Filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s mid-’90s peak remains unparalleled
In Atom Egoyan’s (Remember, Chloe, Ararat) career-redefining fifth, feature-length film, Exotica, a Toronto-based strip club, also called “Exotica,” becomes a literal and figurative microcosm for an exploration of ‘90s-era sexuality, performative and otherwise, and the essentially transactional nature of personal and professional relationships typical of late-stage capitalism. It’s intentional, not accidental, that practically every conversation in Exotica ends with either an exchange of money, the promise of money, or a revelation tied to a contract involving money. And if every relationship is essentially transactional and therefore, driven purely by self-interest, there’s little, if any, room for altruism, compassion, or empathy.
Exotica certainly isn’t as bleak or nihilistic as the preceding observation suggests, but it certainly comes close as it follows several characters, each one damaged in his or her own unique way, as their paths cross, uncross, and cross again. As the strip club centers the narrative in a reality-adjacent place and time, Francis Brown (Bruce Greenwood), a tax auditor for the Canadian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, functions as the pivot point or hub around which the other characters move. Both more and less than an auditor, Francis obviously suffers from deep, unresolved trauma. It’s in every word he doesn’t say. It’s in every look that suggests he’s never fully present, but lingering on a past he can’t change. And it’s in the wildly irrational actions he undertakes in the third act to recover an illusory sense of rationality and stability.
Several other characters circulate or orbit Francis, beginning with Christina (Mia Kirshner), the stripper whose onstage schoolgirl routine resembles an automaton going through pre-programmed motions, but whose interactions with Francis reveal a tenderness and vulnerability otherwise missing from her interactions with other customers. Their interactions run contrary to the superficial nature of their relationship, an exchange of feigned physical and sexual intimacy (strippers can touch, but can’t be touched) for cold, hard cash ($5 Canadian per lap dance).
Francis and Christina share a history that precedes and transcends the strip club or their interactions there, but Egoyan, a strong believer/follower of European Art Cinema and its ambiguity-favoring rules, keeps the exact nature of their relationship deliberately unclear until the final, devastating moments. Christina’s ex-lover and the club’s main DJ, Eric (Elias Koteas), however, sees Francis and his obsession with Christina as a threat, both to a renewed, if unlikely, romantic relationship with Christina as someone who perceives himself as a white male savior, rescuing Christina from Francis’s unsavory predations.
Keeping exposition to a bare, essential minimum, Egoyan presents Francis’s relationship with Tracey (Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell, The Sweet Hereafter). Francis periodically drops the teenage Tracey off at a rundown apartment overlooking a convenience store. Their awkward, clumsy conversations end with Francis offering Tracey money, Tracey’s performative reluctance, followed by Tracey grabbing the money from Francis’s hand, and all but running away from his needy, desperate presence. There too, Egoyan withholds key information, specifically the nature of their relationship, as late as possible in the narrative, forcing viewers to revisit and reconfigure any preconceptions they might have about Francis as a character. Spoiler: He’s filled with the contradictions and complexities that make him relatably human.
Eventually, Francis brings another character, Thomas (Don McKellar), a pet shop owner with a lucrative side business as a rare-egg smuggler, into the narrative, first as the subject of an audit and later as a potential co-conspirator in a plot to determine how and why the strip club’s owner, Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan’s longtime personal and creative partner), decided to redefine Francis’s relationship with both Christina and the club itself. Zoe isn’t without a not-so-hidden agenda herself. As a single woman nearing the end of her first pregnancy, she sees Eric as more than an employee and Christina as more than a surrogate daughter figure.
Exotica’s characters, subplots, and relationships finally converge in a revelatory flashback near the end of the film. Egoyan teases that flashback, however, from the first moments on, returning to the flashback repeatedly, each time expanding on what we’ve seen and heard before. Not surprisingly, the revelatory scene connects Francis, Eric, and Christina in a way that’s both unexpected and entirely inevitable, ultimately suggesting that shared grief and loss can help overcome the kind of trauma that can irrevocably alter lives and relationships.
DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Atom Egoyan and director of photography Paul Sarossy, with 2.0 surround
- DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary featuring Egoyan and composer Mychael Danna
- New conversation between Egoyan and filmmaker and actor Sarah Polley
- Calendar, a 1993 feature film by Egoyan, with a new introduction
- Peep Show, a 1981 short film by Egoyan
- En passant, a 1991 short film by Egoyan featuring Maury Chaykin and Arsinée Khanjian
- Artaud Double Bill, a 2007 short film by Egoyan, commissioned for the sixtieth anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival
- Audio from Exotica’s 1994 Cannes Film Festival press conference, featuring Egoyan, Khanjian, actor Bruce Greenwood, and producer Camelia Frieberg
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by author and filmmaker Jason Wood
New cover by David de las Heras