(Atom Egoyan, Canada, 2002)


A veteran filmmaker, Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), restages the Armenian genocide of 1915. He and his obliging writer, Rouben (Eric Bogosian), bring on art historian Ani (Arsinée Khanjian) to help. Ani’s son, Raffi (David Alpay) takes a break from sleeping with his troubled step-sister, Celia (Marie-Josée Croze), to make a digital video about the origin of Arshile Gorky’s famous painting of himself and his mother.

All of these threads – plus a few more, including a drug-smuggling sub-plot and flashbacks to the life of Gorky – are all meant to form a meaningful Grand Design. It’s the same mosaic narrative form that Canadian director Atom Egoyan mastered mid-career with Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997).

But in Ararat Egoyan has built a convoluted structure which doesn’t have a movie inside it. Scene after scene freezes as emblematic characters stand around asking each other ponderous rhetorical questions. The characters and their interpersonal intrigues are completely overdetermined and overwhelmed by a guiding thesis.

But just what is this thesis? On the one hand, Egoyan has the passionate desire to present a suppressed historical episode in all its gory truth. On the other hand, as a dutiful postmodern artist, he has to dispassionately question the very idea of truth and multiply the mediating frames around it. This leads him to a fatal decision: the scenes from Saroyan’s film contain what is most significant in Ararat, and yet they are presented as a sorry example of impersonal, mainstream cinema.

Ultimately, Egoyan can find only one escape hatch from this dispiriting hall of mirrors. What matters is not objective truth but personal conviction. Such blind faith informs the actions of several characters, such as Saroyan’s lead actor, Martin (Bruce Greenwood), who, in a memorably dotty moment, confuses illusion with reality. But this ideal of pure belief, invoked in a sentimental, almost religious way, is not in the least convincing.

There are more banal flaws in Ararat. Egoyan’s modish effort to somehow link every character to the shooting of Saroyan’s film creates more plot problems than it solves. How can the retiring customs officer David (Christopher Plummer) not know that his gay son’s lover has a central role in the movie? How can a mere ‘historical consultant’ like Ani be such a mighty presence on set?

With Ararat, a mechanical, arid piece, Egoyan has taken a huge leap backwards.

MORE Egoyan: Felicia’s Journey

© Adrian Martin November 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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