Atom Egoyan: Exotica (1994) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Atom Egoyan: Exotica (1994)

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"I'll kiss it and the pain will go away."

When was the first time that you heard that?  For me, it was from my parents.  It was after ants swarmed up my leg and decided to bite my leg in unison.  Why I was there was my own fault, I was curious what they might do and I was young.  But the pain remained.  It lingered until the last bumps faded away and my memories still remain.

It's a lie.  The pain stays even after we're kissed by any number of strangers that may genuinely wish to make the hurt disappear.  This ideology is part of the sad basis of Exotica.

This is one of Egoyan's pure masterpieces.  I've found numerous bits of intellectual nuggets to latch onto here and there, but I long for the emotional connections that his films (to this point) have somewhat lacked.  He attempted a straightforward bit of pathos with The Adjuster, but didn't have the characters realized enough to fully bite onto what he was trying for.

The key is empathy.  The most affecting movies have it in spades and here is a complicated situation where there are no clear heroes or villains.  There is an antagonist, in the sense that he seems to carry the largest chip on his shoulder, but even he has the painful burden of memory on his shoulders.

At first, no one seems to be connected in any way other than the most superficial customer/provider relationships.  Francis (Bruce Greenwood) goes to a strip-club called Exotica, where the atmosphere is carefully cultivated to present an intimate exp for erience if not an altogether sexual one.  Though it's clear that sex is still on the mind of it's customers, and the low growl of Eric (Elias Koteas) the DJ makes sure it's both a distant and not altogether safe one.

It's a show, but who gets to benefit?

Francis comes to the club specifically for Christina (Mia Kirshner), Eric's ex-girlfriend who dresses like a schoolgirl and brings her hips closer and closer to Francis while Everybody Knows looms in the background and Eric glares.  There's another schoolgirl in Francis' life, Tracey (Sarah Polley), his brother's daughter who watches Francis' empty home while he watches Christina.  Seemingly unrelated is Thomas (Don McKellar), an exotic bird salesman who smuggles eggs into the country then carefully cultivates them to birth so that they can be sold into captivity.

Why is the film so interested in these seemingly disconnected people?  We know that there must be good reason for us to be following these characters, otherwise we would be wasting our time.  Egoyan unspools the secrets slowly, allowing us to get to know the burdens before we get to know the people, and to get to know the people before we really understand why everyone is like this.

The way into these characters is through their pain.  More so than in many other movies, these are terribly lonely people.  There are no apparently meaningful relationships in any of their lives.  The most direct physical intimacy comes from a mercenary relationship that Eric has with the owner of the Exotica, Zoe (Arsinee Khanjian), who arranged to pay Eric for his sperm so that she could have a child.  Everyone is paying for a fake comfort that they can keep for themselves or, in the cases of Eric and Thomas, growing those desires from the ground up and still realizing how empty that makes them.

Egoyan has graduated from the specifics of how technology can be used to create these spaces of memory and desire to how we, as people, build these memories from the ground up.  It will be hard to date Exotica, since there is little in the plot that relies on videocassettes, recordings, or any decade specific advances.  The mysteries and wonders of this movie lie exactly in the way they are so psychologically complex.

To elaborate - in Lacanian psychoanalysis there is a concept called the Other.  The Other is the imaginary "other person/being/entity" that we have to find some way to please so that we can return to a state of wholeness and bliss that's part of the uncontrollable Real.  We want what the Other has so that we can be fulfilled again, so we try and find ways to get the Other's attention and attract it to ourselves.  Whatever makes you feel desirable you attempt to amplify, sometimes to the point of self-destruction, just so that we can get another glimpse of the Other.

I haven't touched on the acting much, but everyone is finely tuned with their characters. None so much as Elias Koteas, who has the hardest and most important moment in the last few minutes.

Everyone in Exotica has been living in a guise that no longer brings them any joy, or even any catharsis - painful or no (jouissance).  Francis lost his wife and child, but still plays an "unfaithful" husband by going to the club and maintain the illusion of being a loving father by hiring out Tracey as a babysitter. But it's all a holding pattern, he gets to go to the carefully arranged life of someone ethically pure and dubious, but there's no release in either.  He's in the full grasp of the Other but can't find a way to make peace with it in such a way that allows him to move beyond the accidents that took his wife and daughters life.

If there's one "flaw" of the movie it's that the entire film revolves, in some way, around Francis' pain.  But it all stems from knowledge, from memory, and from the specific recreation of events that stand in supposed defiance of Francis' loss.  They are all witnesses to tragedies that affected them in some way - and as much as I would like to delve into them in greater detail, it's their connection to Francis and how they all come together that give the film it's emotional power.

These connections aren't entirely clear until the last few moments.  Until then, Egoyan let's the mystery linger in his technique.  Each scene brings further questions about each character, deepening the connections and just leaves further queries.  Egoyan doesn't jump through time quite as much as in Calendar or The Adjuster, but Egoyan picks the perfect moment to reveal just how much each character knows of Francis' loss and how much it has affected everyone.

All the while there's palpable sensation of steam.  The fake exotic interiors of the bird paradise give way to the plastic palm trees and pumping stereo of the club.  But there's the sense that they are burning, the visible steam of the bird store and the mist pumped into Exotica are full in view.  It's a tease, tempting us with the idea that desire can connect, but still lingering in the mist.

The kiss won't make anyone feel better.  Francis has been trying to kiss the pain away.  It's final cathartic release of pain that makes everything ok - or at least puts us on the path to thinking everyone will be ok.

Next week is The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan's crowning acheivement and the most potent examinations of loss in cinema.

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Exotica (1994)

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

Egoyan with text

Posted by Andrew

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