Atom Egoyan's Exotica is a master class in complex narrative design in the service of dramatizing the depths of human emotion. A chamber drama set primarily in the eponymous strip club, which is suffused with plant life and spatially structured like a waking dream, it follows the intersecting lives of four characters, each of whom is uniquely damaged and struggling to find some kind of connection. At this point in his career, Egoyan had written and directed a half dozen feature films and established a consistent set of brooding visuals, thematic concerns with guilt and loss, and unconventional storytelling, but it was Exotica that situated him prominently within the international art-film world, a position that was briefly cemented a few years later with his brooding masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter (1997).
The story involves what appears to be a twisted love triangle. A tax auditor named Francis (Bruce Greenwood) comes every night to Exotica, where he requests an individual dance from Christina (Mia Kirschner), a danger whose schtick is dressing up like a Catholic schoolgirl. It is not hard to see that her dancing for him is not erotic despite all the conventions of the lap-dance, but rather some kind of emotional catharsis for him, as he repeatedly asks her, "How could they hurt you? How could they hurt you?" These interactions are carefully observed by Eric (Elias Koteas), the DJ who surveys the club's landscape from his perch on a wide balcony above, where he spins melancholic techno music and speaks breathily into the microphone, providing a kind of running commentary on the nature of the club's catering to desire (although we have already seen that Francis's desires do not appear to be sexual in nature). We are also introduced to Thomas (Don McKellar), the owner of an exotic pet store who frequents the ballet and scalps tickets as a means of picking up men. Thomas, who wears owlish round glasses that contrast with his long face, is awkward and shy, but like everyone else on screen, he is hiding secrets and may not be all that he appears to be.
As the narrative unfolds, it reveals various intersections of these character in the past and present. Francis, for example, is auditing Thomas's business because he is running an illegal trade in exotic bird eggs on the side. Eric has clearly had some kind of a relationship with Christina in the past, given how obsessively and jealously he watches her, but the exact nature of that relationship is only slowly revealed, as is Christina's connection to Francis. And there are other characters, as well, including Tracey (Sarah Polley), a teenage girl who we first see in Francis's car one night after he has visited Exotica; Francis's brother, Harold (Victor Garber); and Zoe (Arsine Khanjian), the pregnant owner and manager of Exotica who inherited the club from her mother.
As a film that is set primarily in a space that doesn't just privilege, but encourages-nay, relies on-the male gaze and objectification of the female body, Exotica is a film that hinges heavily on power relations, but more importantly, on their illusion. Even though Miramax, the film's U.S. distributor, leaned hard on the strip-club imagery in their advertising during the film's theatrical release and gave it the appearance of being an erotic thriller, there is little that is conventionally erotic in Exotica. There is a great deal of mystery in the film, but there is nothing to solve. Rather, like an onion being slowly peeled, the film's power resides in its gradual, but intensely structure revelation, as Egoyan sets up various relationships and presents them with the bare minimum of explanation, which pushes the viewer to make suppositions, some of which turn out to be right, some of which turn out to be wrong. And it isn't until the very end that everything falls into place, not in some simplistic "ah-ha" kind of way, but rather like an emotional jigsaw puzzle that finally reveals a full portrait, albeit one that still challenges our assumptions and may not clarify every ambiguity. At the heart of the film is Francis's quest to heal from a past tragedy (a regular feature of Egoyan's work), and what makes Greenwood's performance so compelling and tricky is that he knows he is going about it in a demonstrably strange way, but can't help himself. He is driven in ways that make emotional sense, even if they don't quite comport with rationality and logic.
But, that is the kind of film that Exotica is: unconventional and powerful. Returning to it a quarter-century after its theatrical release, it retains all of its allure and dramatic effectiveness, but one of its major effects now is to give rise to lamentations for the unevenness of Egoyan's subsequent career. While he has made a number of very good films in the years after, including what, in my mind, is his real masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter, his career has also been littered with well-intentioned misfires and projects he clearly took for the paycheck. He has been nothing if not productive-nine feature films, two feature documentaries, two contributions to omnibus films, three short films, and a made-for-television movie over the past 25 years. Even his most recent film, Guest of Honour (2020), which promised to be a "return to form," felt lacking. One can only hope that Egoyan still has something up his sleeve that comes close to what he achieved in Exotica, which remains one of the great films of the '90s.
Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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