THE STORY – Bequeathed a job remounting a Canadian Opera Company production of “Salome” after the death of its revered creator, her mentor, a young director (Amanda Seyfried), is forced to re-examine her tangled personal history with the project, the deceased man, and her own family. Recently separated from her husband (Mark O’Brien), Seyfried’s Jeanine finds herself adrift, trying to explain her vision to the confused opera stars and taking comfort in reconnecting with an old friend (Douglas Smith) who’s understudying the role of Jochanaan. His fellow understudy (Vinessa Antoine) worries she’s about to miss her only chance to play Salome — while her partner, prop master Clea (Rebecca Liddiard), drifts into a dangerous situation with the blustering star, Johann (Michael Kupfer-Radecky).
THE CAST – Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Liddiard, Douglas Smith, Mark O’Brien & Vinessa Antoine
THE TEAM – Atom Egoyan (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
Films about the psychological torment of an artist are nothing new. There’s “Black Swan,” “Whiplash,” the recent “Tár,” and many more. What sets “Seven Veils” apart is how the play at its center, “Salome,” is so tightly fused with real life. Writer-director Atom Egoyan’s screenplay deals with the fictional remounting of an opera while he was doing a remounting of his own. “Salome” has followed the director since he first directed the Richard Strauss libretto (based on the Oscar Wilde play) in 1996, much like the same opera has followed the fictional director in “Seven Veils,” Jeanine (Amanda Seyfried), since childhood. The two worlds of opera and film collide as Egoyan decides to film his latest feature while directing “Salome” on stage at the Canadian Opera Company. Named one of Next Best Picture’s most anticipated features from TIFF this year, “Seven Veils” brings an authentic experience of what it’s like to remount the biblical production while slowly drawing the curtain on a mystery at its center. Exploring the effects of the dark mind of an artist gone too far, the script is far from perfect, but luckily works more often than it doesn’t.
A director walks across her stage. She’s examining and listening while images of a girl in a forest flicker on a screen. She can’t take her eyes off it. Jeanine is planning an opera, and her vision is unshakable. It’s a captivating introduction that seems simple but also clarifies that a lot is hiding under the surface. Seyfried moves with the directness of Lydia Tár, ready to conduct, as she narrates, stating that she’ll be asked to make this work personal – and she will. The score then rises in intensity.
Jeanine is about to remount her former mentor’s most famous rendition of “Salome.” It’s a production that changed her life years ago. Now, she’s working in her deceased mentor’s shadow, shrouding her in old hurt and broken promises. Like a phantom haunting the opera, Jeanine’s vision of her “Salome” causes friction at all sides, from the actors to management, because it’s not his vision. But she has a history with the play that goes back to childhood, and this production is haunted by Jeanine’s disturbing memories and repressed trauma. Like her interpretation of the titular character in her opera, she’s waiting to be awakened from some crazed enchantment. Gaining clarity of what she has pushed into the depth of her mind creates an interpretation of “Salome,” whose words and images mirror her own life. This remount marks both the start of a healing process but also an undertaking that could prove dangerous in its rich, personal history.
Building a compelling character in Jeanine, the script weaves together elements of both opera and Jeanine’s life to almost make them indistinguishable. It’s a psychological drama that heavily concerns art and artists and how much they are tied together, with Egoyan slowly opening the curtain to reveal something dark and twisted. In between all of this, like a real “making of” movie, we spend time with other players in the production as they make their preparations for opening day. There’s Clea (Rebecca Liddiard), who makes the props; Rachel (Vinessa Antoine), Clea’s girlfriend and understudy who’s dreaming of her moment on stage; Luke, another understudy and who knows Jeanine from school; Ambur Braid and Michael Kupfer-Radecky who star as themselves and play the character’s they did in Egoyan’s stage production (Salome and John the Baptist respectively).
Those unfamiliar with “Salome” will get a great rundown through the supporting players, but the energy fizzles out when Seyfried isn’t on screen. The scenes fall flat at times when not focusing on her perspective, and it’s the one we want most. But with her perspective comes a lot of tedious narration on Seyfried’s part, utilized primarily to create a backstory or a clear understanding of the link between the opera and her traumatic childhood. A lot can be said in silence or suggested through editing, so the constant verbalizing of every thought seems like spoon-feeding. Seyfried has the talent to convey so much through her performance, so it would have been easy for us to understand her and why we are watching quite easily in the moment. Through her performance, though, you can feel Jeanine’s passion for the project and the feeling that she’s desperately searching for something, with the anticipation of how this story will end.
“Seven Veils” never reaches operatic heights but stays pleasantly grounded, no matter how weak some aspects of the script may be. By having Jeanine fight her demons head-on, the film becomes a discussion on how art is created in the first place, especially now. In Jeanine’s view, Salome dances because she has something to say. Most people who make art do it because they have something to say. “Seven Veils” reaches the core of what makes an artist, no matter how rotten that core may be. But it’s rotten because of emotion; human emotion, in all good and bad. Currently, the big studios want to replace genuine emotion with machines. That’s when the art will truly drive artists into madness.