“Adoration,” the new film by Atom Egoyan is a profound and extended exploration of language and memory through the eyes of a young teenager. In particular, the film tries to understand what happens to a child who cannot comprehend the death of his parents other than through the fragments and ellipses of conversations and comments by relatives and friends.
This is a deeply psychoanalytic film. It is psychoanalytic not because as some critics have suggested it is a coming of age film. Rather, each character has to come to terms with their own role dealing with trauma both within their families and as observers.
The psychoanalyst is the viewer who has to delve into the contradictory narratives that the characters use to justify their state of mind and relations with each other. But, viewers cannot solve the issues, cannot intervene and must struggle on their own with the implications of losing control over the evolution of the story. In some senses, this mirrors the challenges of the main characters. They cannot exert control over their memories or even put those memories into some kind of clear order. It takes an outsider, in this case Sabine a teacher to reestablish some sense of direction for the family.
As R.D. Laing once put it, the problem with families is that everyone has a different point of view of the same experiences, and each person feels that their point of view is the correct one. As a result, families are always in conflict with the memories that they share.
In this case, the child has no memory of his parent’s death other than through the metaphors given to him by his Uncle and his grandfather. The latter blames Simon’s father, Sami for killing his daughter.
What is a child to make of this? The idealizations of memory clash with the realities of a world infected by violence, much of it arbitrary. What if the death of his parents was the result of a terrorist act? Is it preferable to believe that his mother died because of a momentary mistake or because someone perpetrated an act of terror? How does a child interpret the trauma of events like September 11th in the context of personal experiences? How do impersonal events become personal? And what role does the Internet play in opening up the personal struggles of a teenager to the discourses of strangers?
As Simon delves into what turns out to be a true story about a terrorist who sends his pregnant wife on a plane with a bomb designed to destroy it, he learns through the comments of friends and others, that death by whatever means is never romantic. He learns that each person has his or her own history. He discovers the paradoxes of personal discourses, intertwined with myths and illusions and this enables him to make sense of his own history.
It is within this context that Atom Egoyan explores the complex terrain of the conflicts in the Middle East. The death of a couple in a car crash is elevated into a cultural clash. The film tests the boundaries of what can and cannot be said about the conflicts between different ethnic groups bound to ideologies that they often don’t understand. This too is about history and memory. How does hatred develop and why? Simon’s grandfather expresses the classic prejudices of someone who neither understands what he is saying nor the general implications of his words most of which inevitably lead to violence. His violence is discursive. Words matter and more often than not they are used to hurt those whom we do not understand.
Language is this rich space, this fundamental tool of communications that we as a culture have developed and also perverted. It doesn’t matter if it is the Internet or a family supper, what we say and how we say it affects not only how we perceive the world but also how we act within it.
Simon creates a story encouraged by Sabine his teacher that slowly takes on a life of its own. He uses the story to channel his confusion about his parent’s death into a convenient narrative that quite ironically fits into a preconceived cultural pattern in which the accidents of life have to be framed by some sort of rationale. As Simon learns that the value of life lies beyond the trauma of his parent’s death, he decides to purge his grandfather’s influence on him by burning something that was of great value to his grandfather. Simon also burns the Nokia cell phone that he had been using to film a series of interviews with his grandfather before his death. This is one of the most powerful scenes in the film. The cell phone slowly melts, the images on it pixelate, and Simon’s memories are channeled to a new level.
In one of his best books, “We Have Never Been Modern,” Bruno Latour explains that even though time moves forward, history is not so much about the past, as it is about the many ways in which the past and the present always converge. “Adoration” explores this seemingly endless clash between the past, our interpretation of it, and the implications of not putting a personal stamp on the ways in which we interpret our own histories. Truth is the crucial arbiter here. How do we gain access to the truth? Is it through images? Is it through the Internet? Is it through the eyes of a child? Where are the boundaries between innocence and insight?
In the final analysis history can never be reversed. The events of the past such as the death of Simon’s parents cannot be undone. This is the source of endless trauma and unless we can manage it, the trauma takes over not only our daily lives, not only our fantasies but also becomes the very basis upon which we interact with our families and friends.
Much of what we learn in childhood is channeled through the words of our parents and relatives. Many of our memories are the memories of others. The transformation of memory into a discourse we can control is the thematic core of Egoyan’s film. “Adoration” is a masterful story of how this process of transformation and regaining control changes Simon, but it is also an important statement about the bridges that have to be built between childhood and adulthood. Throughout the film there is one constant that unites everyone and it is the violin that his mother played. The acoustics of the violin are like the human voice. In a scene that unites the narrative, (and which we see twice), Simon’s mother stands at the edge of a pier playing a beautiful piece. In the first instance the witness is Simon as a teenager. In the second, it is Simon with his father on the fateful day of his mother’s death. Both instances clash and unite with each other. Time is conflated. All that is left is the plaintiff cry of the violin. Music is always about the evocation of memories.