The Sweet Hereafter is a film about trauma. After a fatal bus crash that kills almost all of a town’s children, a lawyer tries to rouse some of the victims’ families to pursue a class action suit. The young girl, who is the sole child to survive the crash, and also a survivor of incest, tells a lie at the deposition that puts an end to the town’s greed and punishes her father for his crimes.
Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter treats two tragedies: a bus crash in which all but one of a community’s school-age children plunge to their deaths in icy water, and incest. In North American cinema, films about trauma tend to make a spectacle of suffering through a focus on the immediacy of individual pain and loss. Egoyan’s understated film avoids spectacle and zooms out to look instead at how the representation of trauma shapes communities’ experiences of it over time. Focusing on the mediation of trauma (including its own), the film explores the unstable nature of truth and knowledge and the continuities and discontinuities of traumatic memory through a disorienting multi-perspective narrative structure that moves back and forth through over 20 different time frames. This structure juxtaposes different kinds of remembering and forgetting to lay bare their deeper ideological investments. As a whole, the film’s structure models a way of representing traumatic history that allows a plurality of voices to be heard, the inconsistencies in their perspectives to be acknowledged, and above all, a means of articulating deeper truths than those of history’s referential recordings through art’s modes of memorialising.
In the storyline of the bus crash, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) is a silver-tongued lawyer who coaxes the bereaved parents into letting him ‘represent’ them in a class action lawsuit. Legal discourse is premised on the notion that it is possible to make truth claims about the past by linking a chain of events to outside causes in order to assign culpability, even when events might have no discernible cause and defy rational comprehension. Mitchell’s seemingly objective rationalism has another component though; he offers carefully selected parents the prospect of being compensated for loss through a cold calculus that weighs their social worth against the degree of their suffering. As a mode of representation, his legal depositions appear to be committed to the documentation of an event into public memory, making it available to reflection and scrutiny. However, the film represents this as a trap. By instrumentalising individual suffering, Mitchell’s approach to trauma narrative severs the bonds that link families and communities. By dwelling on the moment of the accident, it congeals the past at the expense of cultivating a way of living in the ‘hereafter.’ And by linking facts to finance, it encourages distortions and untruths.
The storyline about incest offers another perspective on representation, this time in relation to the visual rather than the verbal. Nicole (Sarah Polley), the only child to survive the bus crash, is also a survivor of incest. At the outset of the film, Nicole is a performer, onstage before a doubled photograph of herself to emphasise both that she is a split subject and that she is always measured against a fantasy image of herself. In this early scene, she is cast as the object of a gaze which conflates her father’s incestuous one with the camera’s and thus the film’s viewers’. Nicole thus lays bare the problem that the cinema is a machine designed for (illicit) pleasure; trauma narrative seems to run contrary to its nature because we find victims appealing. At the same time, though, the film suggests that the cinema’s way of seeing creates its victims. Nicole is shown to be strongly interpellated by the image of the beautiful rock star her father constructs of her, and becomes an active agent in her own seduction when she moves from rehearsing to actually playing what Laura Mulvey calls her ‘to-be-looked-at-ness,’ dressing up for her father, lying on top of him, pressing him into her embrace.1 That she is not the passive victim of her trauma makes the truth of this trauma muddy and the assignation of blame very complicated.
Yet, Nicole is not only an object of representation. At her deposition, Nicole goes from being silent, an object of sight, to a speaking subject. The detailed answers she gives about her remembrance of the bus crash – all lies – subordinate her father’s and Mitchell’s representational systems to succinctly put an end to their instrumental ways of approaching her. Her deposition of a false memory seems starkly factual, but it’s facts are not the ones she claims to be offering; when she says things were ‘going too fast’ and that she was ‘scared’ while intensely gazing at her father who now is the uneasy object of sight, she is in fact speaking about his seduction. Through an act of rhetorical displacement she finds a way to speak publicly about something that has been unspeakable. Still, she represses the affective dimensions of her twinned traumas, which remain secreted.
Nicole’s terse false testimony contrasts sharply with the discourse developed in a third narrative line through the testimony of Dolores Driscoll, the school bus driver (Gabrielle Rose). Dolores movingly memorialises each and every child who died in the crash as the camera slowly pans over a wall of photographs she has kept as though the children were her own family. Dolores offers a verbal and visual history of the community’s children from the perspective of someone who cares deeply about them, and bears witness to the town’s loss with empathy and compassion.
In a fourth narrative thread that weaves the incest and crash stories together, Nicole’s voice offers the perspective of art on the representation of trauma. Early in the narrative, she recites Robert Browning’s poem The Pied Piper to the children she babysits, and this recitation becomes an extra-diegetic voice-over that haunts the rest of the film. The poem illuminates significant moments in both the incest and the bus-crash narratives obliquely, neither summarising nor commenting on nor explicitly memorialising them. Like a musical motif that weaves in and out of the main song lines, it brings a greater resonance to the notes that are played.
