One of the fundamental ironies of the Communication Age is that the tools designed to bring people closer together often keep them apart, discouraging real intimacy. No other director understands that as fully as Canada's Atom Egoyan, whose early work mapped out a chilly, hermetic world in which intense emotions are bottled up and human interaction is mediated by images. By the time Egoyan emerged from relative obscurity with Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, his obsession with image-based culture had tapered off, but his films were as densely layered and distinctly hypnotic as ever. Though his style has continued to mature and evolve over time, Egoyan's intelligence and control were apparent from the beginning, as evidenced by The Essential Egoyan, a superb DVD series that includes four features, three formative shorts, and a generous selection of extras. Made on a micro-budget ($20,000 Canadian), 1984's Next Of Kin establishes many of the themes that would run through Egoyan's later work, including his fascination with video, ethnicity, and family dysfunction. A 23-year-old man (Patrick Tierney), still living at home with his domineering parents, undergoes video-therapy sessions in which the family observes its own taped confrontations. One day at the clinic, he runs across a tape of an old Armenian couple who gave up their infant son 20 years earlier, and decides to present himself as their long-lost child, despite his conspicuously white-bread appearance. Their mutual willingness to accept fictional "roles" over the painful truth speaks to a denial that manifests itself time and again in Egoyan's films. In 1987's Family Viewing, a black comedy with disturbing undercurrents of sexual deviancy and incest, Tierney again plays a sensitive young man overwhelmed by family tensions. His estrangement from his callous father (David Hemblen), created in part by Tierney's physical intimacy with his stepmother (Gabrielle Rose), widens when he discovers that videos of his childhood have been replaced by homemade sex tapes. Though the use of video is crucial in Egoyan's first two features, it's central to 1989's masterful Speaking Parts, which opens with a wordless, operatic eight-minute sequence that establishes its characters with mesmerizing ambiguity. Set in a "special" hotel that operates like an escort service, the story revolves around a love triangle in which the principals rarely touch. Michael McManus, playing a vapidly pretty actor who has yet to land a speaking role, attracts the affections of Arsinée Khanjian, who perpetually rents the films in which he appears as an extra. When Gabrielle Rose, a screenwriter staying in the hotel, gets slipped a copy of McManus' head shot, she pushes for him to be cast in a deeply personal TV movie based on the story of her dead brother, whom she watches in a video mausoleum. As Egoyan watches the watchers, he forces the audience to confront its own relationship with images and see how real feelings can get tangled up in voyeurism. Egoyan took a major leap forward with 1993's Calendar, an innovative low-budget project that fragments time to create the sort of puzzle structure he would later employ to great effect in Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, and Felicia's Journey. Exploring his ethnic roots for the first time since Next Of Kin, Egoyan himself stars as a photographer sent to Armenia to take pictures of historic churches for a calendar. Preoccupied with his cameras, Egoyan fails to notice that his wife (Khanjian) is having an affair with their tour guide (Ashot Adamyan), which Egoyan rehashes by scanning through the footage after the fact. On the commentary track, the director recalls that Calendar's première in Berlin sparked some to speculate that it documented his real-life breakup with wife Khanjian, which only proves his point about how much trust people place in images. All three DVDs feature articulate full-length commentaries by Egoyan, as well as three shorts (Howard In Particular, Peepshow, and the funny Open House) on the Family Viewing disc, a career-spanning hour-long documentary on the Calendar disc, and assorted stills, deleted scenes, and interviews. But even without the bonus material, Egoyan's early films are a revelation in themselves, reflecting the modern world in a hall of mirrors.
More from The A.V. Club