When you’re the Guest of Honour: Atom Egoyan’s winsome culinary tragicomedy

Watching twenty-something Veronica (Laysla de Oliveira) conduct her high school orchestra, you’d be forgiven if you mistook her for being engaged in sexual intercourse with some ethereal ghost or other invisible presence. She swivels her hips, juts limbs out in every direction and falls into a general state of ecstasy as she engages in a synchronized anticipatory dance that can only be interpreted as overtly erotic, especially by the teenage boys in her charge. As one might imagine, this inevitably leads to trouble, in a day when sexuality and power relations have become sensitive politicized mine fields. Had she delivered such provocative performances in more puritanical times, our protagonist would most probably have been hauled off to jail on the spot. Veronica treads an uneasy path between that of a protective concerned daughter and an outright sociopath. 

As Egoyan’s latest film Guest of Honour unfolds, we concurrently follow Veronica’s father Jim (David Thewlis), a food inspector whose wife has long since died leaving him in a state of permanent grief. Can the simple fact of her death have led to such an unending state of mourning? As in any good Egoyan film, the answer is of course no. Reality is more complex. As it turns out when the narration begins, Veronica has turned herself in for an abuse of power incident on a school trip—surprise, surprise. She is in fact innocent, but pleads guilty to the charges she is accused of in order to atone for an earlier and actual crime that she may have committed as a girl. Moreover, she seems to actually relish staying in jail and in the process torturing her dear old dad, who begs her to appeal what he knows to be a skewed verdict. Meanwhile, Jim sometimes engages in his own brand of questionable ethics with some of the restaurants that he is tasked with inspecting.

Over the years, Egoyan has developed a very particular and recognizable visual, emotional and psychological vocabulary and creative registry. It’s what makes him an auteur, after all. Characters such as restaurant inspectors, insurance adjusters and lawyers hold a particular fascination for the director. Emotionally wretched people, they arbitrarily tip the scales of justice and manipulate the lives of others, oftentimes to nefarious ends. Egoyan’s films are dirge-like in tone: he picks up on an almost inexplicable sadness in our world like a Geiger counter of and for the afflicted. But his greatest talent has always been structural to my mind—the director possesses an uncanny ability to weave concurrent stories together into a wonderfully complex web of human emotions and events. Guest of Honour is told in flashback and hinges on a tragic misinterpretation of events. In this sense Egoyan honors the great Greek writers of antiquity: it’s as if the gods, cruel puppeteers of human emotions, were always screwing with his protagonists.

Like the director himself, Egoyan’s films can’t help but be smart. His current film, however, leaves a few questions unanswered. One wonders for example why Jim never explained to Veronica the true nature of the event that traumatized her as a child? Her refusal to believe him when he does come clean much later is understandable and simultaneously perplexing. Our pretty (anti-?) heroine is really quite stubborn in her views, it would seem. 

Guest of Honour is a strong film nonetheless, in part due to the subtle gags that run through it. Revolving around domestic pets, culinary taboos and bunny ears, they will leave you cackling in your seat—if you are sensitive to them. Egoyan elicits several bravura performances from his actors, including Veronica’s student and potential love interest Walter, played by Gage Munroe. This handsome blonde’s devilish grin and smouldering eyes recall a young Brando with a touch of Malcolm MacDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Seemingly ageless, Arsinée Khanjian plays the partner of an Armenian restaurant owner who walks into Jim’s crosshairs over what else but a bunch of rabbits being prepared for a private dinner (rabbit stew? rabbit kebab?). Her serious deliveries of comic lines are silent side splitters. When Jim wanders unannounced into the restaurant on the night of the celebration and duly gets soused, he imagines that he’s actually been invited to the event by Khanjian, hence the film’s title. Thewlis delivers Egoyan’s deadpan dialogue with great aplomb. It’s a bravura performance delivered with love—and just a bit of guile—by one very sad and morally conflicted guest of honour.

Guest of Honour premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film festival this past year. The film will be released in the UK in June. Due to COVID-19, plans for its release in the United States are still in flux. Please check your local theaters and listings this summer to see when Guest of Honour comes to a theater near you.

Christopher Atamian

Christopher Atamian

Christopher Atamian is a noted writer and creative producer of Italian–Armenian background and the grandson of Armenian Genocide survivors. He is an alumnus of Harvard University, Columbia Business School and USC FIlm School, a former Fulbright Scholar. Apart from creative endeavors and professional activities as a senior executive in leading media companies and consultancies (ABC, Ogilvy & Mather, J.P. Morgan), Atamian has concentrated on community activism. He is the former President and a current board member of AGLA New York and in 2004 founded Nor Alik, a non-profit cultural organization responsible for producing the First Armenian International Film Festival. Atamian also co-produced the OBIE Award-winning play Trouble in Paradise in 2006, directed by Elyse Singer, as well as several music videos and short films. Atamian was selected for the 2009 Venice Biennale on the basis of his video Sarafian’s Desire and received a 2015 Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He continues to contribute critical pieces to leading publications such as The New York Times Book Review and The Huffington Post, Scenes Media and The Weekly Standard, while working on other creative endeavors in film and theater.

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