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Amanda Matlovich/Headless Films Inc.

Seven Veils (2023)

If you’ve even seen a man on social media ask the woman who wrote the article if she’s ever read it, then you know exactly how “Seven Veils” feels. There’s a naivety here about how men in positions of power have exploited the women around them, both in the hallowed halls of opera and in the Bible, that feels somewhat unwarranted from a writer-director as attuned to sexualized bad behavior as Atom Egoyan. He’s directed more than one opera production of “Salome” himself, so this project is a meta attempt to analyze the text while also performing the text. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially at the Berlinale. But his attempts to address how the world is no longer willing to tolerate sexualized violence needed less righteous indignation and more maturity.

As a tribute to the late director of a Canadian opera house, his production of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” will be restaged, with his former protégé Jeanine (Amanda Seyfried) directing. It becomes slowly clear that:

  1. The mentor was Jeanine’s lover during the original production despite the vast age gap.
  2. This is an open secret, to the point a podcast host asks about it.
  3. The mentor used elements from Jeanine’s abusive childhood in that production.
  4. Jeanine’s elderly mother was aware of the abuse and did nothing.
  5. Jeanine is currently separated from her husband, which her daughter doesn’t know.
  6. Her husband is currently sleeping with her mother’s home help.

That is, briefly, a lot. But there are also the travails of prop lady, Clea (Rebecca Liddiard), who is not only responsible for the company’s social media, such as a series about to build a severed head, but also the victim of an on-camera assault by Johan (Michael Kupfer-Radecky), the singer playing John the Baptist. Plus Johan’s understudy, Luke (Douglas Smith), used to have a thing with Jeanine. And on top of that, Salome’s (Ambur Braid) understudy is also Clea’s girlfriend.

So here we are in an ouroboros of misery during which Jeanine must direct a show based on her own abuse while maintaining her professionalism. It’s to Mr. Egoyan’s credit that Jeanine keeps her sad backstory to herself, even when the logical and certainly more cinematic choice might be to let it all out. But Jeanine’s personal reasons for doing this job come out loud and clear in her stage directions to the actors – and all credit to the opera professionals like Ms. Braid who listen to these overemotional monologues with patience and respect. Ms. Seyfried has an impossible part here as someone playing with fire in hopes that this will heal old scars, and does as well as anybody could.

Paul Sarossy’s cinematography gleams; David Wharnsby’s editing is sharp and everything is very respectful; and yet something remains missing. All “Seven Veils” offers is the sense of performance, of something reenacted so many times it has been bleached clean. Perhaps Mr. Egoyan was so worried about being on the right side of history that he forgot about the genuine feelings in everybody’s stories. Instead politeness and professionalism covers everything up. It might be tactful; it’s certainly respectful; but unfortunately it’s just not very good.

One final thing. Part of the operatic staging involves a sex act being mimed for what feels like forever; and when Jeanine tries to discuss this with the actors her producer stops her and says the intimacy coordinator needs to take over. Surprisingly, Jeanine balks. Things would have gone a lot better for her in the past if someone had been there keeping her safe, so it feels out of character that this theatrical professional is unwilling to provide such a safety net to the actors she’s currently working with. Considering how Ms. Seyfried has calmly spoken out about unpleasant incidents in her early career, it’s unfortunate that her part here involves negating the importance of such protections.


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