Director: Atom Egoyan
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
‘Exotica’ features a non-linear narrative, including flashbacks. A series of characters’ lives are interconnected through the Exotica gentleman’s club. Thomas, a gay pet shop owner, smuggles eggs by endangered species into the country. Christina is a young dancer at the Exotica. She is the preferred personal dancer of Francis, a troubled middle aged man whose mind is not on sex but on something more substantial. Christina’s ex-lover Eric is the club’s DJ, who is clearly not happy with the end of their relationship and jealously watches Christina’s dances with her clients.
Francis, a tax auditor investigates Thomas’s accounts, realising that he oversees a smuggling operation. Eric convinces Francis to touch Christina, even though this is against the policy of the club, and when Francis does so, Eric throws him out. Francis offers to overlook Thomas’s smuggling if he visits Exotica to speak to Christina and assist him killing Eric. Francis’s final showdown with Eric reveals the relationship between the characters that had been increasingly suggested. Christina was Francis’s babysitter a few years before. Francis knew she had problems at home and has looked out for her ever since. Francis’s unfaithful wife and daughter were killed in a car accident, found by Christina and Eric who had just met. Francis and Eric embrace in mutual empathy.
Nominated for the Palme D’Or in 1994, where Egoyan won the FIPRESCI prize, ‘Exotica’ remains the director’s most acclaimed film and perhaps the best and most subtle examination of the themes which many of Egoyan’s films have concentrated upon, including sexual fantasy and sensuality, obsession and melancholy, and trauma and healing.
One of the strengths of ‘Exotica’ is Egoyan’s confident use of non-linear narrative, a device which can be self-indulgent and risky, but in the case of ‘Exotica’, it does not just work but is absolutely necessary. As ‘Exotica’ begins and progresses, the relationships between Francis, Christina and Eric become more apparent, partly due to the use of flashback, and only in the final scenes are these relationships fully realised and explained. Since Egoyan provides information gradually, we ask ourselves various questions about the motives of the film’s protagonists, and then we must continually revise our assumptions and judgements about them. Most notably, we are continually considering what the relationship between Christina and Francis is. It clearly is not sexual, more a mutual understanding but it later becomes apparent, and this relationship inparticular highlights how successfully Egoyan manages his labyrinth narrative. Interweaving narratives are nothing new in cinema; jumping from one character to another, from one location to another, but ‘Exotica’ uses this structure as the means to sense the urgency of its characters and the circumstances that create the ‘present’.
This technique also allows Egoyan to explore the issue of memory, one of the key themes of the film. Flashbacks frequently occur during ‘present’ conversations between characters. For instance, one scene involving Eric and Christina cuts to their first meeting a few years ago, and the conversation from the first meeting overlaps into the present scene. Francis in particular is haunted by memory; his rememberance of his family and past life is solely demonstrated by home movie footage of his wife and daughter during happier times, and this scene juxtaposes with the present increasingly more as the film progresses, culminating in the scene being revealed as it really took place.
Egoyan also uses his camera in interesting ways to further enhance his ideas. The first time we see the Exotica nightclub is with an extend tracking shot from the rear of the nightclub to the centre stage, revealing a lurid and ornate environment. The scenes within Exotica uses a roaming camera on most instances; certainly more so than the more conventional use of camera movement outside of the nightclub. Exotica is the place where these characters all connect, less so in the ‘outside world’. Equally intriguing are the camera angles he uses within the nightclub to demonstrate the tense relationship between ex-lovers Eric and Christina. Eric intensely observes Christina’s dances for her clients, and these are usually shown from a bird’s eye view so to speak, to reflect Eric’s jealous gaze.
For a film set in a strip club, complete with nude dancing, there’s a fiercely unerotic undercurrent to the film. ‘Exotica’ is too concerned with the melancholy and trauma of its protagonists to offer cheap sexual thrills. Christina’s dancing is soundtracked by Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’, a curious selection of music. As Eric suggests, the Exotica nightclub is therapy, it heals. Francis’s need to visit the nightclub is not motivated by sexual interest, but the bond that emerges between him and Christina, which is revealed to us as a paternal protection when it is implied that Christina had problems at home. In the aftermath of his tragic loss, this bond is all he has – note how paying Christina to dance for him echoes the fact she used to babysit for him. For Francis, maybe this arrangement is an act of continuity after tragedy or a memory he can maintain from before his world fell apart.
‘Exotica’ is an esoteric thriller, encompassing adult themes that Egoyan has spent his entire directorial career investigating, and the results are incredibly moving and effective. The film inhabits its own universe, exemplified by the eponymous nightclub, rather than existing as an exercise in realism. There is a distinct dream-like feel to ‘Exotica’, the world where these damaged individuals live, the only place where they can confront or resolve their demons. Egoyan’s form of storytelling allows the characters and their respective stories to develop and his resolution of their mutual dependency seems genuine. ‘Exotica’ though is a film that rightfully leaves just as many questions unanswered as it seeks to answer.