Once a talismanic figure in arthouse circles - a status bestowed upon him by such Nineties successes as The Adjuster, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter - the Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan rather fell off the radar over the past decade. His polymath interests may just have carried him elsewhere, but neither the movies he developed nor those pushed his way were doing him any favours: 2013's Weinstein-backed Devil's Knot was busted awards bait dramatising the real-life Satanic panic more substantially recalled in the documentary West of Memphis, while 2014's The Captive and 2015's Remember entered barely distributed obscurity after occasioning mixed reviews from festival first-responders. Egoyan's latest Guest of Honour was heading that way too, until our good friends at Curzon rescued it from the dumper to bolster the company's burgeoning lockdown slate. Was it worth the intervention? I think so, though it's a film that demands patience as much as it repays it, and it may well require a residual fondness for those earlier examples of Egoyiana.
On some level, the new film has been conceived as the writer-director's return to first principles. It sees him reuniting with regular collaborators (DoP Paul Sarossy, composer Mychael Danna) on drizzly Canadian hometurf (Hamilton, to be precise); it deploys a recognisably fragmented storytelling style in the service of small, nagging mysteries; and that mystery encompasses such familiar Egoyan tropes as romantic obsession and intimate video footage, plus an ominously mundane schoolbus that proves a red herring, but only after it'll set fans to thinking of The Sweet Hereafter. It opens with a glamorous woman, Veronica (Laysla de Oliveira), walking into a sacristy and sitting down with the priest (Luke Wilson) to try and work out what to say at her father's funeral. Flashbacks introduce us to dad, and we very quickly realise here is another of those lonely oddballs who populated Egoyan's 90s output. As played by David Thewlis with northwest accent intact, Jim is an uptight, not unhelpfully fussy restaurant inspector who returns home at the end of a long day's issuing citations to no more company than the world's largest bunny rabbit, abandoned there by his estranged offspring. The fact daughter was only briefly under father's roof speaks to the fact theirs was a genuinely fraught relationship Egoyan allows himself to explore in something like his old depth; the effort to compose a eulogy raises bigger questions about our time together on this planet. How do you take the measure of a man? With passes and fails, as you might find on a hygiene checklist? Can it ever be that simple?
Guest of Honour answers the latter, at least, via its tricky Russian-doll structure. No sooner has the script set out its retrospective inquiry into what the inspector's deal was than it hands the subject of this inquiry a mystery of his own to investigate, a matter concerning the contents of a desk drawer (a lucky rabbit's root, an uncharged phone, a scrap of musical notation) and the relationship between the schoolmarm Veronica, the students she seduced, and the bus driver who had a crush on her in turn. Investigation upon investigation, then: everyone's got skeletons in their closet or rats in their kitchen. As the old Facebook setting goes, it's complicated. Dextrously assembled by Egoyan's regular editor Susan Shipton, the achronological flashbacks blur family lines further by giving us answers before we've even thought about formulating the right question. Yet Guest of Honour is the first Egoyan film in a while to remind you this director once held the reputation of being among the most cerebral of North American filmmakers: for best reception, you will need to be 100% switched on. Approached with thinking cap in place, the film's grand design reveals one elegant symmetry (a daughter trying to figure out the dad who once had to figure her out) and an asymmetry born of the fact its investigators are - or certainly were - different people: dad hidebound to notions of responsibility (which is presumably why he nurtured that rabbit to a ripe old age), daughter reacting by pushing at the limits of her power.
Within this structure, there are less persuasive elements, granted. Though sympathetically played, Wilson's priest is plainly a plot device, here to coax out backstory and tidy up a few of the copious loose ends. And there's an issue of balance, which comes down to an issue of casting. Thewlis is doing such typically sly, measured character work that you might want more of Jim, and less of the comparatively shrugging extracurricular activity: he has a funny strand with Arsinée Khanjian as a restaurateur accused of cutting out the middleman by slaughtering all her meat onsite, singlehandedly pulls us through an initially bewildering setpiece involving rabbit poop and a German bierkeller, before opening up under the influence of red wine in a final-act meltdown that could be an outtake from Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. By then, I'd started to wonder whether the film risked being abandoned by anyone who arrived at it looking for straightforward thrills - but then Egoyan, at his best, was never one for straightforward thrills. (Which doubtless explains why his flirtation with the Hollywood studio system was so fruitless, on the whole.) Instead, for the first time in over a decade, he here assembles a full plate for characters and audience alike to chew over; that he's headed back in the right direction can be seen from the way Guest of Honour makes the arcane business of food hygiene inspection very nearly as compelling, dramatically and symbolically, as The Adjuster did claims adjustment.
Guest of Honour will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema from Friday.