A few years prior to Atom Egoyan’s arguably best known film The Sweet Hereafter, he found great box office success with Exotica. The film follows a number of characters who all wind up being connected through a strip club called Exotica. Marketed as an erotic thriller, the film performed so strongly in its limited release, that it was quickly given a wide release, managing to play in Toronto for 25 weeks.
Not only a financial success, Exotica gathered high praise from critics across North America. Considered by some to be Egoyan’s box office breakthrough, the film may not be the first title that comes to mind when his name is mentioned. Taking a closer look at the film, Toronto Film Scene writers Andrew Parker and Aren Bergstrom discussed the finer details of the film’s occasionally thick plot, the use of nudity, and the lasting impact of the movie to decide if it is indeed Essential Canadian Cinema.
Andrew: For a film set in a strip club, Atom Egoyan’s 1994 drama Exotica doesn’t have nearly as much nudity as viewers would probably suspect. Despite the film’s somewhat salacious reputation, roughly only half the film takes place in the remarkably lavish titular gentleman’s club.
The majority of Exotica surrounds the patrons and staff of the club instead of the inner workings of the place, which is a welcome change of pace from the usual backstage drama such a setting usually invites. There’s still the backstage stuff, most of it involving the inability of Eric (Elias Koteas, looking like he made it to set just after participating in a bowling tournament), the club’s DJ and emcee, to move on from an ill fated relationship with Christina (Mia Kirshner), one of the club’s star dancers. Christina does a school girl routine that captures the eye of Francis Brown (Bruce Greenwood), a Revenue Canada worker and sad sack regular with a troubled past that sets the plot in motion without being fully revealed at first.
As if that weren’t enough, there are two more connected subplots: one involving a teenager (Sarah Polley) who’s paid by Francis to perform some sort of mysterious service that isn’t made clear until late in the film, and the other revolving around the skittish David (Don McKellar), a rare animal importer being investigated by Francis.
Despite its artistic success at the time, Egoyan’s first huge success at achieving notoriety outside of Canada might have been done a disservice by playing up the naturally expected eroticism of the film’s setting. I don’t know if I would classify Exotica first and foremost as a mystery (one where the audience investigates what’s going on, not the characters) or as a drama. One thing I wouldn’t classify it as in any way would be erotica. Aren, what do you make of the film’s decision to not pay too big of a deal to the titular setting?
Aren: I think Egoyan’s decision to refuse eroticism is part of what makes this film remarkable. As you say, Andrew, there is nudity here. Naked women crowd the backgrounds of any scene set at the Exotica club. You’d think the film would naturally play up the sexiness of the material because of the omnipresence of nudity, as do Showgirls or Flashdance or any number of films where strippers are a central component. However, Egoyan isn’t as base a filmmaker as Verhoeven or Lyne, nor does he surrender to the male gaze even if he makes the very nature of the male gaze a central interest of his film. He’s interested in why the characters seek out the erotic, but he doesn’t indulge in that eroticism.
There are a few instances when eroticism comes through, like the moments between McKellar’s David and his various male conquests at the ballet, or the brief but passionate kiss shared between Kirshner’s Christina and the owner of Exotica, Zoe (Arsinée Kahnjian), but these scenes complicate the characters and their relationships instead of merely indulging in sensuality. For example, Zoe kissing Christina could be played for sexual thrills like so many scenes of sapphic romance, but instead, it confuses our understanding of these characters and their respective relationships to Koteas’s Eric. The scene makes us rethink our assumptions about the characters and the motivations for their sexual behaviour. In a sense, this scene is Exotica in microcosm.
As well, Exotica is not sexy. It reminds me of David Cronenberg’s Crash in how it takes a step back from erotically-charged scenes and examines them with an almost-scientific detachment from the pleasure principle. The film is not interested in the pleasure or the titillation of the nudity: it’s interested in what the characters’ obsessions with the human body says about them as individuals. It ponders why Greenwood’s Francis Brown visits a strip club every week and pours out his soul like a man in a confession booth.
As you said, the film is essentially a mystery about the context of these characters’ lives. It examines the relationship between Francis and Polley’s Tracey, or how Eric met Christina during some past event outdoors. The narrative is nonlinear, which allows Egoyan to jump from the past to the present and examine these individuals before and after a defining event in their lives. What that defining event is gradually becomes clear as the film progresses, but even once it’s revealed, the film’s aura of mystery doesn’t dissipate. So, in a sense, the film is a drama that approaches its characters and their relationships as the central mysteries, instead of some crimes or past wrongdoings. It presents a bunch of character ciphers and gradually solves them to reveal something about humanity’s own relationship to sex and loneliness and voyeurism. Or am I overly simplifying things? Exotica is doing many things on many levels, but I believe this idea of mystery clarifies some of its narrative approach.
