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Exotica. What a strange and compelling movie this is. I first saw Exotica sometime in 1997. It was late at night, and I was probably half-asleep at the time, when this classic art-house offering from cult Canadian director Atom Egoyan came onscreen and started to work its magic on me. And I have been a firm Egoyan fan ever since. Exotica is a complex, “rubiks cube” of a film which is often misunderstood and sometimes billed (wrongly) as a kind of porn movie, but don’t let that fool you. While some nudity is required to meet the demands of the plot, this is ultimately a very serious film about loss, obsession, and the inability of one man to let go of his grief and move on with his shattered life. In short, if you’re on anti-depressants you might want to give this one a miss. The plot of Exotica is centred around a seedy nightclub of the same name in downtown Toronto which is frequented on a regular basis by an accountant called Francis (ably played by Bruce Greenwood). Greenwood is a sad and melancholic figure who sits at the same table each night and always asks the same girl (Christina, played by Mia Kirshner) to lap dance for him. Their dialogue and reactions to each other suggest a form of intimacy and there seems to be some kind of relationship between them, but the viewer is left uncertain of its true nature until the last reel when all the disparate strands of the film are finally pulled together in typical Egoyan style. Watching Greenwood and Kirshner from high up on his raised platform is Elias Koteas as Eric, the club’s resident DJ. He is a former lover of Christina and is jealous of Greenwood’s relationship with Kirshner which he tries to destroy. Also watching proceedings is Arsinée Khanjian (the club’s owner, and real-li
fe wife of Egoyan) who is heavily pregnant with Koteas’ child. To further spice up the plot, a lesbian relationship between herself and Kirshner is briefly hinted at during one of their scenes together, although this is never fully explored and only serves as a minor distraction to the central theme. The last principal player in this story is a gay pet shop owner called Thomas (Don McKellar). McKellar is portrayed as a lonely figure who visits the opera at night looking for someone to pick up, while during the day he’s illegally smuggling birds eggs into the country to shore up his ailing business. Greenwood, who visits his shop to audit his accounts, discovers the bird egg scam and blackmails McKellar into helping him get revenge on Koteas for trying to end his relationship with Kirshner. Through extensive and intelligent use of flashback (a favourite method of Egoyan) a picture begins to build of the early relationship between Koteas and Kirshner as we observe them searching local cornfields for Greenwood’s missing child. And its here that the child is found dead by Koteas - providing the reason for Greenwood’s grief and giving the whole movie it’s emotional driving force. Bruce Greenwood will be well known to fans of Egoyan movies as he is an old favourite of the director and the two have collaborated very successfully in other art-house pieces, including The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat. In Exotica Greenwood rightly underplays his part, and never lets his role descend into hysteria and frenzied hair-pulling which would have been the obvious route to take. Tortured by grief and emotionally shell-shocked, his character wanders zombie-like through the movie, and he proves very capable at projecting the emotional detachment of someone that has been hurt very badly and is una
ble to cope with the new reality of his shattered life. Mia Kirshner is very convincing in her role as Christina, and looks every inch the lap-dancer gyrating and cavorting to the somewhat depressing sound and lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s husky voice in “Everybody Knows”. Although her confrontational scenes with Koteas and Khanjian didn’t really work for me as they seemed to lack in dramatic intensity, her flashback scenes and final ride home with Greenwood (in which she plays a much younger version of her character) shows the versatility required of any good actress, and she can rightly be pleased with her contribution to the movie. Elias Koteas (perhaps better known for The Thin Red Line and other mainstream cinema) also does well as the jealous DJ, and the rather sleazy image he projects nicely mirrors the seedy nightclub environment in which he is forced to earn his living. Like Kirshner, he is also effective in the many flashback sequences where he plays a much younger, less worldly version of himself to good effect. In a complex drama of this type the performances of the central cast are key to the success of the movie, and as all the principal players are entirely believable in their respective roles it’s difficult to pick out a real winner in the acting stakes. However, if pushed to a choice I would have to give Greenwood my vote as his role of a grieving parent in denial literally anchors the whole movie, and without a competent performance here Exotica would not have been as watchable as it surely is. With a running time of 103 minutes it’s true that Exotica is a long movie and under Egoyan’s direction it does proceed at a stately pace. But it’s also a movie with a purpose, all of which is directed towards the final revealing scene between Greenwood
and Kirshner which knits everything nicely together and brings the movie to a satisfying close. In true art-house style, Exotica will appeal to a more thoughtful audience who will welcome the opportunity to think and reflect on what has just passed before their eyes. Exotica is like a giant visual jigsaw, each piece loving crafted by its creator, and like a jigsaw the complete picture is only revealed when the last piece has finally been put into place. Thought provoking and enigmatic, this haunting melodrama (ably scored by Mychael Danna) will no doubt benefit from repeated viewings as it can be difficult to absorb the complexities of the plot the first time around. Exotica is certainly not an uplifting film and there is no happy ending. Neither Egoyan or Exotica offer any real answers to the tragic loss of a child, but by allowing to us to observe this tragedy at close hand they do provide us with an insight into the emotional turmoil of a grieving parent and highlight the difficult questions that must be asked if any answers are to be found. This then, is the film’s gift to the audience. This is the hidden message it contains.
Centres mainly on the going-ons of the nightclub 'Exotica', where the young workers are paid to satisfy their customer's needs. Two such workers are Eric and Christina, whose sharing of experience provides them with a strong, but complex, relationship.