The New Cult Canon: Exotica

The New Cult Canon: Exotica

"In A World Of Temptation, Obsession Is The Deadliest Desire" —tagline, Exotica

To this day, I'm convinced that neither Harvey Weinstein nor his marketing underlings at Miramax ever saw Atom Egoyan's 1995 film Exotica; either that, or they were so flummoxed over how to promote it that they decided to pretend like they had bought another movie. How else to explain the tagline, which doesn't even make sense on the face of it, let alone describe the movie adequately. "Obsession" is the only word that applies, but it's neither deadly nor a desire, and the world of Exotica, though centered largely on a strip club, has nothing to do with temptation, since its characters have more pressing things on their minds than merely getting off. Then there's the poster, with a shot of a stripper writhing under the spotlight and a pair of menacing eyes looking out from a dark background like a Dario Argento movie. It's painful to imagine all the viewers duped into believing they were getting an erotic thriller, then stumbling into dense, cerebral puzzle picture about voyeurism, memory, and loss. And it's even more painful to think of the many people who might have loved Exotica if they knew it wasn't the dumb straight-to-video softcore movie they perceived it to be.

To cut Miramax some slack for their bait-and-switch, Exotica was never going to be an easy sell, because to describe it in more than the vaguest terms would be to give the game away. (And for those who haven't seen it, please take that as your cue to skedaddle.) Egoyan's delicate conceit gives us five or so major characters, but doesn't spell out anything right away about who they are or how they might be connected. All he shows is their behavior and the often curious ways they interact, deliberately misleading the audience into assuming things that don't turn out to be true. In a way, the flagrantly deceptive marketing campaign could be said to serve Egoyan's film, after all: Believing Exotica is a sexy thriller set in a world of temptation, where obsession is the deadliest desire, isn't the worst place for an open-minded person to start. Just be prepared to have the rug pulled out from under you.

Though Exotica was probably Egoyan's breakthrough to American arthouse audiences—and if they missed it, 1997's equally superb and more overtly devastating The Sweet Hereafter was not far behind—he had already established himself as a perceptive chronicler of life in the Communication Age. As an undergrad, there wasn't a film that I championed more vigorously than Egoyan's 1989 gem Speaking Parts, which spoke to a generation raised on home video and their capacity to construct fictions—and even have relationships—with images. In Speaking Parts, for example, one character obsesses over a movie extra and repeatedly rents videos in which he appears in the background (hence the ironic title); and another tries to honor her deceased brother by writing a screenplay about him, only to watch it get compromised so thoroughly that her memories of him are corroded. In Egoyan's films, there's an invisible force field that separates one character from another, making them all voyeurs, watching and fantasizing without really interacting. When that force field is broken, it's a powerful moment, because it snaps them back to a reality that's been too painful for them to accept.

Exotica tends to draw love-it-or-hate-it reactions from people, and I suspect that may have something to do with the fact that Egoyan never puts viewers on terra firma. Instead, he casts them adrift in a mystery that's not a whodunit, but a whoarethey, and very slowly peels back the layers until they know how these characters connect and why they behave the way they do. At times, he deliberately leads us down the wrong path: Early on, Bruce Greenwood drops off a very young Sarah Polley at her apartment and hands her a wad of bills peeled from his wallet. What's he paying her for? A couple scenes before, we saw him pay for a private dance from a stripper with a schoolgirl image, so it doesn't take much to formulate a shady equation. That equation, however, would be completely wrong.

The title refers to perhaps the most anti-erotic club since the post-apocalyptic XXX cult item Café Flesh, in which so-called "Sex Negatives" (the 99% of the population that can't copulate) crowd into clubs to watch "Sex Positives" get it on. At Exotica, the fake palms and Middle Eastern grooves create a thick atmosphere that's immediately scotched by the running commentary from DJ Elias Koteas ("Bring those big, hairy palms together, gentleman…") and a stripper, played by Mia Kirshner, who performs a schoolgirl routine to Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows." Every other night, Kirshner sidles up to Greenwood, a haunted gentleman who comes only to see her, and the two have a relationship that's clearly beyond professional. In fact, Kirshner's hips sway just enough to keep management at bay; what she does for Greenwood is more personal and intimate than getting him hot and bothered. As we find out later, it's an unusual kind of therapy, though that's doesn't keep Koteas, who has a different obsession with Kirshner, from wanting to break it up. Here's Kirshner, "a sassy bit of jailbait," work her NSFW magic:

Meanwhile, Egoyan follows the seemingly inconsequential adventures of Don McKellar, a gay pet store proprietor who's first seen smuggling exotic bird eggs through customs. On his way back from the airport, he splits a cab ride with a businessman who stiffs him on the money, but gives him a pair of ballet tickets to scalp. Instead, McKellar finds an attractive man, offers him a ticket, and spends much of the show casting furtive glances toward his lap; night after night, he repeats the same pattern with a different man, pretending that he was given an extra ticket while fishing for someone to love. Back at the store, McKellar is visited by Greenwood, who pretends he's an auditor when he's really a government agent—a fact that Greenwood uses to leverage McKellar into doing him a big favor.

Beyond the tragic center of Greenwood's life—an incident that's elegantly revealed over a series of flashbacks—it's role-playing and routine that unites the characters. Greenwood can be counted on to visit the same club every other night, and arrange for exclusive lapdances from Kirshner, who obliges him in the same way after the same onstage ritual to Leonard Cohen. While he's away, Greenwood pays Polley to baby-sit at his childless house, which she does as a kindness, using the opportunity to catch up on her music lessons. For Polley and Kirshner both, allowing Greenwood to perpetuate the fantasy that his life hasn't been destroyed requires them to play roles they know are false, even dangerous, but help sustain his fragile psyche through unimaginable pain. McKellar, too, makes a habit of going to the ballet every night, quietly searching for company to relieve his loneliness and perhaps an impending sense of legal doom.

In the club, Egoyan finds the perfect setting for his ongoing concerns about the way people interact in the modern world. Voyeurism has been a pet theme for Egoyan from the beginning, in video-heavy films like Family Viewing and Speaking Parts, which are all about our complex relationship with images and the way they can supplant memory or real interaction. (There's only a tiny snippet of video footage in Exotica, but in true Egoyan fashion, it proves pivotal in the closing minutes.) The club is full of one-way mirrors, which were ostensibly installed to protect the dancers, but are used more often for the edification of those who like to watch without being seen. But more than anything, the cardinal rule of conduct—look, but don't touch—applies to every key relationship in the film, and breaking the rule requires an act of courage that can have serious consequences.

If Exotica sounds like a miserable dirge, it certainly doesn't play like one. Egoyan may not be interested in making a strip club seductive in a conventional way, but he knows how to tease you through a complicated thicket of hidden motivations, eccentric behavior, and layered achronology. (Hats off to Egoyan's cameraman Paul Sarossy for his moody lighting scheme and to composer Mychael Danna, whose sinuous non-Western score evokes the title more effectively than the club itself.) Mysteries almost always begin with an incident and then introduce the audience to various suspects and red herrings to keep them off the scent. Exotica completely reverses the formula: It buries the incident and leaves us unmoored, wondering what its characters are doing and what secret connections bind them together. And once all the puzzle pieces are finally in place, Egoyan has laid out a human mystery, and a devastating one at that.

Coming Up:

Next week: Reservoir Dogs

Dec. 25: Hiatus (Christmas)

Jan. 1: Hiatus 2: The Quickening (New Year's Day)

Jan. 8: Married To The Mob