Egoyan gives Toronto the close-up it deserves
For years, the city has been the stand-in for the likes of New York and Chicago. Now, with arresting new cultural builds in place, the director felt the time was right for the city to take a starring role
April 3, 2009 at 1:14 PM EDT
Five years ago, it might have been possible for a movie director to cast Toronto as a city of incidental interest. Now it's a different story: The city has taken on a New World glamour and has a compelling urban yarn to tell. It is at once an impressive metropolis, sexed up thanks to ambitious cultural builds, and a sprawling city with cosmopolitan problems – SARS, homelessness and ugly apartment towers hanging over expressways. A physicality both sophisticated and raw marks a coming of age for Toronto – and it's why I'm intrigued by director Atom Egoyan's upcoming film, Chloe.
The film's gained notoriety in the past few weeks because of the tragedy that affected one of its stars, Liam Neeson. His wife, actress Natasha Richardson, died last month after suffering a head injury skiing at Mont Tremblant. The Ivan Reitman production, financed by StudioCanal, wrapped at the Filmport Studios last weekend after Neeson agreed to finish filming last week – a “heroic” gesture, says Egoyan. The film now goes into editing, with hopes of premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
The film tells the story of Catherine (Julianne Moore), a successful gynecologist who hires a prostitute named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to seduce her husband, David (Neeson), whom she suspects of being unfaithful. Several years ago, Reitman optioned the rights to remake the French film the project is based on, Nathalie (2003), and eventually brought Egoyan on-board.
A new script set the story in San Francisco, but, Egoyan says, “ Dirty Harry and Vertigo had already been made, and I didn't know what more I could bring to the city. And of course, I know Toronto so well.” He also felt strongly that the time was right to film this story of love and betrayal against the complex, jagged beauty of Toronto. “I couldn't have done this film five years ago,” he said on the set last Saturday, during the final day of shooting.
Julianne Moore in the house on Heathdale designed by Toronto architect Drew Mandel for the Egoyan film Chloe.
The truth of the matter is that, until now, there simply wasn't enough depth to the city's architectural presence for Hollywood to be interested in its actual face. For decades in films, Toronto has been an understudy for big U.S. cities, undergoing cinematic surgery to resemble Chicago or the Bronx, rather than flaunting its own sense of style. The potential for this film as a serious meditation on the city is huge: Chloe could turn out to be for Toronto what Woody Allen's Manhattan is for New York.
Flipping through a binder of film stills with Egoyan, it strikes me that the famous and not-so-famous parts of the city have such a presence here it's as if they are their own cast of characters in the film: There's a concert at the sober Mazzolini Hall within the sweeping, light-filled Royal Conservatory of Music, and other scenes were shot from pastoral Philosopher's Walk at the University of Toronto, looking up at the foreboding profile of the Royal Ontario Museum. Chloe spends much of her time hanging out in what Egoyan calls “borrowed” spaces, including the now legendary Rivoli on downtown's Queen Street West, where she meets Catherine for lunch and watches the band Raised by Swans rehearse in the back of the club.
Scenes were also shot at the Windsor Arms luxury hotel in its dolled-up Tea Room, as well as at LeVack Block, an eroticized vintage bar in an old building on Ossington Avenue. There's a big moment that was filmed at Dundas Street West and McCaul Street, where the brightly coloured steel legs of the Will Alsop-designed Ontario College of Art meets the curved glass corset of the Frank Gehry-designed Art Gallery of Ontario.
But Egoyan has chosen mostly to ignore the huge factor of immigration, the presence of so many homelands transplanted here that makes Toronto so distinctive. Instead, he favours zooming in on the downtown life of elites, academics and hipsters.
Still, his investigation of Toronto's ravines is sublime and affecting. As with so many of his films, Chloe is part thriller, part artful probing of the mind. Catherine is confronted with the desire to break from convention to explore a darker, erotic dimension – a yearning Egoyan chose to represent by setting the home for his central characters adjacent to one of the ravines that travel in mysterious, unexpected ways through Toronto.
Egoyan, who himself lives next to a ravine, says he was drawn to the “extraordinary arteries that flow through the city giving unique access to the wilderness.” The home he chose for the shoot was designed for two doctors by the Toronto architect Drew Mandel. The Ravine House (2007) features a back elevation defined by a series of glassed-in cubes that hover over the vast, tangled forest. Only a towering chimney made from Algonquin limestone quarried in Owen Sound interrupts the cadence of the cubes. In one crucial shot, Catherine can be seen talking on the telephone in the glass outpost of her home office. She's just learned that her husband won't be attending the surprise party she organized for him. A champagne glass rests beside her. The guests can be seen below in the sleek kitchen looking up at her expectantly.
Egoyan sends out constant reminders in the film that we reside in Toronto on just the other side of nature or, indeed, of our own secret longings. “The demarcation between our ravines and the city is quite fluid,” he says. “There's a lot of erotic imaginings in this film which were originally set in the ravine – furtive encounters pushed against the concrete pillars, with sounds of traffic going by.” “Rosedale valley?” I ask. “Yes,” Egoyan says, “where people are metres away from civilization.”
Elsewhere in the film, the camera lingers on the bones of the towering oaks and maples, taking in the concrete of the Bathurst Street bridge, just north of St. Clair. “Graphically, it's much more interesting to see the trees without the leaves,” Egoyan says. For this shot, a massive crane with six lighting heads was installed in the parking lot on the east side of Bathurst to light the ravine. It's not the only place that was a challenge to light: To cast a soft glow into the glass house, the production team floated an 8,000-watt helium lighting balloon over the site.
Attention is also paid to images of bodies pressed against built surfaces, something highlighted in a collaged treatment Egoyan used to pitch the film to Hollywood. And much of the intrigue of the film lies in the way surfaces, particularly transparent ones, are presented – obscured by mist or beads of water, or etched with snow. Here, there's a remarkable sharing of intent by both Egoyan and the architect, Mandel. Reflections through glass are fundamental to the house's design as a place of shifting qualities of light, Mandel says. And the house, Egoyan says, helps to define Catherine. She's often seen perched within her glassy cubes at home and in her Yorkville office. “She's extraordinarily controlling but also very engaged with her patients – everything is totally happening for her except that she's fallen out of an intimate relationship with her husband,” Egoyan says.
Cinematographer Paul Sarossy used a long lens for many shots, allowing the audience to be only somewhat aware of images in the foreground while focusing on characters or structures in the distance – in Sarossy's capable hands, for example, the arch in Yorkville leading into a condominium on Avenue Road conjures up a European monument). To allow for the long lens to effectively follow the movement of people, the master bedroom of the Ravine House was actually rebuilt (under the exquisite direction of production designer Phillip Barker) at Filmport as a much larger space and set on the third floor, rather than its actual second-floor location. A giant image called a trans-light hangs as a backdrop behind the reconfigured master bedroom set. It is a 25-by-10 metre photographic tapestry of the actual ravine captured in the wintertime, with snow lurking at the base of the trees.
I won't give away the ending, but let me say that the huge photograph by Ed Burtynsky of a river befouled by industrial waste is one of the few artworks in the wood-warmed bedroom; its hideous, mesmerizing trail of orange-red mining tailings sets a particular tone for the film's final scenes.
For more pix of Ravine House: http://www.elementemag.com/index.php.../d,item_detail
Mandel talks about another of his projects: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8vIG...eature=related