19. July 2015 · Comments Off on “So you’re just the thing we need?” – Canadian sensibility in The Sweet Hereafter · Categories: Film-related, Visible Cinema · Tags: , , ,

Ottawa Indie Fest guest blogger Matt Joyce launches his new series Visible Cinema today with an essay on Atom Egoyan‘s The Sweet Hereafter.  The film won 3 awards at the 1997 Cannes International Film Festival including The Grand Prix.  Egoyan was recently a guest on  CPAC’s series Ken Rockburn Presents.


“So you’re just the thing we need?” – Canadian sensibility in The Sweet Hereafter
mattby Matt Joyce

In Atom Egoyan’s film, The Sweet Hereafter (1997), we see how tensions between different takes on reality come to define us as individuals and as a Canadian community. This film explores the ways in which we all have stories that control us and drive us to seek both higher meaning and resolution for our pain. The Sweet Hereafter deals with the recurring issue of the invasion of technology into small-scale human lives and how the inhuman side of an increasingly fast paced lifestyle can overpower our sense of truth. This theme is channeled through the outward, legalistic thinking and motivation of Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) contrasted against the inward, spiritual thinking of Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), who over time comes to seem like the vision and voice of Canadian cinema itself.

The people of a small town in British Columbia are all affected by a tragic bus accident in which their children are lost. A big city lawyer haunted by his own estranged relationship to his only daughter, who fights with him continually by cell phone, comes to persuade the distraught families to sue for compensation, only to find himself confronted with unpredictable ways of handling loss, anger, and issues of comfort and control. Mr. Stevens underestimates everybody; he thinks they can be manipulated and bought. However as Canadians we do not automatically think there is a conspiracy or some glitch in the system responsible and therefore suable for our pain. As Canadians we are grounded in the importance of our town, the strength of our community, the beauty of our rivers and mountains, and the inner peace we receive from our surroundings; hence the almost dream-like feel of this B.C. landscape where the people suffer what everyone suffers but remain contented, comforted by the help of their neighbours. Lawyers, legal solutions and cell phones cannot pinpoint what is at the heart of these people.

Nicole epitomizes the Canadian small town life and values that cannot be bought or manipulated without consequences. Just like the tension between big time American film values versus small time individual Canadian film values, Nicole stands as the obstacle to Mr. Steven’s stereotypical solution, which is to sue. The Canadian solution, and sensibility, is more multi-layered and subtle. Nicole is sensitive and aware of all around her. She has the wisdom of a child, for she can see through greed and power. She clings to what she cares about, her community, her landscape, her family, but she has the courage to stand up to whatever would trick or sell her out, even her own father. Nicole is the image of moral freedom. She does not use people or control them in any way. She is the calm voice of reason who stands and listens, always content with what she has. Nicole will not be led into being a follower tempted by the piper. Mr. Stevens is subliminally labeled, via the Pied Piper story, as the piper conning the bereaved families. Nicole becomes the boy who cannot dance, the crippled one who steps back to think, only to realize she holds the key to all the piper’s riddles. Egoyan casts a secret, mysterious aura around Nicole that no one else can touch. Through her ethereal singing, through the repeated storytelling of the Pied Piper children’s book eerily foretelling the core of the film, through that moment of looking at her father, she remains innocent. She cannot be invaded.

Nicole’s father promises to make her a rock star in the same way Mr. Stevens promises the family money, in the same way the American film industry offers the glamour and glitz of the star system. The Sweet Hereafter challenges these illusory promises. The star system is reduced to the lives of ordinary, small town people where even an Ian Holm is out of context. Nicole remains true to what she knows and values (as Sarah Polley does to this day). This is the voice of Canadian cinema that feeling that this is our story, this truth belongs to us, and no one can take it away from us.

The way Nicole is made to feel by Mr. Stevens is very much the way Canadian cinema is made to feel at the hands of our dominating neighbour. The lawyer is the image of outward and territorial thinking, invading the families by interviewing and gathering up all their stories, just like the kids on the bus. However Egoyan is saying something about the importance of secrets and telling and not telling that Canadians think quietly and inwardly about what they have. This film shows us that as Canadians we are still in touch with our own reality.

The film holds a special place in Canadian cinema for stating and revealing the “strange and new” times that lie ahead for us after we have dealt with the reality of loss. Atom Egoyan is opening doors of perception in portraying the incredible power of the real, the ordinary, the subtle and the nuanced layers we all share as Canadians. The classic, documentary style of interviewing everyone affected by the accident gives the audience a sense that this has just happened and will forever happen. This is reality. There are no heroics, no easy solution, no compensation, no glory, and no special effects. Our trust is in our own stories. In the face of tragedy we stand tall; we find ourselves again. Everyone is trying to return to the sweet hereafter. This film is saying Canadians have their own secret route.

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