Atom Egoyan’s sad, elegant Exotica (1994) is at once intimate and remote, concrete and abstract. It was marketed as an “erotic thriller”, yet it is not very erotic (at least not in the conventional sense), and its thrills are quiet and austere. Highly original, it lures its audience back for repeated viewings, revealing a little bit more of itself each time. Its open-endedness and reluctance to definitively determine the shape of “objective truth” are its most important qualities. The viewer is thus invited to construct out of the raw material of his/her viewing experience their own particular version of the film that is relevant, significant and private to them.
In an unnamed city (clearly Toronto), an auditor (Francis, played by Bruce Greenwood) frequents the strip club Exotica and obsessively watches a young dancer Christina (Mia Kirshner) do her “schoolgirl” act. They are in turn watched jealously by her ex-lover Eric (Elias Koteas), the club’s DJ/master of ceremonies. Thomas (Don McKellar), one of Francis’ auditing assignments, owns an exotic pet store and smuggles rare bird eggs into the country. He begins to frequent the ballet to meet other men, where he picks up a customs officer who discovers his smuggling operation, as does Francis. Meanwhile, at the club, Eric spurs Francis into crossing the line and touching Christina while she dances for him. In so doing, Francis gives Eric the pretext to violently eject him from the club’s premises. Francis then blackmails Thomas into wearing a wire and venturing into the club to obtain information on his behalf. There, Thomas learns that Francis’ young daughter was murdered. Tracey (Sarah Polley), Francis’ niece, is hired by him to “baby-sit” an empty house while he is at the club, as if he were still clinging to the belief that his daughter Lisa were alive. Flashbacks that intercut the film throughout chronicle the first meeting of Eric and Christina as they and several other volunteers search for the missing body of the murdered girl. Francis storms to the club to kill Eric but in a strangely miraculous moment, when they are face to face, Eric tells Francis that he, Eric, was the one who found Lisa’s body. The men embrace in mutual consolation. The film ends brilliantly with a flashback sequence in which we see Francis filming his daughter and his wife at the piano, and then driving Christina (Lisa’s baby-sitter, it turns out) back home. As Francis drops Christina off, he detects her unhappiness and remoteness and intuits that all is not well at home. He offers his help and support to her; she alights distractedly and makes her way down the path to her immaculately symmetrical suburban home, schoolbag in hand.
The strip club scenes, for their profusion of naked bodies, are singularly lacking in lasciviousness. The clients sit expressionless and still at their tables in a silence that’s almost mournful. They are here, we suspect, not for cheap thrills or the casual “good time”, but for deeper reasons. Francis watches Christina intently and intensely as she performs her table-dance. Slowly, disconcertedly, we realize that he sees in her his dead daughter Lisa. Christina’s specialty is playing the innocent schoolgirl in her plaid-skirt uniform and tartan socks and with her schoolbag. Eric watches, distracted from his announcing duties, as Christina dances for Francis. Eric realizes that a most private act is occurring in public view at the club: Christina and Francis have forged a profound connection born out of loss and grief, transmuted somehow into a healing which occurs when she dances for this surrogate father-figure. Francis, by “watching” Christina, feels he is “watching over” her, feeling their mutual closeness, and thus the strength of his protection around her. This exemplifies the transgressive nature of Egoyan’s approach: he is out to make us view situations and characters in a light that liberates them from the usual circumscription that defines what is “normal” and what is “deviant”. By humanizing his characters, he brings us to a curiously empathetic understanding of what might have brought them to where they are now.
One-way mirrors in the club office enable Eric and club owner Zoe (played by Arsinee Khanjian, the director’s wife) to watch the clients as they watch the dancers. Zoe in turn watches Eric at his announcing station on the floor above, monitoring what he is saying and doing. Thomas buys two ballet tickets, sells one to a man of his choice, and watches him with sidelong glances while they are both assumedly watching the performance. Later, Thomas wears a wire into the club so that Francis can hear his conversations with Christina and with Eric. Looming over these small-scale voyeuristic acts is the context of “state-sanctioned voyeurism”. The film opens with one customs officer instructing another how to watch through the one-way mirror at the airport, and what to look for. He advises chillingly, “You have to convince yourself that this person has something hidden that you have to find.” Further, Francis is a government tax auditor whose work consists of entering the lives and books of his unwelcoming clients and finding hidden things.
The world of Exotica is bound together by the glue of exchanges and transactions. Tracey baby-sits for Francis for $20 an hour and eventually quits, because, as she puts it simply and wisely, deluding no one, “there is no baby to sit.” Table dances are $5 each. Thomas pays for ballet tickets, sells one of them to a likely pick-up candidate, and then returns him the money at the end of the performance, thus obligating the man to respond in kind by asking Thomas out. As an auditor, Francis’ job is to scrutinize transactions all day, attempting to tell the “real” ones from the “fake” ones. Then there are the exchanges that do not necessarily involve money. Francis coerces Thomas into spying for him in return for overlooking his smuggling crimes. Zoe and Eric draw up a contract so that he can father her child, thus ending his relationship with Christina. Perhaps the most interesting of these exchanges is the basis for the relationship between Francis and Christina. She soothes him with her physical presence and her performance, and allows him to cultivate the fantasy that she is indeed his dead daughter, with whom he can be physically proximate. On the other hand, she looks up to him as a parental figure for the love and support that she probably never received at home. Running through this relationship like a twister is its unspoken carnality: call it dangerous healing.
