Screening Log #34: Exotica (1994)

Written and Directed by Atom Egoyan
Starring Bruce Greenwood, Mia Kirshner, and Elias Koteas

 

 

 

 

For much of my life I have been fascinated by the ways people connect beyond the obvious introductions and relationships. I often imagine putting my ear to the ground to hear the strange subterranean web woven between apparent strangers, the unpredictable ways lives collide and desire splinters. There are tensions in every relationship, most unspoken, flowing through this underground reservoir and calcified by time and habit, or relation. Who are the people in your life and how do you know them? In what ways is any relationship inflected by this knowing, and to what extent do knowledge and time sculpt any interaction?

Atom Egoyan’s Exotica is profoundly interested in these questions and is, at its heart, a profoundly earnest investigation of desire, of a pain that digs so deeply it contaminates this common reservoir. Egoyan’s narrative is mysteriously shrouded, beginning with detached introductions to various characters who frequent the strip club Exotica. The characters are laid out, their connections unspoken and vague but pulsing below every interaction. Francis Brown, Bruce Greenwood, is an agent for Canada Revenue who, by day, investigates the banks records of Thomas Pinto, Don McKellar, who owns an exotic animal store, and, by night, visits Exotica where he has an intense and intimate relationship with a dancer, Christina, Mia Kirshner, that seems miles from the sort of physical, sexual, relationship that would grow in such a setting. Eric, the club’s DJ, introduces the girls, voyeuristically watching Christina as she dances and speaks with Francis. There is something deeper in his eyes as well.

Having assembled the pieces of his plot, Egoyan slowly reveals information for the viewer and the relationships become clearer and sadder. There has been a great upheaval in Francis’ life, a tremendous loss, and the film slowly unfurls how these characters all engage in his process to cope and heal. What is at first awkward and strained and vague is pulled into focus with the patience of watching a tableau through a slowly unfogging window. The structure of Egoyan’s film, and its pacing, make its revelation of truth completely appropriate to the potentially problematic utilization of a strip club as its main location of action and plot development. The film reveals itself, seduces the attention of the viewer, and is, at its heart, concerned not with tantalization, provocation, or exploiting physical desires, but with the deeply human need for connection and healing. In much the same way that fellow Canadian David Cronenberg’s work perceives the implicit link between the surface of the body, and its desires, to deeper, emotional and intellectual needs. The person who goes to watch a woman strip, who pays for a private dance, looks not for physical excitement only, but also for a sense of connection, of being cared for, and, at heart, affirmation of worth. As Francis tells his niece Tracey, to paraphrase, “If no one has asked to be in the world, the question becomes who is asking you to stay in it.”

Exotica is perhaps one of the most strangely marketed films I have seen. The film’s box art and cover, and many summaries of it online, speak to its being an erotic thriller, promising revenge and desire, sensuality. While there is nudity in the film, and it has a frankness regarding intimate relationships of both hetero and queer varieties, to speak of the film in these terms is perversely reductionist. In a culture constructed around ideas of constraint and shame regarding sexual issues and the body – and the myopic fascination with, and alienation from, these issues that results from this attitude – it becomes impossible to tell a holistic story of desire without seeming superficially salacious. However, beyond the marketing lingo and promises of sensuality, Exotica functions as a meticulously crafted and patiently unfolding human drama, admirably acted in service of a narrative that amply rewards patience and attention.There is a common root of connection at the heart of both our physical and emotional desires, it hums beneath every interaction and, should no ground present itself, it manifests in the simple act of placing an ear on the chest of another; it is there, repeating, sanguine, in the hollow darkness beside you.

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