During a question-and-answer session with the audience following the screening of the film Exotica at the Miami Film Festival in February, someone asked writer-director Atom Egoyan whether a closing shot of a troubled young woman entering an ominous-looking house signified that the woman was a murderer. Egoyan raised an eyebrow as if to suggest that the question was absurd, which elicited a big laugh from the crowd. I didn't laugh, though. I was about to ask exactly the same question.
In fact, I was so troubled by the director's glib response to what I felt was a perfectly legitimate inquiry that I quizzed him about it during a more intimate press interview the following day. This time the eyebrow stayed put and Egoyan took the question seriously.
"That's a very dark view of the ending," he responded. "It makes perverse sense, but it's not my view of what [the character] is about. But she's a disturbed young woman, and if she's capable of finding the body of this girl that she babysat in a school uniform -- and then to wear the uniform in a strip club to empower herself -- then I suppose she might be capable of murder as well."
After mulling it over a moment longer, the Canadian auteur added, "To me what the ending is all about is that after all the twisted, tormented relationships you see, at the center of it all was a very pure relationship. But you have to allow interpretation. You have to be very careful as the director. As soon as something comes out of your mouth, people go, 'Oh, so that's what it's supposed to be.' That's dangerous. The whole thing is supposed to be an invitation to the viewer to examine their own belief system. You're inviting the viewer to participate. You can't then close it down and say, 'This is the true meaning.'"
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Exotica revels in ambiguity and contradiction. Much of the action takes place in a strip club, with lithe nude female bodies filling the screen. And yet the effect is more ennui than titillation. Much of that is no doubt attributable to Egoyan's clinical approach to his subject matter.
"You can't lose yourself in the sexuality of the film because the characters are so disturbed," the director theorizes. "At the same time, the score is very sensual and the club is very beautiful to look at. I had a choice. When I wrote the script I went around to all the clubs I knew and they were very depressing places and I wondered why they were like that. I realized I had the possibility of creating a club as seductive as the dancers in it, and that led to the whole design of the film. And I think at the very beginning of the film, the first time you see [the strip club] it's the most seductive because you're not sure quite what the psychology is."
Egoyan admits to a few tense moments when reality threatened to intrude upon his fantasy nudie bar, however. "A lot of women who appear in the film are real strippers," he reveals. "They had a lot of weird people hanging around them on the set A managers, psychotic boyfriends, Doberman pinschers. And they're all wondering what this woman who doesn't look like a stripper [Mia Kirshner, who plays Christina] was doing in the center of it. I don't think Mia realized what she was up against until the first day she walked onto the set and saw all these male extras waiting to watch her, and saw all the real dancers who were very comfortable with their naked bodies. I think she did a remarkable job, but it was a very difficult shoot. The tension, much of it directed toward her, was palpable."
But creating and exploiting dramatic tension is Egoyan's metier. In this film he adroitly balances telling a story and simultaneously deconstructing it. "I'm interested in exploring at what point you are content to just watch something in life, and at what point you decide to actually involve yourself," he explains. "At what point does one go from being a voyeur or a spectator to taking action? Implicated in that, of course, is the spectator of the film. At what point do you just watch these images, and at what point do you involve yourself with them? It has to do with trust. At what point do you trust that the filmmaker has a narrative to tell and has characters that are worthy of your dramatic attention? That's a big question, and I really like to play with it.