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Atom Egoyan speaks softly and carefully, in complex sentences. Unexpectedly, this makes our interview difficult, because we’re stuck with a phone line that cuts in and out, so that our voices intersect and overlap. (“Hello?” “Are you still there?”)


Egoyan is home in Toronto, looking after his 6-year-old son, while his wife, actress Arsinee Khanjian, is away working in France. He and I have spoken before, first when Exotica was released in 1994, and again on the occasion of The Sweet Hereafter in 1997. In the past we’ve talked about his explorations of voyeurism and exhibitionism, memory and repression, desire and fear. This time, we can’t help but note the irony of this crackling, sputtering connection, because we’re talking about his new film, Felicia’s Journey, which is all about gaps in communication and the ways that modern technologies — namely, video and audio recordings — shape recollection, identity, and meaning.


These themes have surely informed Egoyan’s previous films — including Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), and Calendar (1993) — but in Felicia’s Journey, they seem honed down to a skeletal precision. Where the earlier films (save for Calendar) involve multiple characters, with intersecting expectations and disappointments, the new movie focuses narrowly on two characters, the middle-aged British serial killer Hilditch (played by Bob Hoskins) and the Irish teenager Felicia (Elaine Cassidy). Their histories and their goals divide them, but chance brings them together in a dance of self-delusion and attempted redemption.


While the themes might be Egoyan’s own, the basis for this script is a novel by William Trevor. I asked Egoyan why he decided to use another novel — as he had for the first time with Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter — as the basis for his script.



Atom Egoyan:

I wanted to focus on a simpler, more classic structure after The Sweet Hereafter, and Trevor’s book seemed perfect. I was fascinated by the characters, both suspended in a kind of period piece. Felicia [played in the film by Elaine Cassidy] is coming from a sort if nineteenth-century rural culture, and Hilditch is removed from his own time. They shock each other into recognition of who they are and what their current situations are. It has many different levels — cultural, familial, psychosexual — which come together in a compelling story.



Cynthia Fuchs:

Serial killing is by now almost mundane in popular culture. How did you approach the topic?



AE:

That’s true. It’s almost become a job. The representation of serial killing in contemporary film culture makes it an occupation, like lawyering, which I explored in The Sweet Hereafter. That’s the only way I can understand the preponderance of this particular abnormality. We’re fascinated by it because it represents the most extreme moral transgression, but it’s done repeatedly. The seriality of the action becomes interesting to us structurally, because it alludes to fate and inevitability and our ability to stop it. In typical serial killer movies, you have these acts unfolding and a character trying to stop them. That’s the dramatic point of tension. Felicia’s Journey is different, it’s not constructed like a thriller. I consider this more of a drama than a thriller.



CF:

It’s even more like a melodrama, it’s so domestic in location and spirit.



AE:

Exactly. I’m really trying to represent his actions the way he perceives himself. I don’t think he sees himself as a serial killer. He’s convinced himself that he’s something other than what we eventually gather he is. That interests me as well, his denial, his ability to live in that state, and its intersecting with Felicia’s denial, which is simpler and more identifiable. She’s seventeen years old and she believes that this young man loves her, and clearly he doesn’t. But she has to believe that and repeat that to herself.



CF:

I have to ask you this. One of the cliches in serial killer imagery — from Psycho to Ted Bundy — is the bad mother. How were you thinking about Hilditch’s mother, Gala [Arsinee Khanjian], in this context?



AE:

But, how bad a mother is she? I think it’s a complex relationship. One of the things that Arsinee and I discussed was the difficulty of her position. Given what she was doing, at that particular time, she had to be so focused and so driven to succeed. She was probably quite preoccupied with her career. One of the main differences between the film and the novel is that the book sexualizes the relationship between mother and son, and that struck me as being reductive. I am of the belief that some of us are genetically encoded or hardwired in a certain way that manifests itself at a young age. What interested me more blaming the mother, is that now, because of the lack of attention that Hilditch felt, he has a ritual where he can command Gala’s full attention. He can play her films and redirect her gaze electronically, to be watching him. He can pretend that this relationship was completely nurturing. And that ritual has perverted him more than anything she ever did or didn’t do.



CF:

Like using her opera glasses to watch her on tv from the dining room, giving himself control of look?



AE:

That’s right. I tried to avoid the bad mother cliche, but I think you’ve really identified the problem, which is that we’re so predisposed toward the bad mother, as the site of blame, so that anything that even hints of that is seized on. People talk about her cruelty to him in the garden. But it’s not that extreme really: she just asks him to move out of the range of camera. And the moment where he chokes on the liver: my question is, did that actually happen? There’s a fuzzy line between the video as a document and his state of mind.



CF:

So, we only have access to that relationship through his memories?



AE:

Yes. It does fascinate me, as you know, this blurred line between the tape as a way of representing memory or the tape as a way of representing the archiving of reality. The mere act of having that subjective, fetishized moment, leads to its own behavioral pattern. He’s a product of technology as a means to memory. He’s of the first generation who would have been brought up by and in mass media, so he’s chronicling the first gestures that technology was making in recording childhood. And the other thing that makes this character disarming is that normally, when we have these technically oriented characters, they live in sleek, modern looking homes, like the Baldwin character in Sliver. But Hilditch doesn’t fit that mold, he’s not au currant with the latest technologies, and yet he’s a product of technology as a means to memory.



CF:

While images of Felicia’s past, appearing as flashbacks, seem to be more direct?



AE:

That’s exactly right, but she comes from culture rich in an oral traditions. Her father tells her stories about 1916, and her only maternal link is her grandmother, who speaks this ancient tongue. Felicia’s still living in this world where she has to write letters by hand for her boyfriend and have his mother deliver them. It’s really a nineteenth-century world; she has a romanticized vision of the world she lives in. It’s shot to look pastoral and traditional.



CF:

At times Hilditch seems almost to romanticize his relationship with her, as if she’s his “daughter,” to whom he would give advice.



AE:

Yes. And the fathers are awful in the film: the most violent action we see on screen is Felicia’s father banishing her. That’s unspeakably cruel. The moment that Hilditch realizes that Felicia is carrying a child, I think this forces him to self-consciousness. I don’t think he’s used to receiving the sort of attention that she gives him. He’s become accustomed to not being someone you would look at.



CF:

And he’s looked at ferociously by the women who come to sermonize him in his own garden, when he’s digging a grave for Felicia, whom he plans to kill. The women stand over him and summon the all-knowing, all-punishing Lord Father as a means to get him to repent, even though they have no idea that he’s got many bodies buried all around them.



AE:

That’s right. But any message that those women are purporting to spread is only as strong as they are as messengers. When he finally admits to a theft, which is really the least of his crimes, the women can’t even begin to fathom what he’s really telling them. I think the garden is important here, as a place offered as a refuge or sanctuary, but it’s only as safe as the gatekeepers, who are inept in this case.



CF:

Hilditch seems ever-ready to cut deals. But his sense of fairness is so warped, like when Felicia is concerned about the money for the abortion, he says, “It’s my treat,” which it’s obviously not. It’s such a dark and funny line.



AE:

Yes, that is hilarious. And he’s paid for the abortion with her stolen money. I love that line. But no one is laughing at it. Because of what he does — serial killing — there’s this set of genre expectations placed on the film, and that’s difficult to navigate. Except for the scenes of Arsinee on the cooking show, which is so clearly signaled, the film seems less forthcoming with giving people permission to laugh, so the humor is elusive.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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