Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

IAS Film Notes: The Adjuster

I wrote the film notes for our International Arts Society film series screening tonight. It was my third time this semester. I always profit from the experience, even if I spend too long on the task. But this time was better than usual because I was writing about one of my favorite filmmakers, Atom Egoyan. A Canadian of Armenian descent, Egoyan has a rare gift for making pictures that are informed by film theory without being too dry or too preachy. Maybe that's because they almost always feature characters whose sexual desire refuses to flow down state or church-sanctioned channels.

I can't wait for his new film, Where the Truth Lies -- billed as a collision of high-brow aesthetic and pulp sensationalism -- to come to Tucson. If it's even half as good as Exotica or The Sweet Hereafter or tonight's IAS selection, The Adjuster, I will be satisfied. Anyway, here are my notes for The Adjuster:
The Adjuster is an astonishing film because of what it doesn't tell us. Like most of Atom Egoyan's work, the picture is long on ideas and short on plot. Although its characters are dealing with major developments in their lives, most of them happen offscreen. Egoyan focuses instead on the folds of existence they leave untouched, the dark, hidden places that not even a catastrophe can illuminate. His film is about loss, surely, but also about what can't be lost, about the losses we carry with us across every divide.

Words do more than move the story along. The film's title, for example, keeps us mindful of the aftermath of calamity, when the insurance company's representative makes a list of people's belongings and tries to determine just compensation for them. Since what makes them "belong" is precisely what can't be converted into money, the valuation that protagonist Noah Render (Elias Koteas) must make is founded on a lie. Every adjustment is necessarily unjust. And, what is even worse, no amount of caring can compensate for the injustice. An adjuster is someone engaged in a quixotic attempt to bind together "before" and "after," concealing the space between. That Noah chooses to delay this process, extending the state of emergency almost indefinitely, suggests that he comprehends his profession's existential quandry without having a plan to resolve it. The only solution he sees is to prevent any resolution.

Egoyan's care with words is apparent throughout the film. Pregnant with absence, conversations always seem to be about more than what they are about. In one of the scenes featuring the wealthy Mimi (Gabrielle Rose) and Bubba (Maury Chaykin), she becomes interested in one of the slides he is showing during a simulated dinner party. As she walks closer to it, the image, of a free-standing bathtub whose interior is hidden by a shower curtain, moves onto her back and her shadow fills its place on the screen. "Hey, were they singing?" she asks, turning to face him. He asks her what she means. "The person behind the curtain." Because, at this point in the film, we have already heard Mimi singing in the shower, Bubba's answer takes on extra weight. "I don't remember." Significantly, however, this failure to recall calls up a distant memory inside him. Responding to her assertion that people must sing in the shower because of "the sound and the privacy," he replies that "it can't be the privacy. We used to sing in the showers after a game. The whole team. There would be a lot of steam, a lot of joking around, winding down. Then we'd just start singing, all of us, like one big family." When we hear Mimi singing in the shower again during the final scene, this conversation comes back to us, its resonances amplified by the setting and circumstances. Without making the point too obvious, Egoyan has used the exchange to underscore tensions between solitude and community, sex and family that wind through the entire film like faulty wire.

When protagonist Noah Render (Elias Koteas) takes Arianne (Jennifer Dale) back to the burnt-out shell of her former home, she stops at one point and looks down. "This is where it started," she tells him. "It was a short-circuit, right?" Noah asks. "I turned the light on. And I noticed a spark on the floor. It started so small." He gives her a knowing look. "You didn't stop it." Arianne expresses no regret. "Something had to change. So I watched," she hesitates, "while it did." The real tragedy of The Adjuster, for all of its dark humor, is that her conviction that things actually did change turns out to have been wishful thinking.
The hardest part of writing the IAS notes is getting them to fit on one page. This difficulty was greatly magnified in the case of The Adjuster, which makes even plot-retarding "establishing" scenes ring with significance. For example, the last sentence of my notes refers to the warts that Noah's wife Hera has on her feet, a problem mentioned only twice in the film, but one that matches up perfectly with its deeper themes. Anyway, tell me what you think, either of the film or of my notes.

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