The films of Atom Egoyan always seem to come from a deep, curious intellect. He fills up his scripts with symbolism and metaphor and he carries themes from one film to the next, often using videotape to create a cold, calculated, voyeuristic feel. His 1993 film Calendar however, seems to come from a much more personal struggle.Egoyan and his wife and frequent collaborator Arsinee Khanjian star as a couple whose relationship is strained past the breaking point during a trip to Armenia. The trip, initially an assigned journey to photograph historic Armenian churches for a calendar, turns into a personal unraveling for Egoyan's unnamed photographer, as he watches his wife grow closer and closer to the local man who serves as their guide (Ashot Admian). Both husband and wife are of Armenian descent, although only Khanjian's character retains any hint of ethnicity, as well as a knowledge of the Armenian language. Egoyan's character comes off as the sort of thoughtless tourist who's more interested in snapping the pretty pictures than absorbing the rich history of his subjects. His remoteness, however, comes from a variety of sources. He expresses disappointment at his feeling like an outsider in a country that he had always considered to be, in some way, his homeland. And his viewing his wife's drift from him towards this new man occupies his mind most of the time, although he always views it through the filter of either his video or still camera.
That's the key to the film's power. It is constructed very simply but very carefully. The filmed portions consist of just a few set-ups: The various frames that the photographer sets up for the calendar photos (with his wife and the guide visible up until the moment the final image is snapped), and a few angles around the photographer's Canadian apartment where, much later, he tries to come to grips with his wife's absence. These scenes, which are the only ones that feature Egoyan on camera, dissect some very strange human behaviors. The photographer refuses to answer the phone as his wife leaves concerned messages from Armenia (his answering machine message reveals a variety of hackneyed excuses of why he is unavailable to take the call) and he has a constant stream of female dinner guests, most of whom he tries to engage in idle chitchat, but all of whom eventually get up and start talking on the phone in Armenian. These scenes have a mysterious quality to them: Why does each woman ask to use the phone when the photographer pours out the last of the wine? When it finally becomes clear these scenes take on a sad, almost pathetic, quality.
The Armenian footage consists of the posed calendar shots, shot on film with the painterly glow of the setting sun, and shaky, hand-held camcorder footage. The difference in these styles creates a variation between passive observance and more aggressive, voyeuristic investigation (as when the photographer stalks behind the others and waits to see how long it takes for his wife to notice him). Some of the images are really striking, like a seemingly endless procession of sheep viewed through the camcorder viewfinder from a passing car. The sheep parade on for what seems like hours as the viewer (and the characters, who haven't really been established yet) speed by. Later this image is repeated and takes on a different meaning, not so much for what it shows but for what it misses. Since we view all the Armenia scenes through a self-conscious camera lens, Egoyan is able to comment on the photographer's inability to see what is right in front of him. We see only what he sees and, in a way, we're as blind to what he misses as he is.
That both Egoyan and Khanjian have their roots in Armenia but never lived there adds a level of intimacy to the film. In fact, Egoyan explains on the commentary track (and elsewhere) that many people thought that the film was actually a semi-documentary about the break-up of their relationship. In fact, Egoyan didn't intend to act in the film at all (he was going to have an actor overdub his off-screen voice until he realized that the overlapping nature of the improvised dialog made that impossible on a tight budget) but sometimes these happy accidents help create a richer film.
At only 75 minutes, Calendar is a sparse film. Its economy of locations, editing, and length reflects in the focused nature of the film itself. Egoyan is not a filmmaker given to tangents and random subplots and Calendar may be his most concise work. He creates unique characters and exposes their flaws to us and to each other.