Sunday 4 August 2013

The Adjuster: Nostalgia for 90's Indie Cinema

I first saw Atom Egoyan's The Adjuster one afternoon on TV in France, whose much more relaxed censorship meant it was perfectly possible to watch that kind of film in the daytime, despite a particularly graphic scene. I was 17 and the film flew right over my head, as well as grossing me out a couple of times too. I became a fan of Atom Egoyan a few years later, especially with Exotica so with the new Artificial Eye release of The Adjuster on Blu-Ray, it was high time to rediscover it. And what a shock it has proven to be on its second viewing, a rediscovery which also prompted a slight nostalgia for a certain kind of North American's indie cinema of the 90's.

The Adjuster was truly the film which brought Armenia/Canadian director Atom Egoyan to the attention of the indie world. The story is rather oblique but a second viewing made me see a lot more themes and ideas. In it, Elias Koteas plays Noah, an adjuster for an insurance company, whose seemingly altruistic motives to help the victims of house fires are not always quite what they seem. His wife, Hera (Atom Egoyan's wife and muse, Arsinée Khanjian), is a film censor, yet she secretly records the most extremes and barred scenes she sees at work for her sister. They live in a model house in a completely empty suburb called Sherwood from which Noah shoots arrows (wink, wink). We also follow a couple who indulges into some more and more elaborate role-play and whose path will cross Noah & Hera.

The Atom Egoyan's touch is instantly recognisable. The slow and lingering shots, the score infused with a Middle-Eastern undertone (a process he used again to great effect in Exotica), the detached acting, the cold yet haunting atmosphere, the muffled provocation...

Canadian cities might look like their American counterparts, but I have noticed on numerous visits, especially in Toronto, that they have their own unique aspects. Especially in the winter, they always seems so deserted apart from a few busy spots, and one of my great joys at every visit was to wander around in the city late at night in the cold, barely bumping into a soul, the paradox of such a populated city being deserted making it so wonderfully atmospheric. And this is an impression that I have often found in Canadian films, the early work of Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, the film Last Night...

In fact, when watching The Adjuster again, I instantly recognised the short scene of a car driving  in an isolated and snowy suburban setting which I had seen projected on a loop as an intriguing video installation in an art gallery in Toronto.

As entranced as the audience is, and even though they are less characters than in Exotica, we do spend quite some time trying to pick up the pieces and wondering what this is all about. Not that scenes themselves are confusing, but there seems to be no obvious link. At first I figured this was about fantasies and boundaries, given all the scenes of role-play and the character of the censor. But there seems to be some even more ambitious themes pervading through, those of religions and morals. In fact, going on the IMDB boards, I have read an even more leftfield interpretation of it all, yet one that is totally convincing, but I will not spoil it.

Atom Egoyan has often been accused of being pretentious, and having seen him in person at a Q&A there seems to be some truth in this. But at least he has never been accused of tackling some important themes hands on, and his cinema is mercifully free of any kind of irony, that modern curse. Besides, you do not have to necessarily pick up on any of this to enjoy the film, you can loose yourself in his hypnotic and elliptic proposition.

Watching this also reminded me of a certain kind of American/Canadian indie cinema I was so fond in the early 90's. At the time, TV series had not quite grown up yet, and cinema mainly consisted of mainstream American suburban films and terribly dull bourgeois French films. So in those pre-internet days, even while living in a relatively big city such as Nice, the North American indie cinema was a breath of fresh air, and a window to an urban and always alternative world that was very attractive to me, with its low budget films, often in black & white and with oodles of styles. I would catch them where I could, the Cannes Film Festival, a small screen in Paris when visiting, a late TV screening...

I have only just realised that Artificial Eye has rereleased not just The Adjuster but a whole serie of early films from Atom Egoyan both on DVD and Blu-Ray, so there is your chance to immerse yourself in his work if you are unfamiliar with it. The trailer they have released is bizarrely just a 3 minutes clip so I have found this low quality but much more interesting trailer as below:

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