Here’s the story — in the year 32, John the Baptist was imprisoned for maligning the king’s wife; her daughter Salome falls obsessively in love with John, but he refuses to even look at her. One drunken night, the king begs Salome to dance for him. He’s supposed to be her father, but he’ll give her anything for a lithe, entrancing dance for he and his lecherous friends. Salome’s mother makes the request. She will dance for the head of John on a silver platter. This isn’t just Biblical; this is art, and it’s been represented in essentially every artistic medium throughout the past two millennia. Salome and her dance.
No, here’s the story — in 1996, famed filmmaker Atom Egoyan staged a bold adaptation of Richard Strauss’ famous opera, Salome, written by Oscar Wilde. Egoyan modernized it with stylish effects and captured the exploitation of a young woman. Meanwhile, the director’s masterful film The Sweet Hereafter was being produced; that movie explored the aftermath of a tragedy in a small community, and a young girl who is being sexually abused by her father. Despite the massive success of his projects, Egoyan remained haunted by the idea of trauma and abuse, especially in relation to a young woman he once knew closely.
Or maybe that’s not the story. Maybe this is the story — in 2023, Atom Egoyan restaged his famous adaptation of Salome for the Canadian Opera Company. The story hadn’t left him, and he had a new perspective. Meanwhile, the director made a film about an opera director (played by Amanda Seyfried) grappling with the haunting and violent themes of their Salome production, during which an assault takes place backstage. The opera director’s personal life and childhood traumas are reflected in Salome, and she uses the stage production to reclaim her past and confront her memories.
This is Seven Veils, and it’s one of the most fascinating films of the year. Ahead of its recent premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, MovieWeb spoke with Atom Egoyan about the inspirations of the film, the nature of the medium, and much more. Here’s the story.
The Dance of the Seven Veils
You can see a trailer for Egoyan’s production of Salome above, which gives a good glimpse of the world in which Seven Veils is set. The opera debuted at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which is where most of Seven Veils is set (and where Egoyan staged the opera in ’96, and where Seven Veils made its premiere). It’s a gorgeous, labyrinthine area that allows Egoyan’s camera to wander and hover, observing all the action without obfuscation.
This is obviously a multi-layered, extremely personal film that touches on many periods and moments in Egoyan’s own life. Watching Seven Veils, it feels as if Egoyan is exorcising his own demons.
“Yes, I was, I was. I started exercising those ghosts with Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, and obviously both the films do it quite discreetly,” explained Egoyan. “But with this opera, I was able to kind of address it in a more full throttle way and kind of deal with the actual violence or whatnot.” As such, Seven Veils continues Egoyan’s deeply empathetic character studies, specifically ones like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter which meditate on women who have experienced great trauma. He continued:
“I think in both films, it’s certainly there, but it’s seen from the point of view of, in the case of The Sweet Hereafter, the point of view of the victim as it’s happening. They don’t understand what the violence against them is until the end of the film, really, and they begin to take control of that (and Sarah Polley does a remarkable job in that film). And then Mia Kirshner’s character in Exotica, through a dance interestingly enough, has found a way of exorcising her own relationship to her history.”
“So this opera being positioned between those two was a really powerful opportunity to look at it from a totally different point of view, from something I hadn’t written,” continued Egoyan. “It allowed me, with the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils,’ this eight-minute sequence, to really understand how devastating, and how so crushed her psyche was, which led her to this action at the end of the opera, which is so unspeakably violent, but that violence is coming from something that has been done against her.”
Atom Egoyan’s Incredible Character
In many ways, that different perspective comes in the form of Seven Veils‘ protagonist, Jeanine, played to perfection by Amanda Seyfried. Jeanine seems like Egoyan’s surrogate in many ways — someone remounting a successful staging of Salome with very different themes that reflects the director’s own past. Maybe that’s why Jeanine feels so real, so eloquently able to pinpoint what she needs.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a character who’s as articulate as Jeanine is, who’s able to actually express what she’s experienced, because there’s nothing that’s hidden from her,” explained the ever erudite Egoyan.
