Near the climax of Richard Strauss’ opera “Salome,” the title character performs the Dance of the Seven Veils for her stepfather, King Herod. The dance is done as a barter: In exchange, Herod will behead the man Salome loves so that she may kiss his lips. The Dance of the Seven Veils finds Salome swaying and whirling erotically with a set of scarves, landing somewhere between an object of sexual fascination for her onlookers and a lovestruck woman reaching for agency through movement.
“Seven Veils,” written and directed by Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter”), follows an opera director who is staging a production of “Salome” and, like the tragic heroine, clashes with a series of men in her quest to recover a sense of control. This slippage between art and life, sincerity and trickery, is key to deriving some sense of meaning from this strange and sultry but ultimately exasperating film, which plays like “TÁR” as refracted through “Madeline’s Madeline” with more than a few shards of glass missing.
Reuniting with Egoyan after the 2010 thriller “Chloe,” Amanda Seyfried stars as Jeanine, a poised stage director who is stepping into her new role after apprenticing on a version of “Salome” years earlier. Back then, she worked under a famed director named Charles, with whom Jeanine was also having an affair. We soon learn that Charles, who has since died, appropriated traumatic elements of Jeanine’s childhood in his rendition of “Salome,” and now, after his passing, Jeanine is determined to reclaim the opera by putting her own spin on its staging.
This already tangled premise is further complicated by a series of ancillary backstage dramas. Several revolve around the willful prop master, Clea (Rebecca Liddiard), who is pushing for her girlfriend (Vinessa Antoine), an understudy in the production, to assume the spotlight instead of the star (Ambur Braid). Unfolding alongside Jeanine’s personal journey, this stilted subplot is not only unnecessary, but genuinely distracting. Oftentimes it feels as if the film at hand were being interrupted by the ridiculous, campy feed of a different story altogether.
Egoyan, a skilled storyteller at home with cinematic jigsaw puzzles (“Exotica,” for example), is not just throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. His choices are deliberate, and the parallels between Jeanine and Salome emerge with a lovely slow build that produces more moody questions than answers. Both of the women were sexualized and exploited by their fathers, but although the acts were distressing, they ultimately enabled the lovestruck heroines to connect with the men they coveted.
Egoyan is also interested in exploring how contemporary sexual politics can collide with creative vision. At one point, Jeanine tries to recreate a suggestive scene onstage as Charles once directed it. Much to Jeanine’s chagrin, an opera house employee insists on summoning the production’s intimacy coordinator to oversee the blocking. There’s something dubious about the moment, as if Egoyan — who directed a production of “Salome” in 1996 — were working out his own confusion and frustration with onset safety through Jeanine. But the scene still rings far truer than the film’s dealings with sex and power elsewhere, in particular a seriously misguided plot twist involving a sexual attack on a theater employee.
The film strikes on plenty of beautiful images, particularly during the Dance of the Seven Veils, which Jeanine stages behind a curtain in rippling silhouette. (The cinematographer is Paul Sarossy.) There are also painfully obvious visual motifs, including a portrait of Jeanine’s family that she insists on defacing. It’s a cheap trope, and the act of sabotage ends up being less to the painting than to any semblance of cinematic gravitas.
Acting as the film’s teetering anchor, Seyfried channels a fascinating blend of composure and chaos that, in a less muddled movie, would have sung. Yet here, her portrayal of an assured woman unraveling under pressure merely lends a haunting note to a tale that strikes as simultaneously laborious and opaque.
“Seven Veils” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.