Synopsis: Welcome to the club Exotica, a place where anything goes… and appearances are always deceiving. Every night, respectable businessmen and civil servants in search of a few thrills allow themselves to be seduced by strip-teasing women. As the story unfolds, the lives of some clients and members of the staff become intricately interwoven. While maintaining his fascination for strange relationships, sexuality, voyeurism and unconventional family ties, Atom Egoyan has directed an intense film where eroticism leads to mystery. Exotica’s stellar cast includes, Arsinée Khanjian, Don McKellar, Mia Kirshner, Elias Koteas and Sarah Polley.
eyelights: Bruce Greenwood, Mia Kirshner, the complexity and moral ambiguity of the characters. the outstanding soundtrack by Mychael Danna.
eyesores: Arsinée Kanjian’s character. Elias Koteas’ delivery.
‘Exotica’ will likely always be one of my all-time favourite indie films. It came out at a time when I was just starting to explore cinema beyond the confines of the Hollywood blockbuster. After discovering David Lynch and loving his semi-surrealistic, unconventional approach to storytelling, I realized that there was another world out there. I sought out more. I wanted something other than the processed, veneered product that was being churned out with regularity.
As an outsider, I wanted to find something that spoke to me, that I related with.
I wasn’t at all interested in Canadian cinema then, though. Who would be? Cronenberg had a made a name for himself, but I had not enjoyed ‘Dead Ringers’ much and never finished ‘The Naked Lunch’. ‘The Fly’ was enjoyable but I didn’t even know he had directed it. Denys Arcand, another standout, had bored me to tears with ‘Jésus de Montréal’ (I really need to revisit it!). And I had yet to see ‘Le déclin de l’empire Américain’, which is now one of my all-time favourite films.
Beyond them, Canadian filmmakers hadn’t captured my attention at all. Sure, there had been some notable entries over the years, but they were completely off my radar. It wouldn’t be until Atom Egoyan’s ‘Exotica’ that I finally took notice. While ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ is the one that most remember best and that had a lot of people talking excitedly, for me it was the former that gave a certain legitimacy to Canada’s film industry; I suddenly realized that I had been missing out.
‘Exotica’ is a complex drama that revolves around a Toronto strip club. It centers on one life-changing moment in three of the principal characters’ past, a CRA agent, a stripper and a DJ, and how their intersection has manifested itself ever since. This incident is only revealed much later in the film, with the assistance of three other important figures, a pet shop owner, a babysitter and the club’s owner, until which we are left to decrypt the dynamics between all of them.
I remember not knowing what was going on the first time I watched it, how unsettled the interactions made me feel. There were even some elements that creeped me out. But it would take at least a good hour for ‘Exotica’ to fully explain what is going on between the various characters and how it matters in the grand scheme of things; it’s really not clean and clear cut, and even after we understand what has happened and what is going on, it’s too psychologically complex to fully grasp in one go.
Right from the start, Egoyan made it clear that his characters cannot be judged at first glance, that there is much more simmering below the surface than one can possibly suspect. It will be essential to look at them in a different way to reveal clues of what they are hiding from the rest of the world.
Egoyan tells us to be watchful from the first scene, when a custom officer’s instructs a new recruit, telling him:
“You have to ask yourself what brought the person to this point, what was seen in his face, his manner that… channelled him here. You have to convince yourself that this person has something hidden that you have to find. Check his bags. But it’s his face, his gestures that you’re really watching. Look at him, carefully. What do you see?”
And so it is that we must regard our key players:
– Francis is an inspector for the Canada Revenue Agency. In the evenings, he regularly visits the Exotica strip club, and always asks for table dances from the same girl. He has been doing this for so long that it’s become routine for the staff. But not for him. Something is troubling him, as evidenced by his mild moodiness at work, or with his brother, but it’s not clear what. All we know is that he shares some extremely intense moments with his table dance partner. And not sexually, either. No, it’s more psychological, as though he’s working something out or exorcising some demons.
Bruce Greenwood is absolutely fantastic here. It was my first exposure to the actor and he left me feeling very uncomfortable; it took me a long time to disassociate him from the part, for good or bad. I was always pleased to see him in other films, but it was only until his turn as Christopher Pike in the woefully over-rated ‘Star Trek‘ that I found anything to match his take on Francis. Here, you can’t help but be disquieted by him, by his inscrutability, but also to feel a certain amount of sympathy when you finally understand what he’s going through.
–Christina is the dancer who has formed a tight bond with Francis, believing that he needs her – and, in some ways, she needs him too. We don’t understand how that is, and why it is that she insists on performing in schoolgirl’s clothes, but it’s had an impact on her relationship with Eric, who was once her boyfriend. Once a nerdy teenager, she met Eric during an excursion, and for reasons unknown both now work at Exotica. Christina is now a reserved, cautious, maybe even suspicious person, a shadow of the delicate girl she once was.
Mia Kirshner is terrific as Christina. Actually, she’s never been better: I’ve seen her in a few other movies and never once has she shone like she does here. She totally gets the part, and properly gives Christine her only moments of freedom when she’s dancing for Francis; everything else feels contrived, as uncomfortable for her as it is for us. She’s also very good as the teenaged Christina. My only beef is with her younger version, in that she didn’t look girlish enough – she actually looked and felt like an adult playing a young girl. It was unconvincing.