Browning’s poem is about a man who, angry at townspeople who refuse to pay him for ridding them of rats, coaxes all of their children to follow him into a mountainside never to be seen again. It is, as Nicole tells the children, a story about anger and so connects thematically to both Mitchell’s rage and her vengeance. It is also a poem about seduction. Browning’s children are seduced by the piper’s promises of wondrous things, just as in The Sweet Hereafter the townspeople are seduced by Mitchell’s promise of wealth, and just as Nicole is seduced by her father’s fetishistic constructions of her. And it is a poem about lost children. Nicole is connected to the children who are promised impossible joys and consequently engulfed in a mountainside, as well as to the poem’s one lame child left behind.
Twice in the film Nicole reads a portion of the poem about the lame boy – once in the incest scene, and once at the deposition: ‘And in after years, if you would blame / His sadness, he was used to say, – / “It’s dull in our town since my playmates left! / I cannot forget that I’m bereft / Of all the pleasant sights they see, / Which the Piper also promised me.”’ These short lines written by someone else offer Nicole a language to acknowledge her own pain and its future legacy of sadness. They articulate the ways she assumes she would be ‘blamed’ for the incest because of her willing compliance. They represent her feelings about the loss of the other children, and they describe the allure of her father’s seductive promises. Without being documentary in the way that Mitchell’s discourse is, and without imposing the weight of the silence Nicole’s father’s gaze begets, the poem draws its threads from the fabric of cultural memory to speak a more profound and universal kind of truth. It is important that Nicole recites the poem over rather than merely within the narrative because this lends her voice authority over the film’s other discourses. It is also important that this discourse’s authority is not authoritarian. Rather, her poetic discourse is associative, fluid, open-ended, and non-instrumental insofar as it has no material effect on the action of the narrative. Through it, she represents both the communal and private dimensions of trauma and mourning and so complements Dolores Driscoll’s art of memory.
While many critics have signalled that the differences between Mitchell and Nicole’s father (Tom McCamus)’s controlling and manipulative narrative strategies on the one hand and Dolores and Nicole’s subtly resistant ones on the other are offering a critique of patriarchal power, the film’s critique also extends to our dominant epistemological models that offer purportedly neutral, objective and disembodied knowledge in the service of other kinds of unequal power relations such as between law and community, the able-bodied and disabled, and adults and children.
The Sweet Hereafter thus offers a kind of study in the relationship between trauma and representation. By laying out multiple storylines, the film signals the impossibility of an authoritative perspective on trauma. By thematically and formally presenting different modes of visual and verbal representation to expose their underlying assumptions and blind spots as well as their stakes, the film shows the frames through which knowledge is mediated. By developing a narrative solution to the challenge of revealing complex relationships between the past, present, and future tenses of memory, the film avoids presenting history as a strict series of causes and effects. Most importantly, the film makes an argument for the powers of art’s aleatory and associative ways of thinking, its ability to convey cultural and not just personal memory, and its ability to reach across time.
1. See Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen 16.3, 1975, pp. 6–18.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Canada. Production Company: Alliance Communications and Ego Film Arts. Director: Atom Egoyan. Producers: Robert Lantos, András Hámori, David Webb, Camelia Friedberg, Atom Egoyan, Sandra Cunningham. Screenwriter: Atom Eogyan (based on the novel by Russell Banks). Cinematographer: Paul Sarossy. Art Director: Kathleen Climie. Music: Mychael Danna. Cast: Ian Holm (Mitchell Stevens), Sarah Polley (Nicole Burnell), Tom McCamus (Sam Burnell), Gabrielle Rose (Dolores Driscoll), Bruce Greenwood (Billy Ansel), Alberta Watson (Risa), Maury Chaykin (Wendell), Arsinée Khanjian (Wanda), Earl Pastko (Hartley), David Hemblem (Abott), Caerthan Banks (Zoe Stevens).]
Melanie Boyd, ‘To Blame Her Sadness: Representing Incest in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter’ in Monique Tschofen and Jennifer Burwell (eds), Image and Territory: Essays on Atom Egoyan, Waterloo, ON, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007, pp. 275–95.
Patricia Gruben, ‘Look but Don’t Touch: Visual and Tactile Desire in Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, and Felicia’s Journey’ in Monique Tschofen and Jennifer Burwell (eds), Image and Territory: Essays on Atom Egoyan, Waterloo, ON, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007, pp. 249–74.
Vivian M. May and Beth A. Ferri, ‘I’m a Wheelchair Girl Now’ in Women’s Studies Quarterly 30: 2, 2002, pp. 131–50.
Jonathan Romney, Atom Egoyan, London, British Film Institute, 2003.
Katherine Weese, ‘Family Stories: Gender and Discourse in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter’ in Narrative, 10: 1, 2002, pp. 68–90.
Emma Wilson, Atom Egoyan, Urbana, IL, University of Illinois Press, 2009.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.