Director: Atom Egoyan
Production: Ego Film Arts and Miramax Films; color, 35 mm, Spherical; running time: 104 minutes; length: 2953 meters. Filmed in Toronto, Ontario; cost: $5 million (Canadian).
Producers: Atom Egoyan, Camilia Frieberg, Robert Lantos, David J. Webb (associate); screenplay: Atom Egoyan; cinematographer: Paul Sarossy; music: Mychael Danna, Leonard Cohen; editor: Susan Shipton; production design: Linda Del Rosario, Richard Paris; art direction: Linda Del Rosario, Richard Paris; costume design: Linda Muir.
Cast: Mia Kirshner ( Christina ); Elias Koteas ( Eric ); Bruce Greenwood ( Francis Brown ); Don McKellar ( Thomas Pinto ); Victor Garber ( Harold ); Arsinée Khanjian ( Zoe ); Sarah Polley ( Tracey ); Calvin Green ( Customs Officer ); David Hemblen ( Inspector ); Peter Krantz ( Man in Taxi ); Damon D'Oliveira ( Man at Opera ); Jack Blum ( Scalper ); Billy Merasty ( Man at Opera ); Ken McDougall ( Doorman ).
Awards: Genie Awards for Best Art Direction/Set Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (McKellar), and Best Score, 1994; FIPRESCI Award, Cannes Film Festival, 1994; Best Canadian Feature Film, Toronto International Film Festival, 1994.
Egoyan, Atom, Exotica , Toronto, 1995.
Desbarats, Carole, Atom Egoyan , Paris, 1993.
Weinrichter, Antonio, Emociones formales: el cine de Atom Egoyan , Valencia, 1995.
Banning, K., "Lookin' in All the Wrong Places: The Pleasures and Dangers of Exotica ," in Take One (Toronto), no. 6, Fall 1994.
James, Caryn, "Innocence Beyond the Erotic Glimmer," in The New York Times , 24 September 1994.
Johnson, Brian D., "Exotic Atom: With Exotica , Atom Egoyan Has Become the Most Celebrated Canadian Film-Maker of His Generation," in Maclean's , vol. 107, no. 40, 3 October 1994.
Dubeau, Alain, " Exotica: l'anti-catharsis canadienne," in Séquences (Haute-Ville), no. 175, November-December 1994.
Masson, Alain, and others, "Atom Egoyan," in Positif (Paris), no. 406, December 1994.
Calhoun, John, "The New York Film Festival," in TCI , vol. 29, no. 1, January 1995.
Winters, Laura, "Atom Egoyan Is Watching Us," in Interview , vol. 25, no. 3, March 1995.
Maslin, Janet, "Bucking the System, but Still Part of the Buzz: Atom Egoyan May Have His Breakthrough in Exotica ," in The New York Times , 5 March 1995.
Harcourt, Peter, "Imaginary Images: An Examination of Atom Egoyan's Films," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), vol. 48, no. 3, Spring 1995.
Kobel, Peter, "They Like to Watch," in Entertainment Weekly , no. 267, 24 March 1995.
Edelstein, David, "Discovering Atom," in Vogue , vol. 185, no. 3, March 1995.
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Baber, Brendan, "Big Worlds in Small Packages," in Interview , vol. 27, no. 12, December 1997.
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Johnson, Brian D., "Atom's Journey: Canada's Celebrated Director Reveals the Rite of Passage Behind His Cinematic Obsessions," in Maclean's , 13 September 1999.
* * *
On the basis of Exotica alone, writer-director Atom Egoyan could rightly be called "the un-Hitchcock." Where Hitchcock takes the point of view of a particular character through whom the clearly told, well-defined plot is revealed, Egoyan is the objective observer, cutting back and forth between seemingly unconnected scenes and frequently leading the audience to make incorrect assumptions until, at last, the various strands start fitting together. Egoyan does not confuse for confusion's sake; in Exotica , form follows function, and by allowing viewers to draw their incorrect assumptions, he is illustrating that, whenever we first meet someone, we invariably draw the wrong conclusions because people are always much more complex than any set of assumptions we might make based on mere outward appearances. Egoyan is not so much concerned with revealing plot as revealing character, while dealing with such concerns as the universal need for a feeling of family, the need for sex (which in a way is an extension of the need for family), and the psychic contortions individuals undergo in order to feel whole.
