This Director's Got a Brand Noir Bag

'People often describe my work as cold and clinical, but I just can't see it that way--to me it's about nothing but emotion," says Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan.

"True, the people in my films often try to deny their emotions and usually have a hard time understanding what they're feeling. Nonetheless, the emotions are always bubbling away in there at an almost operatic level."

The reason critics often describe Egoyan's work as cold could have something to do with the tendency in his films for the "operatic" emotions to implode rather than explode--and the fact that the media are usually positioned as central characters in his narratives.

From his 1984 feature debut, "Next of Kin," to his recently released sixth film, "Exotica," Egoyan has looked with a cool eye at our willingness to hand the reigns of our consciousness over to technology and at the barrage of images that have invaded human experience.

Those ideas are percolating away in "Exotica," but the film is a departure in other ways. Egoyan's works have always been provocative--and "Exotica" doesn't disappoint on that score--but he has never made such a nakedly emotional film before. The story, revolving around the relationship between a stripper (Mia Kirshner) and one of the patrons of the club where she works (Bruce Greenwood), blossoms into a multilayered tale chronicling various experiences of loss, betrayal and obsession.

More than anything, however, "Exotica" is a meditation on the mysteriousness of the connections between people and how powerful those connections can be.

"Exotica"--which also stars Elias Koteas, Arsinee Khanjian and Don McKellar--marks another change for Egoyan in that his previous works eschewed linear narrative in favor of a highly fragmented approach to storytelling. The new film is loosely structured as a conventional thriller.

"I've been heavily influenced by thrillers, and if I was to associate myself with any genre, that's the one it would be," the 35-year-old director says during a meeting at the Westwood hotel where he is staying with Khanjian, who is his wife and the star of all his films, and their infant son.

"And as with a thriller, 'Exotica' comes together like a puzzle and only works if you trust what the filmmaker's up to. If you watch it suspiciously and worry that you're not 'getting it,' it begins to slip into the distance.

"People tend to discuss my films in terms of theory, but I'm not a theorist--my stories are told to communicate emotions," Egoyan says in explaining the change of direction in his work.

"It's true that ideas about media, realities once removed and surrogates have been central to my films, but I never intended to address those themes in purely theoretical terms. I was beginning to feel that my stories were revolving to too large a degree around technology, so the challenge with 'Exotica' was to show that the need to behave in certain ways is deep within us, and we act it out with or without technology."

A theme that Egoyan has turned to repeatedly is the relationship between technology, the fantasies it gives rise to and sexuality. In "Exotica," this idea is central.

"For most people, I think sex resides more in fantasy and in the imagination than in the body," Egoyan says. "Ideally the two should obviously be in sync, but we're surrounded by such a plethora of images that we're almost taught to be as satisfied with images of people.

"Ironically, the central relationship in 'Exotica' isn't very sexual at all, even though on a superficial level that appears to be the only thing it's about. In fact, this is a story about a man who becomes involved in an odd ritual that began as a healing process but has degenerated into something quite tormenting.

"I had this amazing screening of 'Exotica' for the Toronto Psychoanalytic Society, and I learned several fascinating things," says Egoyan, who lives in Toronto. "First, they assured me that the kind of relationship that's central to the film definitely exists in real life.

"They also told me that all my films deal with a process known as 'faulty mourning,' which is a Freudian term referring to the phenomenon of people who are in the process of mourning and think they're dealing with their loss, but the means they've devised to deal with it actually exaggerates the loss and leaves them addicted to the process of mourning. Why would anyone choose to behave in this way? Because it's a project. People look for a project in their lives, and the project of trying to come to terms with unhappiness is quite consuming."

Invariably, the characters in Egoyan's films are struggling to come to terms with unhappiness--a fact that's rather curious considering that Egoyan seems to have led something of a charmed life.

Egoyan, who was named after the atom, was born in Cairo to Armenian parents in 1960 and raised in Victoria, British Columbia.

"There was no Armenian community in Victoria, and one of the major challenges of my life has been learning to honor my own heritage," says Egoyan, whose 1993 film "Calendar" deals specifically with this theme. ("Calendar" plays at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles at noon today and next weekend.)

"There was an underlying racism there--I can remember a teacher calling me 'little Arab'--and as a child I wanted nothing more than to be like everyone else.

"My parents were both painters, so I was raised in an environment where people made things. My parents had a tumultuous relationship, and from a young age I was always playing therapist and trying to bring them together. I've always found the process of conciliation challenging, and when I went to college I majored in international relations planning to be a diplomat."

Egoyan earned a bachelor's degree in international relations at Trinity College in Toronto in 1982, but his career as a diplomat never took root, probably because he had also been turning out plays at a prodigious rate from the time he was 13.

"I wrote tons of very wordy plays, which an adviser at school pointed out to me were influenced by the theater of the absurd," he recalls. "After he told me that, I tracked down some books by Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter, and I was so excited by their ideas that I was just running around and laughing out loud. The theater of the absurd corresponded with so many things I was trying to understand and was so rich with comic possibility--it introduced me to a dramatic world where anything could happen and had a huge impact on me."

Shortly after graduating from college, Egoyan came to the conclusion, he says, that "I was never going to find my voice in theater."

"From the moment I made my first film, however, I realized that the camera lens can be a metaphor for a missing character--that struck me as such a powerful device!" he says, referring to "Howard in Particular," a 14-minute short he completed in 1979.

After his first feature, "Next of Kin," Egoyan directed several programs for Canadian television and four more feature films ("Family Viewing" in 1987, "Speaking Parts" in 1989, "The Adjuster" in 1992 and "Calendar" two years ago) that shared the same basic thematic concerns.

"I'm fascinated by the process of how people hurt each other, and anything that illustrates the fragility of human existence is appealing to me," he says. "The characters I find most dramatically compelling are usually dysfunctional people who think they have control of their lives but have lost themselves in a pattern of behavior that perpetuates their dysfunction. People create rituals in my films, and there's something compulsive about how my characters behave.

"I'm also drawn to stories that have a sense of moral ambiguity, where the characters are lost in a universe where they're trying to put together some sense of moral values."

Long a darling of the art film crowd, Egoyan stands a good chance of reaching a broader audience with "Exotica," which has already won several prizes on the film festival circuit.

Asked if Hollywood had come courting yet, he shyly confesses, "Well, yes, I have been given lots of scripts, and I've enjoyed reading several of them. I have really eclectic tastes and love some Hollywood films.

"I'm already at work on my next project, though--I've optioned Russell Banks' 'The Sweet Hereafter.' I fell in love with it when I read it in 1991 and think it's a perfect novel for me. I'm working on an adaptation, but I don't know if it will in fact be my next film, because I've never worked from someone else's material. It remains to be seen if I'll be as happy with my screenplay as I am with Russell's book."

Although Egoyan concedes that his films are difficult to "get" while they're in production, he stresses that "my films aren't remotely surreal to me--everything that happens in them is within the realm of possibility."

"At the same time," he says, "the strongest moments in cinema for me are the ones when you can't believe you're watching what you're watching. Scenes that extend the viewers' ideas about what they should be watching, but at the same time inspire trust and confidence--that's the tricky balance I'm trying to pull off in my work."

* "Exotica," Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. at Crescent Heights Boulevard, West Los Angeles; (213) 848-3500.

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