Andrew: I think you’re spot on when you suggest that the film’s air of mystery really underscores the lack of eroticism here. It’s a film that’s more interested in clever misdirection and a pervasive sense of overwhelming sadness than titillation. Not only does Egoyan not surrender to the male gaze, but even those doing the gazing are purposefully disinterested. They seem to be looking far past the pretty young pieces of flesh shaking some ass for cash right in front of their faces. With the exception of Francis, the patrons of Exotica (which, if I can be pithy for a moment, looks more like a Rainforest Cafe than a strip club) are looking for a symbol of status rather than a fantasy. It gives the other nameless patrons nothing more than a place to be seen. They pay for these things not because they get something out of it, but because they can. Taking Eric’s recent break-up with Christina out of the equation, and his laconic, half-assed introductions of the dancers act as a perfect reflection of the environment.
Outside of telling a layered, character driven mystery, I get the sense when I watch Exotica that Egoyan wants to look at the nature of social contracts. Francis, David, Tracey, and Christina have all entered into casual, non-sexual partnerships with each other. Each of them has something one of the other characters needs to get through the day. A strip club as the backdrop makes it seem like a world where anything can be bought, sold, or bartered, but Egoyan doesn’t want to take the salacious approach. I hesitate to get into spoilers, even for a 22 year old movie, but suffice to say that the needs of these characters go beyond base desires and something far more tragically human.
It had been a while since I had seen the film last, and while it’s a fine film, I’m not entirely sure the film has aged well. By the end it feels like it has about one too many plot threads, and when I rewatched it, I felt like things wrapped up a bit too neatly. The ending is complex, but part of me wishes that something was left dangling. What do you think about the film’s conclusion and climax?
Aren: I had only recently watched Exotica for the first time, so I didn’t have the same experience as you. I don’t find the conclusion of the film too neat, nor do I think it deals with more plot threads than it can handle. In fact, I think it’s excellent and I regret not having seen it sooner than when I did. I find the way it ends, and the final shot in particular, profoundly moving, but also chilling.
As for being dated, the film is certainly mid-90s in everything from decor to hairstyles to the general sense of ennui every character suffers. But Exotica is a film of the ’90s, both culturally and structurally, so I don’t hold that against it. I think it’s also possible that the ensemble drama or hyperlink drama (Babel, Crash, Traffic, etc) has become a more common narrative style in the past two decades, so a film like Exotica, with its interweaving characters and subplots, isn’t as narratively novel as it must’ve seemed in 1994.
However, I believe Exotica has more investment in its characters than any of these other films I cite. It’s not a message film about globalization or racism or the drug war. It’s about dissatisfaction, disconnection—the open wound of individual experience within society. You’re right about the film’s interest in relationships and social contracts. Egoyan uses social rituals as a means of exploring our ties to each other and the ways that trauma can bring people together even as it makes emotional connection all-but-impossible.
However, it’s not just these themes that make Exotica interesting. I also think the film is formally excellent. For instance, Egoyan’s constant framing through mirrors or windows visualizes the invisible barriers between his characters. Mychael Danna’s haunting score supplies the exoticism of the title and subject matter, while also underscoring the desperate emotions of the characters. And above all else, Exotica is a triumph of structure. Each scene builds upon the mysterious tension of the previous one while also deepening the themes and building towards the inevitable revelation about the characters. It’s also diabolical that Egoyan lets us assume the worst of everyone. The way he structures the scenes, avoiding introductions and exposition, refuses us context and makes us assume these characters are more debauched (and their relationships more sinister) than they are in reality. I think it’s a deft bait-and-switch, even if the ultimate narrative motivation for Francis Brown is fairly obvious. All around, I find Exotica fascinating and I look forward to revisiting it to further explore what Egoyan and company are up to.
Is Exotica Essential Canadian Cinema?
Andrew: To a certain degree, I’m willing to forego the neatness of the film’s climax and say that Exotica is assuredly essential Canadian cinema. While I can nitpick and (probably) successfully argue that it ties up one too many loose threads into an emotionally loaded bow for my own personal liking, something about Exotica remains ahead of its time. As you quite correctly point out, Exotica was made at a time when this sort of sprawling character drama was de rigeur, and therefore it remains one of the biggest standouts in this particular brand of dramatic subgenre.
Even at his worst (The Captive, Chloe), I’ve always admired Egoyan’s commitment to character and connection. Exotica might seem dated by modern standards in terms of the setting of the narrative, but it remains Egoyan’s most unabashedly stylized effort. There’s something routine and repetitive to the actions of the characters within the picture, so Egoyan has to make it as visually proficient as he can. He has to give his characters not just a reason to keep coming back, but also for the viewer to keep watching. There’s something hypnotic about his choice of silvery mirrors, sickly greens, and orange hewed suburban strip malls that make the few sequences in the film that take place in unique locations pop with a true sense of immediacy.
Aren: Without a doubt, Exotica is essential Canadian cinema. You’re also dead-on in saying the film is hypnotic. It put me under a spell, emotionally and formally. Watching this film finally makes me understand why Egoyan is held in such high regard in Canadian cinema, even if his recent works have been lacklustre.
As well, Exotica feels Canadian to me. It’s a great film, but it’s also a great Canadian film that engages with some central issues of Canadian art. Like with the films of Cronenberg, its preoccupation with alienation, identity, and connection make me believe the film could not have been made somewhere else. It’s a type of disaffected tragedy all our own.