The film begins with a customs inspector training a new employee. As the two look through a one-way mirror at Thomas (Don McKellar), a young man having his bags inspected, the trainer says, "You have to ask yourself what brought the person to this point. . . You have to convince yourself that this person has something hidden that you have to find." As the viewer soon discovers, every major character in the film has something hidden, including Thomas and his trainee. The film moves to the interior of Exotica, a gentlemen's club where strippers perform onstage, then do table dances for those willing to spend an extra five dollars. The beautiful young Christina (Mia Kirshner) comes onstage wearing a schoolgirl's uniform, and when she begins her table dance for the middle-aged, bearded Francis (Bruce Greenwood), most viewers make the same assumptions about the dynamic involved, assumptions that prove to be totally wrong. When Francis is seen paying another young woman while dropping her off in a seedy section of town, more assumptions can be drawn— the single discordant note being when Francis says to the girl, "Say hi to your dad." Other major characters include the strip club's pregnant female owner, Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), and the club's emcee, Eric (Elias Koteas), who was once Christina's lover. How these various plot strands weave together tells volumes about all the characters involved.
The film brings together a number of ideas Egoyan had been toying with for years. As a youth he was involved with a girl he later learned was a victim of child abuse. In the film, Christina was abused, and her dancing is a parody of her own sexual identity as she attempts to convince herself that that part of herself which has been destroyed is suitable for mockery, and therefore trivial; otherwise it would be too painful to deal with. Egoyan was also fascinated by such awkward encounters as those between a table dancer and the man watching her, or between a father and the baby sitter he is driving home—a situation Egoyan has referred to as "the first encounter many adolescent women have with older men" and "fraught with sexual tension." In both cases there is little to be said, yet small talk seems mandatory because without it the tension, the weirdness of the situation, would become unbearable. Egoyan agrees with Andrei Tarkovsky's description of film as "sculpting in time," and one of the things that makes this film so intriguing is what he has chosen not to show. We see Eric and Christina before and after their relationship, but never during their relationship. We see the bizarre ritual that Christina and Eric repeatedly play out, but never how it evolved.
According to Egoyan, all the relationships in the film are defined by the exchange of money because money "makes tangible that which is too terrifyingly abstract otherwise." Asking a woman to dance at your table or to baby-sit your nonexistent child may be grotesque or pathological but, by putting a dollar amount on the act, it begins to seem as normal as anything else in a market economy. "It's a way of saying, 'Hey! This is quite normal, because I pay for it." And in this and other films, Egoyan has had an interesting slant on such "normal" jobs as insurance adjuster (in his film The Adjuster ) or tax auditor or customs inspector (in Exotica ). As Egoyan told the New York Times , "From the outside these may appear to be very banal, but they're jobs that are infused with all sorts of psychological needs. They involve digging into someone else's life, and they're a way of legitimizing what might otherwise be pathological behavior." All his characters demonstrate extraordinary impulses beneath mundane surfaces.
Egoyan's particular genius here is his ability to weave these and other interests and concerns into a coherent work of art that illuminates the human condition, while creating a film language unlike anything preceding it, perhaps helping the cinema to break further away from its written-word and theatrical-stage antecedents. Exotica won the International Critics' Prize at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and top awards in Belgium and France; it swept the Genies in Canada; both Siskel and Ebert put it on their Top Ten lists; and it was also a commercial success, indicating that it may very well influence future filmmakers. Exotica shows how much a film's structure may be bent while remaining coherent and, more importantly, it suggests new structures for films far removed from mere storytelling—films that are fragmented and elusive, and therefore a better reflection of how we know and feel about the real people in our lives, as opposed to fictional characters. While simple structures may be optimal for relating plots, something more complex may be needed to relate character. As Egoyan himself has said, "There's nothing simple about representing a human being."