Exotica is a Toronto nightclub, where gentlemen come to relax, waited on by beautiful women as they watch striptease acts. You can have their personal attention at your table for just five dollars. Your DJ for the evening is Eric (Elias Koteas), who puts out an incessant and cynical running commentary. The star dancer is Christina (Mia Kirshner), Eric's former lover, who performs her act in schoolgirl uniform, to the sounds of Leonard Cohen's “Everybody Knows”.
The opening credits of Exotica play as the camera across a vista of exotic plants and foliage. The atmosphere of enclosed, smoky decadence is enhanced by Mychael Danna's score, dominated by the harsh wail of a shehnai. Ripe colours abound, especially greens, seen at their most fetid in the pet shop where Thomas (Don McKellar) works. He is involved in a scheme to smuggle rare bird eggs into the country. Francis (Bruce Greenwood) is obsessed with Christina and is a regular visitor to the club. Meanwhile, why does he pay fifteen-year-old Tracey (Sarah Polley) to sit in an empty house alone, occupying herself by playing her flute? In other scenes, soon revealed to be a flashback, a group of people, Eric and Christina among them, are trudging through a field, searching for...what or whom?
Exotica sets up one of Egoyan's most complex storylines, with something like four strands being introduced at the start, and letting us see how they all fit together over the course of the next hour and a half. I won't spoil it for you, but Egoyan parses out his character's interrelationships and backstories until the very end of the film, which sheds new light on Francis's obsession with Christina. As I mentioned regarding Egoyan's earlier film Speaking Parts the convolutions of the storyline are embedded in personal hurt and pain, and involve individual rituals to cope with loss. Earlier in his career, Egoyan had a reputation for being a filmmaker of somewhat chilly affect. There's some truth in that, especially in The Adjuster, but his best work (which would definitely include Speaking Parts and the present film) belie that. Many saw his next film, The Sweet Hereafter (the last of the six features reissued on DVD and Blu-ray by Artificial Eye) as a breakthrough in this respect, but one which was certainly prefigured earlier.
Exotica does show Egoyan moving on from some of his earlier preoccupations. After Calendar, it's hard to see how he could have gone much further in his use of technology, especially video, as a mediating force in human communication, at once enabling it and inhibiting it. (You have to wonder what he would treat this theme nowadays, given that home videotape is now an obsolete medium.) Apart from one brief scene, video does not feature in Exotica at all. But the prevailing theme of voyeurism is front and centre, not just in the club, but also in the way that Eric and the club manager Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian, who was seven months pregnant when this was filmed) observe their clientele, particularly to enforce the club's look-but-don't-touch rule. This theme is subtly introduced right at the start, as two custom officials (one of them being Egoyan regular David Hemblen) observe Thomas at the airport through one-way glass. There are also racial and sexual angles to be unpicked: Thomas, who is gay, sttends the ballet to pick up men, most often from ethnic minorities...and there's also a racial subtext revealed in the final scene. In addition to the Egoyan regulars (including Maury Chaykin from The Adjuster in an uncredited bit as an Exotica client) Victor Garber turns up in a small but significant role. Mia Kirshner, who had made her debut the year before as a dominatrix in Love and Human Remains and was eighteen when Exotica was shot, makes a striking impression as Christina, and convincingly plays a younger teenager in the flashbacks. Also look out for Sarah Polley, fifteen at the time: her role in The Sweet Hereafter would be notable for her. Paul Sarossy's cinematography makes another major contribution. While it tends to be overshadowed by the film which followed it, Exotica is one of Egoyan's major films.
Exotica is released by Artificial Eye on DVD and Blu-ray. It was the former which was provided for review and comments and the affiliate links above refer to this edition. For affiliate links for the Blu-ray go here. The DVD is dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only.
After Calendar Egoyan returned to 35mm, though unlike The Adjuster before it and The Sweet Hereafter after it, which are both in Scope, it is in a ratio of 1.85:1. As with the other 1.85:1 film in Artificial Eye's series of reissues (Speaking Parts) the transfer is opened up slightly to 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It's an excellent transfer, faithful to Egoyan's use of neon colours and blues and greens, especially in the Exotica scenes (the flashbacks are intentionally “cleaner”) and is much as I remember seeing this film, in the cinema eighteen years ago.
Exotica was made at a time when digital sound was just taking hold, and it was released with an analogue Dolby Stereo sound mix. That is the source of this disc's soundtrack, which is in Dolby Surround (2.0). There's not a great use of directional effects, with the surrounds being used mainly for music and ambience, but it's clear and well balanced. As usual, and unfortunately, an English-language film does not get hard-of-hearing subtitles.
There is an extra on this disc, and it's a substantial one. The documentary “Formulas for Seduction: The Cinema of Atom Egoyan” (51:47) was made for Channel 4 in 1999, when The Sweet Hereafter was his latest film and Felicia's Journey was in preparation. It's structured around an interview with Egoyan by Jason Wood, in which he discusses how he became a filmmaker and the themes and ideas in his work. He also acknowledges the roles of Mychael Danna and Paul Sarossy: as far as the look of the film goes, the latter is left in charge of the lighting, while Egoyan has more of an input in framing and camera movement. This documentary is a little gimmicky, beginning in silence until a hand gesture of Egoyan's launches the soundtrack. It is presented in non-anamorphic 16:0, which unfortunately means that the extracts from films in Academy Ratio or Scope are cropped to fit.