Friday March 3, 1995
With "Exotica," whose title refers to a Toronto nightclub, Canada's venturesome Atom Egoyan has made one of his most accessible films to date, a haunting and complex fable of loss and desire with wide implications. An immense place with lush, kitschy tropical decor, the fictional strip club is the principal setting of this mesmerizing, genuinely original work that has something of the dreamy, darkly humorous fatalistic quality of another Canadian film dealing with interconnecting lives, "Atlantic City." "Exotica" took the International Critics' Prize at Cannes and was recently voted best foreign film of 1994 by the French Film Critics Assn.
The film's key relationship is between a bearded, nice-looking thirtysomething tax auditor named Francis (Bruce Greenwood), who regularly patronizes the club, always requesting the same table dancer, Christina (Mia Kirshner), who invariably starts out her routine dressed as a schoolgirl, a very convincing Lolita who in fact is not too many years past her own minority. Their relationship is intensely ritualized, and it is only with the film's gradual unraveling that we understand its meaning, a notion of why it could be of importance to Christina as well as to Francis.
This relationship emerges as a powerful metaphor for contemporary sexuality, where immense latitude as to what can be shown in public still conflicts with what can be touched; "Exotica" suggests in this way that a lingering, deeply embedded Puritanism nourishes the voyeurism so emblematic of our lonely, isolating society. Voyeurism has concerned Egoyan in such previous films as "The Adjuster" and especially "Speaking Parts."
Francis, who has suffered overwhelming personal tragedy, and Christina form the film's linchpin, where a number of other lives intersect. On the one hand, Christina is caught up in a complicated situation with the club's macho emcee/deejay (Elias Koteas) and the club's elegant owner (Arsinee Khanjian), whose sense of pride and propriety could not be greater if she were running an exclusive finishing school for upper-crust girls. On the other, Francis, as a government tax auditor, is zeroing in on the books of a pet shop owner, an uptight young gay man (Don McKellar) who will become caught up in Francis and Christina's lives; meanwhile, Francis has his own complicated relationship with his brother (Victor Garber) and his young niece (Sarah Polley).
With the unexpected awaiting us with each new sequence, Egoyan has the imagination and stamina to go the distance, following the destinies of his people, which reveal themselves with a forceful sense of inevitability--and in turn reveal Egoyan's grasp of the often quirky workings of human nature. Heightening the film's sensuality and mystery is Mychael Danna's lush score, inspired by Indian music.
Clearly, Egoyan inspires trust in actors, and "Exotica" is replete with selfless portrayals, with Kirshner bringing to Christina a remarkably persuasive blend of experience, vulnerability and intelligence. As a stylist, Egoyan could have been a bit more assertive, bringing more of a sense of shape to this film, but his sensibility is so fresh, so unique, that it scarcely matters.
Exotica, 1995. R, for some sexuality and language. A Miramax release of an Alliance Communications Corp. presentation of an Ego Film Arts production produced with the participation of Telefilm Canada and the Ontario Film Development Corp. Writer-director-producer Atom Egoyan. Producer Camelia Frieberg. Cinematographer Paul Sarossy. Editor Susan Shipton. Costumes Linda Muir. Music Mychael Danna.. Production designers Linda Del Rosario, Richard Paris. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Bruce Greenwood as Francis. Mia Kirshner as Christina. Elias Koteas as Eric. Arsinee Khanjian as Zoe.