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SCRUTINY | TIFF23: Atom Egoyan’s Seven Veils Unravels Complex Themes With An Assured Vision

By Anya Wassenberg on September 15, 2023

Amanda Seyfried in Seven Veils (Photo courtesy of TIFF)
Amanda Seyfried in Seven Veils (Photo courtesy of TIFF)

TIFF23 saw the world premiere of Atom Egoyan’s opera-driven drama Seven Veils. The film, a collaboration with the Canadian Opera Company, was screened at what was called an avant-premiere at the Four Seasons Centre, home of the opera company, before its TIFF official premiere.

Egoyan directs and wrote the screenplay for the movie, starring Amanda Seyfried. Along with Seyfried, the cast includes Rebecca Liddiard, Douglas Smith, Mark O’Brien, and Vinessa Antoine, with cinematography by Paul Sarossy.

The film will have a meta kind of resonance with fans of the Canadian Opera Company, and who may have seen the company’s Salome as directed by Egoyan in February 2023. That production offers a backdrop of realism to the story that unfolds against it in the film.

The cast also includes Canadian Opera Company favourites like Canadian soprano Ambur Braid, and COC Orchestra conductor Johannes Debus, who gets a few lines to tussle with Seyfried’s Jeanine during rehearsals. Baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky, who portrayed Jochanaan (John the Baptist) in both the opera and movie, emerges as an antagonist.

Both are convincing in their roles, and in an aside, it reveals the dramatic talents of opera singers, something that’s well known to fans of the art form, but perhaps not to the general public.

The Story

Jeanine has been called upon to direct a remount of Salome at the Canadian Opera Company. Her experience lies largely in theatre, but in the original production, she was the protégée/student/lover of Charles, the great man/artistic director who has recently died. Everyone seems to know their history, which creates a fraught atmosphere, and she struggles with how to interpret the story.

She also struggles with Kupfer-Radecky’s Johann, whose touchy-feely mode of dealing with the women in his vicinity causes a wave of consequences.

Clea (Diddiard) works in the props department, and the video that she makes for the COC’s social media people about crafting the head of John the Baptist for the performance ends up providing a catalyst to the story, but not in the way she anticipates.

Atom Egoyan during a press conference n Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh on April 3, 2016 (Photo: Seda Grigoryan/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Atom Egoyan during a press conference n Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh on April 3, 2016 (Photo: Seda Grigoryan/CC BY-SA 4.0)


The story is complex, and operates on different levels.

It’s a story where the understudies feature more prominently than the opera star played by Ambur Braid in the plot, underscoring an ongoing theme about the fragile nature of artistic expression, both in opportunity and in its execution by the cast on stage. The film also does a nice job of conveying the miscellaneous tensions and general ups and downs of a production with a sense of realism.

The opera is really the centre of the story. Strauss’ Salome is based on the play by Oscar Wilde, a violent biblical story that includes the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome, in essence, becomes the epitome of lust in a dance she performs in front of Herod, her uncle. It’s even been attributed as the birth of the striptease.

As her reward, Herod acquieses to her request to serve up the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The original production in 1905 scandalized audiences, and in the film, a previous production in Stuttgart caused rumours, and a rift between the handsy Johann and Ambur.

Jeanine delves into the story, and sees a Salome who was sexually abused by her own father. Salome may be demented as a character, but what about Herod? It’s one of many examples in classic literature as well as opera where questionable themes, such as Herod’s own fascination with Salome, are seldom questioned.

As she and the company work through rehearsals, a home video emerges of Jeanine and her own father, one that was used by Charles her mentor in staging his interpretation of the opera. Her story is intertwined with it, and the influences of her father and mentor become clearer.

A subplot involves Clea and her girlfriend, who is Ambur’s understudy. It adds another layer of complications to the film. The performances are uniformly strong in the movie, and offer multiple perspectives on the central themes.

The Production

The opera in the film incorporates video projections, and a shadow play staging of a sexual abuse scene. As Jeanine’s state of mind deteriorates, the look of the film is more expressionistic, and the flickering videos grow in importance.

The themes are layered and complex, and the movie offers no clear and definitive answer to some of the questions it raises. It’s Amanda Seyfried’s performance that turns it into a human experience, and gives the story a focus and heart. Her wide-eyed vulnerability is the lens that leads the audience through the story.

Though she’s the director, the company’s administration clearly want to keep Charles’ version at the forefront, and her struggle includes her attempt to leave her own stamp on the production. It doesn’t help that Charles’ widow is now running the COC.

The film leaves an emotional impact, and while offering no clear answers, it’s perhaps the questions it raises about the lines between abuse and accountability that are more important. It captures the zeitgeist during a time of change.

Seven Veils is an assured work of film making with a story that may not be so easy to pin down, but that offers a rewarding journey.

The movie will be continuing on the film festival circuit, screening at the Atlantic International Film Festival on September 17, followed by the Cinéfest Sudbury International Film Festival, and the 2023 Vancouver International Film Festival. It will be distributed by Elevation Pictures in Canada.


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