As Egoyan, in an interview with Cynthia Fuchs (1), put it illuminatingly, “To me, the obvious definition of the exotic is something outside our immediate experience..But ultimately, what really drives the film is the exoticism that we feel towards our own experience, that point at which our own memory, and our own relationship to the things that are closest to us become exotic.”
The loss of his daughter and wife are so shattering to Francis that he transfers Lisa’s memory and identity onto Christina-not, however, Christina herself but Christina playing the schoolgirl at the club. In other words, when he reincarnates his daughter’s memory through her former baby-sitter, it is mediated by the persona of Christina’s schoolgirl performance. This mediation of reality and memory is a recurrent theme in Egoyan’s work, most recently concentrated in his brilliant hour-long film of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (2000). Francis also frequently flashes to video footage of his daughter and wife at the piano, captured just as Christina arrived at their door for her baby-sitting assignment. Thus, his memory of Lisa is mediated by this black-and-white videotape recording which includes significantly the off-screen presence of Christina.
Egoyan provides a wonderful hint of things to come as soon as the film is just out the starting gate. In the credit sequence, the camera slowly tracks over a set comprised of paintings of exotic plants and props which look like fake exotic plants. They foreshadow the décor employed in the club, which uses these same plants to create a kind of indoor hothouse Eden, evoking a faint smell of rotting flowers, hidden too long from the sun. A similarly uneasy claustrophobia exists in Thomas’ exotic pet store, with its ill-kept aquaria and its gurgling tanks, home to curiously shaped unfamiliar creatures. Whether indoors or outdoors, the film never lets us forget that “it’s a jungle out there”.
The film’s themes intersect imaginatively, for example, in the purchase of exotica, most prominently the “experiences” at the club or the hyacinth macaw eggs that Thomas smuggles through customs. The resulting effect is to imply a world of alienated characters who purchase alien experiences in order to feel whole (such are the woes of this modern world!).
Egoyan employs an exotic and effective fusion of slow and heavy, bass-deep techno beats and Indian music. The plaintive melody of the Indian instrument, the shehnai, runs through the film. (The music soundtrack was recorded in Canada and in Bombay).
Parents And Children
One feature unites the characters of the film: their losses. Leonard Cohen’s voice intones wryly in a song in the film, “Everybody’s got this feeling/Like their father or their dog just died.” Francis loses both daughter and wife and constructs a fantasy life to pretend that Lisa is somehow still alive. Thomas has recently lost his father and is struggling to manage the pet shop left to him. Zoe’s mother, who founded the club Exotica, is still very much a living influence in her life and in her wardrobe. It is safe to assume that Christina’s unhappy home life (hinted at, never explicitly stated) is a major contributor to her choosing to work at the strip club. Tracey seems to be the best-adjusted person in the film. She plays along with her uncle Francis’ fantasy that Lisa is alive, and then one day lays the fantasy to rest by refusing the baby-sitting assignment. She also clearly enjoys a close relationship with her father, and is thus yet untainted by the toxins of life. The film however seems to imply that those of us who escape the traumas of childhood are unlikely to remain unscathed as adults. If we have no baggage of our own yet, no matter: it will be waiting at the next station. It is just a matter of time.
The DVD Version
Miramax’s Region 1 version possesses a pristine transfer, and is widescreen letterboxed in the aspect ratio 1:1.66. Its immense superiority to the VHS version owes much to its respect for Egoyan’s deliberate and careful design of the film’s mise en scène. The camera moves slowly and gracefully through this film, and the set design actively participates in the creation of tableau-like moments, rendered more effective by the fidelity of the DVD transfer. The film imbues the viewer with a sense of place both real and hallucinatory. This is often done through subtle effects of light and shade, especially the cool blues which, laser-like, pierce the dark fog of the club. The DVD brings out these fleeting changes of visual texture with delicacy and firmness.
A complaint: I wish the DVD had an audio commentary track by Egoyan. A wonderfully intelligent and articulate presence, he would have immeasurably enriched the DVD version of this film. Several films, including Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) and Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998) have been re-released in upgraded DVD versions with extensive director commentaries. So, maybe there’s hope for us yet.
The film contains marvelous acting performances. Bruce Greenwood (The Sweet Hereafter, 1997) plays Francis with quiet gravity. In striking contrast, he is buoyant and shining in the film’s last, flashback sequence-the only time in the film his daughter is still alive. Don McKellar (director of Last Night ) plays pet-store owner Thomas with the right mixture of diffidence and doggedness. Egoyan’s wife Arsinee Khanjian is wonderfully cast as Zoe, and Elias Koteas plays the complex and unsettling Eric. Finally, Sarah Polley (later seen in The Sweet Hereafter, Go [Doug Liman, 1999] and Guinevere [Audrey Wells, 1999]) is precociously perfect.
On A Personal Note
For me, the city of Toronto mirrors the world of this film. Being an American born and raised in India who harbors a love for this polymorphous city, I view this film as incarnating a basic element that characterizes the city itself: the vivid co-existence of disparate cultures exotic to each other, yet somehow comfortable in each other’s alien-ness; a place where I feel simultaneously at home and forever a stranger.
- Atom Egoyan in an interview with Cynthia Fuchs of George Mason University. The interview is available at: http://www.inform.umd.edu/EdRes/Topic/WomensStudies/FilmReviews/exotica-fuchs