Director: Atom Egoyan
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Everybody knows that you’re in trouble/
Everybody knows what you’ve been through/
From the bloody cross on top of calvary/
To the beach of Malibu/
Everybody knows it’s coming apart/
Take one last look at this sacred heart/
Before it blows/
And everybody knows.
—”Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen
Grief is an emotion that many people find unbearable—unbearable to feel and unbearable to observe. Atom Egoyan, a Canadian director of Armenian ancestry, has an ethnic heritage of grief over the slaughter of 1 million of his Armenian brethren by their Turkish conquerors that seems to have informed his film explorations. The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat deal indirectly and directly with tragedy and its attendant guilt. Similarly, Exotica explores the amorphous boundaries of grief, weaving a web of connections and disconnections that brings its main characters face to face with their own illusions.
The film opens on an illusion—a two-way mirror through which customs guards observe passengers at Toronto’s airport and the guards who go through their bags. One passenger, Thomas (Don McKellar), moves directly to the mirror, seeming to examine himself, but perhaps aware that he is being examined. A customs officer being coached in how to observe (Calvin Green) moves forward, coming nearly nose to nose with Thomas, prevented from touching him only by the trick pane of glass. This motif of illusion, concealment, and barriers will play itself out not only in Thomas’ story, but also in the film’s central story.
That story’s crucible is Exotica—a gentleman’s club that trafficks in fantasy. Exotic dancers perform various types of fantasies for the audience, and for just $5 more, they will bring those fantasies to the privacy of a client’s table. Christina (Mia Kirshner), a dark-haired young woman who dances in schoolgirl clothes to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” is the particular favorite of Francis (Bruce Greenwood), who comes to the club every other night and pays to have her dance at his table or just talk. The two are watched jealously by Eric (Elias Koteas), the club’s DJ/MC and Christina’s ex-lover. Artificial caverns run behind the client booths with two-way mirrors that Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), the club’s owner, uses to watch for inappropriate behavior, specifically clients who touch the dancers. Eric frequently sits behind Francis’ table when Christina is there, watching and seething at their special relationship.
Through the use of flashback, we learn that Francis has suffered a tragic loss. His beloved daughter was murdered, and his wife died in a car crash a few weeks later, a possible suicide. Francis was implicated in the murder, but never charged. He keeps his grief in check by carrying on an illusion of normalcy. On the nights he goes to Exotica, he brings Tracey (Sarah Polley), his daughter’s babysitter, to his house where she practices on his piano, then brings her home and pays her. Tracey, disturbed by this arrangement, asks her father (Victor Garber), an old friend of Francis’, if she can stop going. “There’s no baby to sit.”
Christina, Eric, and Francis have a creepy connection as well. Eric and Christina met while on the massive search for Francis’ daughter. Christina, too, babysat for his daughter and gained consolation from him for the lack of warmth shown her by her own family. There can be no doubt that Eric finds this eroticized father-daughter type of relationship unhealthy, possibly dangerous, and this feeling and his own jealousy cause him to drive a wedge between the pair.
Thomas enters this web when Francis comes to audit the records of his pet shop and blackmails him into trying to mend the rift with Christina and the Exotica management. Thomas, it seems, has been smuggling the eggs of exotic species of birds into the country. A method he stumbled upon to pick up men snags him, unwittingly, the customs guard who observed him so closely at the airport. After a night of sex, Thomas awakens to find the eggs have vanished.
Exotica weaves coincidence into meaning, reality into illusion and back to reality again. We become aware of the hurts each character in this film has suffered, but we also learn that we can’t trust anyone too far. Eric loves Christina, but he destroys a relationship that was special to her and then seems to take her place as Francis’ consoler. Thomas rejects one man who might have been good for him, but invites the wrong one home. And then there is Francis himself. He doesn’t seem as though he could harm his daughter, but his wife’s suspicious death and his visits to the Exotica cause us to wonder more than we should. Egoyan not only has dealt with dead children before, but also incest.
Exotica is an elliptical, but nonetheless, schematic film that some may not find satisfying. I like the atmosphere it creates; the suggestion that we can find what we need, at least for a time; and its linking of sex with death. These potentially dark elements of human experience carry a charge that many filmmakers have explored, but I can think of few who have done so with such sympathy, lack of judgment, and intrigue. l