Canada claims Atom Egoyan with pride as one of the nation’s top film-makers and considers him to be a national treasure. As his biography on the website of the European Graduate School (where he is a Professor of Film) notes, he was awarded “Canada’s highest civilian recognition, Officer of the Order of Canada,” in 1999. Egoyan is also on the faculty of University of Toronto, where he did his undergraduate studies. However, he did not start out to be an academic or even a film-maker. His first ambition was to be a playwright. After he made his first short film, “Howard in Particular” (1979), which was shown at the Canadian National Exhibition film festival, he decided to write for the screen instead of the stage and made several additional films. Although this early work garnered attention at the Sundance Film Festival, “Exotica” (1994) was his first feature to attain both critical and commercial success. Egoyan wrote, directed, and produced this film, which is set in Toronto and based on his own material. He went on to receive even more acclaim for the films that followed. According to IMDB, “his most critically acclaimed picture [was] ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ (1997) and his biggest commercial success [was] the erotic thriller ‘Chloe’ (2009).” Nevertheless, “Exotica” is quintessential Egoyan, an apt example of both his early feature-length work and a showcase for his many talents as both a writer and a director.
One of the aspects of “Exotica” that makes it an Egoyan showpiece is its cast, which includes actors that have worked so frequently with the writer-director that they could be considered part of his “ensemble.” Bruce Greenwood had a major supporting role in Egoyan’s masterful and award-winning adaptation of Russell Banks’ book The Sweet Hereafter. Egoyan cast Elias Koteas in “The Adjuster” (1991) and “Ararat” (2002). Don McKellar appeared in “The Adjuster.” However, it is Arsinée Khanjian who has the longest and most intimate relationship with Egoyan. They met on the set of “Next of Kin” (1984). Khanjian also appeared in the subsequent early Egoyan features “Family Viewing” (1987) “Speaking Parts” (1989), “The Adjuster,” and “Calendar” (1993), as well as later films. She is also Egoyan’s wife.
The film’s story-line is difficult to represent accurately in a summary because it is non-linear, but this type of narrative structure is also one of the defining characteristics of Egoyan’s films. It is also evidence of the influence of the work of post-modernist playwrights Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, two of Egoyan’s early favorites. The film opens with scenes that reveal all of the major characters, but their individual back-stories and how they interrelate are made clear only in bits and pieces over the course of the film. The audience first meets Thomas (McKellar) at the Toronto airport, where he is observed by a customs inspector who is teaching a young customs officer (Calvin Green) how to detect smugglers by reading the appearance and behavior of travelers whose bags are being inspected. It turns out that Thomas is indeed smuggling contraband, although this is not revealed until after other major characters are introduced.
Thomas’ taxi ride from the airport stops at Exotica, a nightclub on the outskirts of Toronto, to drop off an assertive man who had talked Thomas into sharing the cab. He then stiffs Thomas on his share of the cab fare by giving him ballet tickets instead of cash. This serves to introduce Exotica, which is the loom on which the stories of the major characters are woven into a coherent narrative tapestry. The second major character, Christina (Mia Kirshner), walks into the scene as the taxi pulls away with Thomas. As she enters Exotica’s front door, we realize that she works there as one of its exotic dancers. If Exotica is the loom, then Christina is the shuttle (to extend the metaphor) that weaves together the warp of desire and the woof of fantasy.
Each of the other major characters can be compared and contrasted by the type and quality of relationship they have or develop with Christina. Two more of them are introduced in this scene: Zoe (Khanjian), the owner of Exotica, and Eric (Koteas), its DJ and MC. It is clear that both Zoe and Eric are preoccupied with Christina, although it is not yet clear why. Francis (Greenwood) is introduced as a regular customer at Exotica, where he engages in intensely obsessional conversations with Christina during private dances at his table amid the exotic plants of the hothouse-themed club. He is also a Revenue Canada auditor who visits Thomas the next day to do an audit of his business, a pet store with an uncanny specialization – exotic animals.
Each of these characters is tortured by memories of past betrayal (or “baggage,” as Francis puts it) that haunt him or her. Francis’ past is central to the story. His daughter was murdered; his wife died shortly thereafter. How Christina’s and Eric’s stories are related to Francis’ past is key to the future of all three, who form an obsessive, virtual menage a trois of exhibitionism and voyeurism. When competition between Francis and Eric for Christina’s attention overheats and results in Francis being kicked out of the club, Francis blackmails Thomas into helping him murder Eric. Francis is aware of Thomas’ smuggling activities and uses this knowledge against him. In this Freudian tale of eros and thanatos, it is unclear until the very end whether love or death will prevail as the solution to the psychologically-complicated, sexually-charged, frustration-tinged entanglements of all the major characters.
As a film-maker, Egoyan brings this story (which he wrote) to cinematic life in non-linear fashion through the liberal use of flashbacks, symbolic images, and recurring themes. A particularly important, extended flashback tells the story of how Eric and Christina met and eventually reveals how both characters have a past relationship with Francis. Images of exotic plants and animals intensify the exotic mystique that surrounds Christina at the Exotica. The futility of trying to change one’s fate is visually portrayed in a scene in which Eric repeatedly turns off and on the bare bulb that lights his sparsely-furnished living quarters at the Exotica. Of course, the schoolgirl is likely the most central symbol of the film, with its varied meanings, eroticized and not. This symbol highlights one of the major motifs that runs through the film, the frustration of forbidden sexual longings. As Colin McNeil of Metro News comments in a recent “revisiting” of “Exotica,”
[I]t’s a film that loves to deny. Like the eponymous strip club itself, “Exotica” is filled with the promise of sex and sexuality, but delivers none. Despite being set almost entirely in a place where women undress for money, there are no Show Girls-style cheap thrills here. In fact the club itself is downright anti-erotic.
Nevertheless, there is a resolution to this frustration and the murderous rage born from it. It involves facing and accepting the reality that one’s fantasies have been constructed to hide. In the end, all of “Exotica’s” major characters are forced to do just that, to their ultimate benefit. But one will have to watch the film to find out why and how.