Jeanine’s father was deeply obsessed with her as a child, in a way which parallels King Herod and Salome; he even films her dancing. One of the few people in the world she’s shared this information (and footage) with was her mentor, Charles, an opera director who has recently died when Seven Veils begins. Jeanine was his muse for Salome, and in his will, he expressed a final desire to have Jeanine herself mount a restaging of his opera, the very one which incorporates Jeanine’s own childhood trauma.
It’s a serpentine plot traced through the memories and relationships of several people, with Jeanine at the center. She’s an incredible character, fiercely intelligent, gorgeous but obviously over that by now, insecure and yet fighting in a constant forge for contentment and ownership of her own past, her own experiences. It’s one of the best performances of the year.
“It’s not as though these things that have happened in her childhood are suppressed. She was involved in shooting some of this material herself, like with her father, as we can see, so she understands all that,” stated Egoyan. “What she is not understanding until she’s actually in the rehearsal hall is what it means to remount this, what it means to have had the experience of seeing someone else interpret her experience, and now live up to the quality or the standard of that as an artifact, as a sort of statement of her own past.”
“So suddenly, she’s in this very unusual situation where, if she feels her direction is in any way compromised, and she’s not able to get what Charles was able to achieve, then it kind of questions in a strange way her authority to have access to her own past. Which is crazy, which is like actually a very dangerous and fragile position, but she’s in that place. And she’s wondering whether or not Charles’ desire to have her mount this is either a gift or a curse, really. And we don’t really understand either. Like, what is at the core of why he’s asked her to do this? And what does it mean for her now to live up to his own sort of reputation?”
“That’s the nature of the problem she’s experiencing in the film,” continued Egoyan, “not to mention everything else that’s going on with her family, or this infatuation she has with one of the understudies, or what’s happening with the administration of the opera kind of ganging up against her. She’s very isolated, and the only person that seems to follow her and understand her is the viewer of the film itself.”
Egoyan speaks so lucidly of Jeanine, it’s as if he’s discussing himself. Goodness gracious, we hope that one day we can hear Amanda Seyfried herself discuss the role, once the strikes have ended satisfactorily for the actors. “I would say it’s a pretty unusual character,” mused Egoyan. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone like her, and Amanda just rises to the occasion, and she’s able to really embrace that.”
In Praise of Amanda Seyfried
Speaking of Seyfried, this is the actor’s second time working with Egoyan; she previously starred in his film Chloe, and she arguably gives her two best film performances in Egoyan’s work (television is a different story). Egoyan explained her casting here:
She was perfect for this because in Chloe, even though that’s not my script, and it’s like riddled with all sorts of clichés, she still made it so real to me, I felt like her sense that she wanted to be with Julianne Moore’s character, and her pain at not being able to have that fulfilled or consummated was just so heartbreaking to me. She made it something beyond the page.
“And so I just thought she was an exceptional actress,” added Egoyan. “What you often do when you finish something, you promise you’ll find something to do again, and it took 15 years in this case, but I always had her in mind. And then, as I was writing this, it was just like, ‘Oh my God, she would be perfect.’ And then you just pray that the actor will respond. You don’t know until you present it to them.” He elaborated on Seyfried:
“I am so thankful for what she was able to bring to the role, because there are scenes that are like, you just don’t know which way they’re gonna go. Like that scene where she stops the opera, and she keeps giving directions while the opera starts up, and the singers are kind of ignoring her on stage or mocking her, it’s kind of an outlandish scene, it’s kind of preposterous, but she makes it real. She just finds a way of making it real at all times, and that’s her incredible gift as an actress, is that there’s an authenticity. She never feels false.”
And neither does Seven Veils, which has hopefully sent some of Atom Egoyan’s ghosts dancing away. Produced with the participation of Téléfilm Canada, in association with Cinetic Media, IPR.VC, XYZfilms, and the Canadian Opera Company, Seven Veils is produced by Rhombus Media and Ego Film Arts. Elevation Pictures will release the film at a later date; watch this space for more information, and find out more about the film at the TIFF website here.