–Eric is a lost young man whose dreams of being a radio DJ have long since been replaced by his nightly gig as MC for Exotica. He is evidently bored with his work and goes through the motions every night, uttering the same platitudes over and over again. It’s only when Christina dances that he actually feels anything at all, and it’s all very confused, an emotional vortex that derails him from his responsibilities; he can’t help but to follow her with his eyes, to interrupt her table dances, to make personal comments when she dances. Something is eating away at him, and it’s unclear what.
Elias Koteas is quite excellent as Eric; he certainly makes hard to understand and to appreciate him; he comes off as an emotionally stunted adult, with very few social graces. My key problem is that I don’t know if I dislike the character because of the way he’s written or because of Koteas, who hardly plays affable, pleasant characters. Furthermore, he looks considerably older than Christina, and I have a hard time imagining him as a young adult – he appears so much older. His age is never established, though, so it may be intentional Except that he was in college when they met. Hmmm…
–Thomas is the owner of an exotic animal shop. We first meet him on his way back from a business trip abroad, discovering that he uses these trips to smuggles rare animals through customs. Soon, we also find out that he is slightly social awkward, unsure how to interact with people; he comes off as hesitant and unclear in what he’s trying to convey. He’s not an immediately likeable character but we sympathize with him in his quest for love, as he tries to lure handsome men by offering them a free opera ticket; it’s an unlikely approach, but it seems to work for him to a certain degree.
This was my first introduction to Canadian writer-actor-director Don McKellar. I didn’t know what to make of him, quite frankly. He left a distinct impression, most certainly, but not necessarily a pleasant one. And, again, I wasn’t clear whether I disliked the character or the portrayal; there was something unpalatable about him, but what was it? Was it his inarticulateness? His cock-eyes? His body language? His hairdo? I would later discover that McKellar often plays his characters in such a fashion, but I’ve learned to love it – he makes them quite different from your usual screen personage.
–Tracey is Francis’ babysitter. Or is that housesitter? Whenever Francis goes to Exotica, he picks her up and has her take care of things for him at home. She tends to spend that time practicing her music, given that there is nothing else to do there; the house is bereft, despite the signs of life in the picture frames everywhere. She and Francis have interesting conversations on the way to and from his place, but you can always feel a discomfort in Tracey, as though there is something not being said between them. This has always left me uncomfortable, because it could suggest some unpleasantness.
I had no idea who Sarah Polley was at the time, even though she had been a staple of Canadian television for years with ‘The Road to Avonlea’, but I immediately took to her. She was intense and intelligent, even though she was only 14 or 15 at the time. She stood out from all the other kid actors, who are strictly picked for their good looks: she was cute, but she looked real, and she displayed a depth that other simply don’t. She confirmed her savvy by becoming one of the best actresses in Canadian cinema, has also directed award-winning films and even has made political waves in her country.
–Zoe is Exotica’s owner. She inherited it from her mother not long ago and is still learning the trade. She is heavily pregnant and goes around greeting the customers. Eric points out that being pregnant likely doesn’t make the customers feel comfortable in that setting, but she brushes it off. She seems a bit clueless: she doesn’t really know how to deal with her staff and doesn’t manage the dynamics and conflicts particularly well. Furthermore, she has a secret, one that we will be unaware of until partway through the film, and which informs the character dynamics tremendously.
Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan’s partner, has been in many of his films and this is the one role that I will always associate with her, perhaps because of how quirky she is here. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of her performance, because I never know it’s the character who’s lame or the performer: there are moments where Zoe acts and/or reacts so pathetically that it’s hard to say; it remains in the realm of the real, but it would be annoying in everyday life. Anyway, whatever the case may be, Kkanjian made of Zoe an especially memorable individual.
I was surprised in watching ‘Exotica’ again, for the first time in many years (perhaps even a decade!), just how sexy it could be. Actually, ‘Exotica’ is way sexier than I remembered, creating a luscious atmosphere that does the trick. There isn’t that much nudity, though, and yet it feels omnipresent It’s strange… I knew that it took place around a strip club, but I had forgotten just how much of it did. Not that I think that strip clubs are sexy, truth be told, but I think that my recollection was largely affected by the character dynamics and the picture’s powerful score.
Mychael Danna provided what remains for me his most notable score. It may not be his most polished, that would come later (ex: he won an Academy Award for ‘Life of Pi’), but it’s the most diverse of the ones I’ve heard. It’s also notable for alternating between tranquil, melancholy piano-based melodies and high energy electronic/world beat fusion; I’ve played the CD countless times and it remains an all-time favourite motion picture score of mine. Interestingly enough, it flows differently in the movie, being more of a shadowy presence even as it fills the speakers.
All this to say that I adore ‘Exotica’. Given how long it had been since I’d last watched it, I had almost forgotten just how much I loved it. I would look at the poster mounted on my wall and sometimes wondered if it would hold up as well after all these years. It most certainly does. It’s a brilliant exploration of human relations, in all their imperfections: it shows us real people dealing with very real personal issues, trying their best to make it through to the other side as best as they can.
And sometimes fate forces them to be dance partners despite themselves.
And sometimes they all converge in Exotica.
Date of viewing: June 30, 2013