playing back this footage alone in his apartment; at one point, we even see him masturbating to his wife’s image on his TV screen. And there are numerous visual rhymes between the photographs of the churches in the calendar and the scenes between husband, wife, and guide on the different sites where the photographs are being taken–rhymes whereby the husband’s own art becomes the mocking residue of his marital discord.

The precise nature of the husband’s nearly identical sessions with the various women is never spelled out. At first they appear to be dates, but subsequent clues suggest they’re auditions; either way, they’re always laden with erotic possibilities that are then disrupted when the women begin speaking to someone else in a foreign language, thereby reproducing some version of the husband’s Armenian trauma. (We hear a couple of messages on the answering machine from someone named Julia describing some of the women coming over and the various languages they can or can’t speak, which establishes that these scenes are preplanned rather than coincidental; one of the many comic repetitions is that each time the husband pours wine for himself and his companion, it’s just before she leaves the room to make her call, and each time he finishes off the bottle.)

Like the hapless protagonists of Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, and Exotica, Egoyan is clearly involved in a repetition compulsion, an obsessive loop. Yet while the repetitions in the apartment are ritualized, much as they are in the other films, those in Armenia (the conversations between wife and guide and between wife and husband) are much more off-the-cuff. (I’ve been told by one of Egoyan’s principal producers that this film, unlike his others, was made virtually without a script.) And the constant juxtapositions of chance and control, acts and reenactments, on-screen and offscreen voices, dialogue and music, English and non-English, country and city, exteriors and interiors, events and their visual traces in photographs and on video, create lush formal patterns that are both hilarious and evocative, rhythmic and beautiful, painfully recognizable as well as pleasurable.

Most important of all, they mean something. The themes of voyeurism and sexual obsession, family discord and isolation, media and identity, are for once wedded to something more universal than the relatively abstract social commentary and mannerist charades that tend to dominate Egoyan’s other features. This time the themes and formal procedures all dovetail into the issue of tribalism, and it’s hard to think of another subject in the world at the moment that has more immediate relevance or resonance. The process by which ethnic sites become calendar illustrations–and ethnicity and history become a commodity–entails a chain of communication that passes from nationalist to diasporan to assimilationist, bringing the first two closer together and moving the second two further apart, a chain all of us are involved in nowadays on multiple levels, in relation to both our own families and ethnic roots and those of others. (What this movie says about monolingual North Americans abroad, with their cameras poised as shields, speaks volumes, but it’s far from the whole story.) It’s part of a larger process that’s tearing the world apart, and it seems ironic that a tossed-off, 16-millimeter lark like Calendar, an Armenian-German-Canadian coproduction, should go to the heart of such a subject while Egoyan’s more studied and costly movies seem relatively provincial and class bound, more a matter of art-house esoterica for the carriage trade. The difference between this film and his others isn’t at all that between Canada and Armenia; it’s between closeted obsessions and the world we all live in, and the fact that Egoyan has stepped to the other side is much cause for rejoicing.