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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Exotica (1994)


* * * 1/2

Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Mia Kirshner, Elias Koteas, Don McKellar

Late in Atom Egoyan's Exotica strip club owner Zoe (Arsinee Khanjian) explains to patron Francis (Bruce Greenwood) that Exotica isn't a place where people come to heal. In a film where characters seem acutely, painful self-aware, this comment stands out as almost laughably naive. Of course Exotica is where people come to heal; just look at how many walking wounded come through its doors.

Exotica is the name of a club where Christina (Mia Kirshner) works, doing the same school girl act night after night while the DJ (Elias Koteas) waxes poetic about her "special innocence." One of the patrons captivated by that innocence is Francis, who has a connection to Christina outside the little world of Exotica, and waits for her every night so that he can have a private dance. Seeing her is a compulsion for him, a necessity; something he seems to need rather than enjoy. As we learn later, seeing him is also a necessity for her, something which has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with a shared pain from the past.

This story eventually intersects with that of Thomas (Don McKellar), a pet store owner involved in a lucrative smuggling opperation. Francis is the CRA agent assigned to audit Thomas' records and, after things go very wrong one night at Exotica, he blackmails Thomas into a "you help me, I help you" scheme. Things don't work out exactly as planned, but that's part of what makes Exotica such a strong movie.

The thing that makes Exotica so compelling is that so much of it is predicated on illusion both in terms of the story's content - the performance aspect of Christina's job is an obvious illusion, as is the idea that a patron can have a private dance in a place where someone is always watching the people who are watching - and the way that the story is told. Egoyan sets things up so that we think one thing and then he slowly folds the narrative back to reveal that it's actually something else. For example, an early transition finds us going from watching Francis at Exotica to sitting in a car with a very young Sarah Polley, giving her money and asking if she'll be available again soon. The scene is set up to have very sinister connotations but we later learn that she's his niece and that he pays her to come to his house and pretend to babysit while he's at Exotica. His motivations for doing this are revealed later still.

For the most part the connections between the characters are revealed early - we know how Christina and the DJ first met, how Christina knows Francis, and the tragedy that drives Francis back to Exotica night after night - but that works because unlike a lot of films that involve multiple characters and stories that ultimately converge, the point of this one isn't to reveal how they're all connected. Instead the connections are used to expand our understanding of the characters as individuals and as the film progresses those relationships keep gaining depth. Between its excellent screenplay and a cast that's great across the board (Greenwood, in particular, makes an impression), the film is resonant and endlessly fascinating - one viewing really isn't enough to fully appreciate what it is able to accomplish. The only real criticism that I have is that it feels a bit dated, much more so than many other films to come out the same year. Still, it remains an excellent film and is certainly one of Egoyan's best.

3 comments:

Mike Lippert said...

This film may get my vote for Canada's best. I've always wanted to go find the club where this was filmed. I wonder if it still exists?

Norma Desmond said...

My favourite Egoyan film remains The Sweet Hereafter, though I liked this one a lot. My pick for Canada's best, however, would be Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music In The World.

Mike Lippert said...

Alright you're right, this and Sweet Hereafter are a tie for me, but Saddest Music is quite good too.