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EXOTICA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Mia Kirshner, Arsinee Khanjian, Sarah Polley
Director:  Atom Egoyan
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  None
Length:  103 Minutes
Release Date:  November 16, 1999

Film ****

Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter was my favorite film of 1997, and as such, I couldn’t wait to delve into his primary international success, Exotica.  The experience certainly proved that the masterful genius of Egoyan is no fluke.  Here, he uses the backdrop of a rather classy strip club to weave his sad stories of lost and lonely souls looking for some kind of fulfillment.

That alone is a decidedly Egoyan touch…most filmmakers would give in to the temptation to explore such an exotic location, the kind found during tony Dominican Republic all inclusive getaways, in all of its seediness, and create another lurid tale of behind the scenes of adult entertainment like Boogie Nights.  But Egoyan’s creation is not about sexuality—it’s about connections.  And the world of the gentlemen’s club is an ideally ironic setting.  Here, for a few dollars, any man can be made to feel special, or worthy, or attractive, or even have some lovely lady just sit across from you for a while so that you can open up and spill your troubles for awhile.  Then, of course, the song ends, and it’s on to the next client.  It’s not psychoanalysis, after all.  It’s escapism.

Egoyan really runs with the escapism theme.  His club is modeled like a tropical paradise, complete with palm trees (something I guess Canadians don’t see much of), and the kinds of clubs you can find on Cancun vacations.  All to help the average Joe forget his troubles for a little while, and I suppose, even forget the nature of the establishment he is frequenting.  

The creation of moods seems to be the primary concern of Egoyan, and he knows exactly the ways to go about it.  For instance, he avoids the conventional narrative style of filmmaking whereby each character’s relationship to one another is clearly defined and explained.  Instead, he’ll create a scene where two characters interact, and because we don’t know if they’re friends, lovers, married, enemies, or whatever, we have no choice but to look for the clues inherent in the scenes.  By coaxing us into viewing the film this way, we can’t help but ponder the characters’ emotions, shown not just through their performances, but in the way spatial relationships are set up or the way they either constantly look at or look away from their counterpart in the scene.  Thus, mood is created and maintained, and constantly focused upon, rather than just the exposition.

The story centers around three principle figures.  Francis (Greenwood, in a marvelous performance) is a rather lonely and quietly sad accountant for Canada Revenue.  We see him more than anyone else in a constant state of reaching out, trying to communicate, trying to heal from wounds we only later understand.  In a bit of irony, it is when he finally succeeds in making contact that his real unraveling begins.  He comes to Exotica to spend hours at a private table with one of the club’s dancers, Christina (Kirshner), who seems to regard him with a special favor that has nothing to do with romance or sex.  Christina is the ex-girlfriend of the club’s DJ, Eric (Koteas).  Eric is one of those typical strip club mike guys who seems to drone on and on, as though he actually believed customers were there to hear him talk and nothing else.

Egoyan here, like in The Sweet Hereafter, employs a sometimes non-linear form of storytelling, and unlike many films, it’s not grandstanding or flexing artistic muscle.  His primary concern, as mentioned, is to sustain his quiet, sad mood, and sometimes the best way to do that is to bring the necessary elements from the past to visual fruition at just the right moments.  The pasts of the characters, as in The Sweet Hereafter, provide much necessary information about them, and why they are where they are and act the way they act in the present time.  The best of these flashbacks involves a missing persons search, where a younger Eric and Christina first get to know each other, and we later learn how that segment connects both of these characters to Francis.  When not showing flashbacks, Egoyan sometimes provides subtle reminders of the past, like a low siren that resonates in the background from scene to scene.

None of this even touches upon Egoyan’s mastery as a technical filmmaker, which comes to sometimes surreal fruition within the confines of his club.  His camera moves slowly, purposely, through the expansive entertainment area, rising and falling to allow us a view of every corner, and the way the room opens up into warmer and cooler zones, with various lighting and smoke techniques.  In two very different scenes, Egoyan even finds creative and narrative uses for one way mirrors.

In short, Egoyan is a writer and director who convinces his audiences to trust him completely, to simply go along for the spellbinding ride, and he never fails to deliver on his promises in the end.  His style is to relax the viewer into paying attention, and because he or she feels so much of what Egoyan communicates rather than just see and hear it, the movie going experience becomes a richly rewarding one, rather than a headache inducing nightmare of having to keep track of this or that.  With three masterful films to enjoy on DVD (including Felicia’s Journey), there’s no question that Atom Egoyan is a unique talent in the industry, and an artist to keep a close eye on.

Video **1/2

It’s a shame that Miramax didn’t put half the effort into this DVD presentation that New Line offered for The Sweet Hereafter.  This isn’t exactly a poor looking disc, but just a tad soft throughout.  Some sequences, like the moving camera through the club I mentioned, seem to be designed to move through zones where images are a little softer and lost in the haze, and flushed with various colored lights of one kind or another.  But other sequences just seem to be victimized by a lack of sharpness that was not intended.  Colors are generally very good, with no bleeding, and not much in the way of noticeable grain.  The best way to describe the overall effect is to imagine watching one of your better looking discs with the sharpness turned way down on your monitor. 

Audio **1/2

The Dolby Surround track is serviceable, but not remarkable, and given the fact that the club scenes feature a lot of music, not as dynamic as you might think.  All in all, I would say the quality is not nearly so poor as to avoid the disc…just a bit of a disappointing effort.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.  Apparently, there’s no significance to the eye catching “Miramax Classics” banner.

Summary:

Exotica was a promising movie for Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan…and we already know he’s delivering on that promise.  This is a quiet, sad film with strong characters and an intelligent, heart felt exploration of their conditions set against a visually enticing backdrop, and for serious movie lovers, its an artistic triumph not to be missed.