Here's my fatal flaw as a film critic: After more than three decades of moviegoing, I still walk into a theater expecting the filmmaker to show me fairly quickly why I should give a damn about his protagonist. Experience has taught me that if I'm not hooked within the first five minutes, I'm probably not going to be for the duration. I start to lose interest, making the assumption the filmmaker doesn't know what he's doing and therefore isn't likely to pull things together further along. More often than not I'm right. But I have to admit that occasionally a gifted filmmaker manipulates that expectation to his advantage. That's exactly what Atom Egoyan did in Exotica. He played me.
The film derives its title from a fictitious strip club with a garden-of-Eden motif, a place where dancers gyrate amid a faux jungle milieu. In the early going, Egoyan introduces us to his protagonist, Francis (a melancholy Bruce Greenwood), an aloof tax auditor who whiles away his evenings at Exotica. Francis plays out a nightly ritual with Christina (nubile newcomer Mia Kirshner), a doe-eyed dancer who dresses like a Catholic schoolgirl in tartan skirt and knee socks. "Why would anyone want to hurt you?" he whispers while Christina grinds her hips in his face to "Everybody Knows" by Leonard Cohen. "You'll always protect me," she purrs on cue. Jealous Eric (scraggly haired Elias Koteas in a synthesis of De Niro and Keitel), the club DJ and Christina's ex-boyfriend, does a slow burn as he watches from his booth.
Now I've been to a strip club or two in my day A story research, you understand A and I've never heard Leonard Cohen, much less seen a woman attempt to doff her clothes in time to his doleful baritone. Nor have I ever wandered into a joint as high-concept as Exotica; from the stylized, hand-painted flora on the walls to the potted palms between tables, the atmosphere is so lush and steamy you can almost smell it. Imagine Rousseau decorating Solid Gold. And Leonard Cohen's isn't the only improbable music on the soundtrack; much of it resonates to the haunting Eastern melodies of the shehnai, a traditional Indian wind instrument. Exotica is, in other words, a place based more on Egoyan's vision of what strip clubs ought to be like than what they really are.
The same goes for his characters. None of them is what they seem. Everyone has a secret, and some (such as Francis) have several. He's a boring guy and a bit of a pervert who likes to play daddy. That description applies to a lot of guys I know, especially here at New Times. But then Francis apparently takes things a step further; we see him driving home a pouty A and obviously underage A Lolita type and paying her as she gets out of his car. And suddenly those of us who aren't pedophiles don't like Francis very much. So the movie begins by introducing us to a character who doesn't arouse much sympathy and a locale that feels totally artificial. Egoyan's challenge is to make us care about any of it. And damn if the savvy little bugger doesn't pull it off. But he does it gradually, at a snail's pace, peeling back the layers of his characters' personalities far more slowly than even the most languorous of Exotica's dancers sheds her raiment. Eric and Francis have their showdown, but it doesn't turn out like you'd expect, and Christina doesn't ride off into the sunset with either of them.
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I guess that's what other reviewers mean when they say things such as "Egoyan is an acquired taste" or "Egoyan has always shown a greater interest in structure than narrative." I don't know about you, but experience has taught me that when someone tells me something is "an acquired taste," it usually means I won't like it. But I did like Exotica. And as for the structure-narrative observation, well, I mean, I always thought the narrative was the thing you structured. But after seeing Exotica, I'm not sure about that, either.
Egoyan no doubt wants it that way. He's happiest when his audience is a little disoriented, but not so bewildered that they'll throw up their hands in exasperation. That way, he reasons, they'll pay closer attention than if they just sat back passively and let the filmmaker spoon-feed them entertaining pabulum. "The difference between a Hollywood film and what I do is this," the director once said. "In mainstream films you're encouraged to forget that you're watching a movie, whereas in my films you're always encouraged to remember that you're watching a collection of designed images." I'm reminded of another control-freak writer-director, Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman's Contract; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), who has admitted that he actually gets more excitement out of making movies than he does out of watching them.
But Egoyan's style is easier for me to take than Greenaway's. In addition to being quite funny at times, Exotica isn't all passionless character dissection and intricate (not to mention improbable) plot tangles. Egoyan has a knack for wringing dry humor and nifty plot twists out of quirky situations and quiet setups when you least expect them.
The movie is "about" a lot of things: role playing, compulsive behavior, voyeurism, the comfort of ritual, redemption through self-discovery. Exotica examines the line between titillation and frustration even as it walks it. Just as Egoyan is fascinated by the concept of people who would pay big money to be teased by a table dancer when they could spend less and achieve sexual gratification from a hooker, so too was I intrigued by the notion of this most circumspect of filmmakers who effortlessly can produce mainstream entertainment, a filmmaker who insists upon working the margins and delving into the psyches of a circle of troubled misfits grappling with their personal demons.