Exotica (Canada, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's difficult to explain the full range of emotional impact caused by Exotica. The latest offering from Canadian film maker Atom Egoyan (Family Viewing, The Adjuster) is as beguiling as it is baffling. Not until the final scene does everything finally snap into focus, and when it does, the revelations have all the sudden, stark clarity of a vast nightscape illuminated by a flash of lightning. Past scenes come rushing back with new meaning. Whole perspectives change. Egoyan has taken a seemingly-simple story and woven it into a near-masterpiece, creating images and an atmosphere that establish the perfect backdrop for a tale of loss, grief, and eroticism.

The Exotica is a strip club in Toronto, where men go to watch, but not touch, a variety of unclothed women who strut their stuff to the pulsing sounds of a rich and varied soundtrack. The most visible of the dancers is Christina (Mia Kirshner), a sultry brunette who comes on stage in a school girl costume and is introduced by the deejay Eric (Elias Koteas) as a "sassy bit of jailbait." Her gyrations as she unbuttons her white blouse give the illusion of corrupted innocence -- a fantasy with its basis in reality.

One of the club's regulars is Francis (Bruce Greenwood), a lonely government auditor who spends hours paying out money for Christina to dance privately for him. The bond between these two is more profound than that of a normal dancer and client. When Francis utters his refrain of "How could anyone hurt you?" to Christina, we're not aware of all the layers inherent in his words. Only in retrospect do we ultimately understand.

Paralleling Francis' story is that of Thomas (Don McKellar), a gay pet shop owner who runs a lucrative smuggling operation out of his place of more legitimate work. Currently, his business is being investigated by Francis, and this forms the narrative link by which everything is eventually tied together. Thomas is the shy, nerdy sort who doesn't know how to go about picking up men, until fate deals him a pair of opera tickets and a means by which to find a seemingly-limitless supply of partners. But for Thomas, filling that aching void of the soul involves paying a hefty material price.

On the surface, Exotica might seem to be about sex and lust. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those elements are a slick sheen of polish over the real core. While it's true that strip joints normally reek of excess, Egoyan's story seeks a more fundamental emotional level. This film is driven by the grief and isolation of the characters. The interpersonal connections made in Exotica are often obscure, and the reasons underlying otherwise-inexplicable actions are complex.

Everyone deals differently with loss, but Francis' problem is that he can't accept the tragedy which has defined his life. The effects are too devastating, so he huddles behind a curtain of illusion spun by Christina, trying to reduce his crushing despair to something more bearable. It's easy to mistake Francis for a dirty-minded middle-aged voyeur until you begin to understand what Exotica is saying. And it's not until the final credits roll that the last word of that litany is spoken. Very little about this picture is either predictable or conventional.

As far as the major actors are concerned, there isn't a weak performance. The quiet intensity of Bruce Greenwood; the flamboyant, almost-snarling sadism of Elias Koteas; and the nervous timidity of Don McKellar breathe vitality into Egoyan's scripted personalities. However, it is Mia Kirshner, with her combination of sensuality and thinly-veiled pain, who arrests the viewer's attention.

Comparisons to Mike Leigh's Naked and the uncompromising work of Ken Loach are entirely appropriate. As movies go, this one is painful -- painful because it exposes so much truth. It is a "response" film that demands something more active than detached observation. Exotica becomes a journey of self-discovery. As the mysteries underlying the actions of Francis, Christina, Eric, and Thomas are slowly unwrapped, we learn as much about ourselves as we do about Egoyan's characters. When any motion picture succeeds at that, it deserves recognition as nothing less than one of the year's most profound cinematic experiences.

Exotica (Canada, 1994)

Director: Atom Egoyan
Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Mia Kirshner, Elias Koteas, Don McKellar, Arsinee Khanijian, Sarah Polley
Screenplay: Atom Egoyan
Cinematography: Paul Sarossy
Music: Mychael Danna
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1995
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1