Seven Veils is a spellbinding, surreal view into the mind of a director, showing a chilling portrait of how far one can go for their own art.
Atom Egoyan is an experimental director with unique, somewhat off-putting themes. His movies all deal with being an outcast, looking inward at fragmentary memories with dreary, cold setpieces. At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, he debuted his new film Seven Veils. It is a textbook Egoyan film in all the best ways. As a movie about a director, it feels like he is speaking through experience with this one.
Young stage director Jeanine (Amanda Seyfried) is tasked with directing the opera Salome, a production begun by her mentor. Still feeling a connection to him, Jeanine goes all out and expands the story for her purposes as she flashes back to her upbringing. As the movie goes on, the performance gets darker, and backstage drama swells. She has to battle her family and production team to implement her unusual ideas into the opera, not all of which win approval, but her play will be done just as she sees fit in spite of everything. It is a way of transforming her personal trauma into art, reflecting it on stage for the world to see.
The idea of having a story come to life around a performer is nothing new (think Black Swan using the narrative of Swan Lake to illustrate its insanity and jealousy metaphors). However, with Seven Veils it is almost the opposite: the creator injects herself into Salome. She too survived abuse from her creator and was told to live up to things she could not achieve. This drive to stardom keeps Jeanine moving and is the main point of the plot. Of course, Seyfried’s performance is the one on which the movie is built, and every scene with her is the best in the movie. Her follies and triumphs are all captured with striking emotion and the intensity of her darkest scenes help build suspense.
The basis for the film is in the director’s personal experience. Egoyan himself directed Salome on the stage in two productions, including one still ongoing as of this writing. He resonated with the themes of abuse and coercion, with the idea of Salome forced to dance speaking to how he projects on his art. Seven Veils feels like his most personal work, shining a light on how his brain works. A director has to have a sense of control and management, but sometimes things can go a little too far. Knowing when to cut back is just as important as knowing when to embellish. Jeanine has to learn this lesson just as Egoyan must have, and it adds to the emotional grab of the film. Seven Veils becomes self-reflexive and meta through this notion, being in many ways about its own creation.
Seven Veils feels like three movies in one. The first is Jeanine putting herself into Salome and her spiraling into madness doing so. Story two involves production artist Clea (Rebecca Liddiard) grappling with her own demons as she tries her hardest to make the production pop while also overcoming the advances of actor Charlie (Joey Klein). The third movie is shown in the flashbacks of Jeanine with her mentor, where the story and the way it is shot provide a surreal, detached take on the tale of Salome itself. Jeanine lived her own Salome, and feels she deserves to tell the story in her play. The play is already in existence, though, so having her inject her life makes things more confusing. All of this is something directors need to face in the real world, and reflections on this anxiety shine in the film.
The surreal, Lynchian atmosphere of Seven Veils captures a cynical world about the darker side of performing arts. Atom Egoyan may be a hard watch to some, but he is never boring. This movie grabs interest and keeps it, crafting a gripping story with a few twists on a familiar theme, just as Jeanine in-universe attempts. Two layers of story make for two layers of discussion, and leaves viewers guessing all the way through. All of this and more make Seven Veils a highlight of TIFF and worth watching for both fans of opera and Amanda Seyfried.
Seven Veils premiered at TIFF on September 10, 2023. Read our list of films to watch at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival!