Atom Egoyan’s EXOTICA (1994)

DVD Cover for EXOTICA (1994)
DVD Cover for EXOTICA (1994) — image source: IMDb

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.

EXOTICA writer-director-producer Atom Egoyan
EXOTICA writer-director-producer Atom Egoyan

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.

Arsinée Khanjian as Zoe in EXOTICA (1994) -- image source: Deep Focus
Arsinée Khanjian as Zoe in EXOTICA (1994) — image source: Deep Focus

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.

EXOTICA (1994): Christina (Mia Kirschner) and Thomas (Don McKellar) at the Exotica
EXOTICA (1994): Christina (Mia Kirschner) and Thomas (Don McKellar) at the Exotica

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.

EXOTICA (1994): Elias Koteas as Eric
EXOTICA (1994): Elias Koteas as Eric — image source: Arsenevich blog

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.

Bruce Greenwood as Francis in EXOTICA (1994)
Bruce Greenwood as Francis in EXOTICA (1994) — image source: And So It Begins

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.

This post is part of the “O Canada” Blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy.

9 thoughts on “Atom Egoyan’s EXOTICA (1994)

  1. I’ve not seen this one, but you’ve made it sound irresistable!

    We Canadians are very proud of Atom Eyogan, and I’m so pleased you joined our blogathon with a look at his career and the film Exotica.

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    1. Thanks! I am a big fan of Canada and its film industry, so I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the “O Canada!” blogathon.

      You should watch “Exotica” when you get a chance — it’s really much more than an erotic thriller. It’s really a character-driven drama in disguise.

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  2. I must admit, I was not a fan of Egoyan until EXOTICA. I recognized he was a unique filmmaker, but to me, his non-linear storytelling and symbolism felt heavy-handed and in service of little more than self-indulgence. In EXOTICA, however, he put all of that in the service of real human beings and emotion for the first time, or at least that’s how it felt to me. I wasn’t a fan of the subplot involving Don McKellar, if only because I find him rather flat as an actor (I prefer him as a writer), but everything else works so well. The way the strip club looks, the creepy monotone of Eric’s patter, the use of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” as Christina’s signature song, the relationships Christina has between Eric, Francis and Zoe, and the way everything builds up to a powerful conclusion, all affected me more than anything Egoyan had done to that point. Credit should also go to the rest of the cast; Kirshner’s never been better, Koteas is great at going between creepy and sympathetic, Greenwood is heartbreaking, Khanjian is also very good, plus there’s good work from Sarah Polley and Victor Garber in small but crucial roles. Anyway, nice write-up.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! You point out many aspects of the film that I wish I had thought to write about.

      I agree with you that “Exotica” is much more of a character-driven drama about real human beings with real emotions than some of Egoyan’s other films. He is famous for the “clinical detachment” of his films. I’m very happy that this characteristic does not come through in “Exotica” — except, as you point out, in the subplot involving Don McKellar’s character.

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  3. I like your use of the loom comparison. So glad Egoyan got coverage in this event because as you say he’s so important and his movies like this one, ripe for analysis. And you’ve done a fine job with that, you have a great way of writing and I thank you for joining us!

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  4. I still think this ranks as one of Egoyan’s best films. No matter how many times I see it, the film captivates me the same way it did upon my very first viewing.

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