Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan's 1989 film Speaking Parts is a strange, surrealistic look at obsession, desire, and the conflict between what people want to be true, what they perceive as true, and what is really true. The film follows three characters: Lance (Michael McManus), a film extra who is trying to get his first speaking part, Lisa (Arsinée Khanjian), a hotel worker who is obsessed with Lance, and Clara (Gabrielle Rose), a scriptwriter who offers Lance the possibility he has been waiting for.
Speaking Parts is a strange, surrealistic film that almost works... but doesn't. The idea of the story is interesting, and writer/director Egoyan seems to have had very clear ideas about the meaning of every element and incident in the film. Unfortunately, he uses such a minimalistic style that very little of this meaning is actually communicated in the film.
One of the key missing elements is character motivation. Egoyan remains relentlessly outside of his characters' minds, presenting scenes with very little dialogue and few external clues to what they want, who they are, or why they are behaving as they are. The result is that the characters remain uninvolving. Lisa is the most interesting of the lot, as it's at least possible to sympathize with her sad obsessiveness about Lance; her tentative friendship with a video store clerk is one of the few relationships that actually unfolds on-screen. However, the other two main characters, Lance and Clara, remain ciphers.
The problems with the plot of Speaking Parts derive in large part from the problems with the characters. Most of the film consists of extended shots of the characters doing fairly trivial actions, like washing up, folding towels, drinking a cup of coffee, staring into space, and so on. With little use of dialogue, narration, or action to carry the story, everything depends on the actors to convey what's going on through their expressions and the most trivial of actions and gestures. But there's a limit to how much can realistically be carried that way, and the plot of Speaking Parts gets lost in the shuffle. It only adds to the confusion that the actors are all physically very similar; this turns out to be an actual plot point, but the effect is that it is a struggle to keep track of who is whom, especially at the beginning.
The ending of Speaking Parts is highly surrealistic, blending reality, imagination, and videotaped recordings so that it's impossible to tell for sure what's really happening, what's being acted out, and what's being imagined. As I write this, I have to admit that it sounds like something that would be interesting. Unfortunately, since the plot was muddy from the beginning, the surrealistic ending is confusing rather than intriguing; it's hard to have your preconceived ideas and expectations reversed in interesting ways when it was never possible to get a clear idea of what was going on in the first place.
Zeitgeist Video's transfer of the film, in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is very disappointing. While there appears to be little noise, the image is quite grainy overall. Colors are drab, with sallow-looking skin tones. Well-lit scenes tend to be washed-out, while the contrast in darker scenes ranges from adequate to poor. On top of that, fairly heavy edge enhancement is in evidence throughout the film.
The sound quality fares no better than the video, alas. Speaking Parts is presented in Dolby 2.0 stereo, but I've heard mono tracks that sounded better. The overall sound quality is muddy; dialogue is understandable, but not clear.
A respectable slate of special features has been assembled for this DVD edition. Egoyan supplies a full-length audio commentary track for the film, along with a six-minute interview clip. Several deleted scenes are presented in a six-minute "featurette" with Egoyan's comments included on a voiceover. An image gallery and a filmography of Egoyan are also included.
Egoyan has received considerable acclaim for his filmmaking, with his 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter winning a number of film festival awards. And The Sweet Hereafter is, in fact, the kind of complex and memorable movie that Speaking Parts tries unsuccessfully to be. Fans of Egoyan's work may thus find Speaking Parts to be an interesting viewing experience when considered as part of his development as a filmmaker. Taken on its own merits, however, the film remains an interesting failure, and considering the poor quality of the DVD, it's a good argument for skipping Speaking Parts.