Director: Atom Egoyan
Screenplay: Atom Egoyan
Stars: Bruce Greenwood (Francis / Tax auditor), Mia Kirshner (Christina / Stripper), Don McKellar (Thomas / Petshop owner), Elias Koteas (Eric / Club’s DJ), Arsinée Khanjian (Zoe / Club owner), Victor Garber (Harold / Francis’s brother), Sarah Polley (Tracey / Harold’s daughter)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1994
Country: Canada
Exotica Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Atom Egoyan’s Exotica is a master class in complex narrative design in the service of dramatizing the depths of human emotion. A chamber drama set primarily in the eponymous strip club, which is suffused with plant life and spatially structured like a waking dream, it follows the intersecting lives of four characters, each of whom is uniquely damaged and struggling to find some kind of connection. At this point in his career, Egoyan had written and directed a half dozen feature films and established a consistent set of brooding visuals, thematic concerns with guilt and loss, and unconventional storytelling, but it was Exotica that situated him prominently within the international art-film world, a position that was briefly cemented a few years later with his brooding masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter (1997).

The story involves what appears to be a twisted love triangle. A tax auditor named Francis (Bruce Greenwood) comes every night to Exotica, where he requests an individual dance from Christina (Mia Kirschner), a danger whose schtick is dressing up like a Catholic schoolgirl. It is not hard to see that her dancing for him is not erotic despite all the conventions of the lap-dance, but rather some kind of emotional catharsis for him, as he repeatedly asks her, “How could they hurt you? How could they hurt you?” These interactions are carefully observed by Eric (Elias Koteas), the DJ who surveys the club’s landscape from his perch on a wide balcony above, where he spins melancholic techno music and speaks breathily into the microphone, providing a kind of running commentary on the nature of the club’s catering to desire (although we have already seen that Francis’s desires do not appear to be sexual in nature). We are also introduced to Thomas (Don McKellar), the owner of an exotic pet store who frequents the ballet and scalps tickets as a means of picking up men. Thomas, who wears owlish round glasses that contrast with his long face, is awkward and shy, but like everyone else on screen, he is hiding secrets and may not be all that he appears to be.

As the narrative unfolds, it reveals various intersections of these character in the past and present. Francis, for example, is auditing Thomas’s business because he is running an illegal trade in exotic bird eggs on the side. Eric has clearly had some kind of a relationship with Christina in the past, given how obsessively and jealously he watches her, but the exact nature of that relationship is only slowly revealed, as is Christina’s connection to Francis. And there are other characters, as well, including Tracey (Sarah Polley), a teenage girl who we first see in Francis’s car one night after he has visited Exotica; Francis’s brother, Harold (Victor Garber); and Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), the pregnant owner and manager of Exotica who inherited the club from her mother.

As a film that is set primarily in a space that doesn’t just privilege, but encourages—nay, relies on—the male gaze and objectification of the female body, Exotica is a film that hinges heavily on power relations, but more importantly, on their illusion. Even though Miramax, the film’s U.S. distributor, leaned hard on the strip-club imagery in their advertising during the film’s theatrical release and gave it the appearance of being an erotic thriller, there is little that is conventionally erotic in Exotica. There is a great deal of mystery in the film, but there is nothing to solve. Rather, like an onion being slowly peeled, the film’s power resides in its gradual, but intensely structure revelation, as Egoyan sets up various relationships and presents them with the bare minimum of explanation, which pushes the viewer to make suppositions, some of which turn out to be right, some of which turn out to be wrong. And it isn’t until the very end that everything falls into place, not in some simplistic “ah-ha” kind of way, but rather like an emotional jigsaw puzzle that finally reveals a full portrait, albeit one that still challenges our assumptions and may not clarify every ambiguity. At the heart of the film is Francis’s quest to heal from a past tragedy (a regular feature of Egoyan’s work), and what makes Greenwood’s performance so compelling and tricky is that he knows he is going about it in a demonstrably strange way, but can’t help himself. He is driven in ways that make emotional sense, even if they don’t quite comport with rationality and logic.

But, that is the kind of film that Exotica is: unconventional and powerful. Returning to it a quarter-century after its theatrical release, it retains all of its allure and dramatic effectiveness, but one of its major effects now is to give rise to lamentations for the unevenness of Egoyan’s subsequent career. While he has made a number of very good films in the years after, including what, in my mind, is his real masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter, his career has also been littered with well-intentioned misfires and projects he clearly took for the paycheck. He has been nothing if not productive—nine feature films, two feature documentaries, two contributions to omnibus films, three short films, and a made-for-television movie over the past 25 years. Even his most recent film, Guest of Honour (2020), which promised to be a “return to form,” felt lacking. One can only hope that Egoyan still has something up his sleeve that comes close to what he achieved in Exotica, which remains one of the great films of the ’90s.

Exotica Director-Approved Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Atom Egoyan and composer Mychael Danna
  • Video conversation between Egoyan and filmmaker and actor Sarah Polley
  • Calendar, a 1993 feature film by Egoyan, with a new introduction
  • Peep Show, a 1981 short film by Egoyan
  • En passant, a 1991 short film by Egoyan
  • Artaud Double Bill, a 2007 short film by Egoyan
  • Audio from Exotica’s 1994 Cannes Film Festival press conference, featuring Egoyan, actors Arsinée Khanjian and Bruce Greenwood, and producer Camelia Frieberg
  • Essay by author and filmmaker Jason Wood
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 20, 2022

    The image on Criterion’s Blu-ray comes from a new 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative. The stark, stylized visuals by cinematographer Paul Sarossy look outstanding, with strong detail and sharp contrast. Many of the scenes that take place inside the club are quite dark, but shadow detail and contrast are superb in delineating the space and drawing our attention to various characters and movements (in some ways it feels like a color noir). Colors don’t always pop because portions of the film are meant to look desaturated (there is a heavy emphasis on blues, greens, and teal inside the club), but where they do (such as Exotica’s neon sign outside), they do so with great clarity and intensity. The two-channel surround soundtrack was mastered from the 35mm magnetic track and likewise sounds excellent. There is plenty of moody alternative/techno music filling both channels and some directionality in the action.

    In terms of supplements, Criterion’s disc functions as a kind of “Atom Egoyan 101,” as it includes four films he directed, including the feature-length Calendar (1993), a fragmented drama about a photographer, played by Egoyan, and his wife, played by Arsinée Khanjian, travelling through Armenia to take pictures for a calendar. We also get three short films, the earliest being Peep Show (1981), which he directed when he was still a student at the University of Toronto. We also get En passant (1991), his contribution to the Canadian omnibus film Montreal vu par ... made for the city’s 350th anniversary, and Artaud Double Bill (2007), which he made for the omnibus film Chacun son cinema (To Each His Own Cinema), which was commissioned for the 60th Cannes Film Festival and also features shorts by Theodoros Angelopoulos, Olivier Assayas, and Bille August. Also on the disc is a commentary Egoyan and composer Mychael Danna recorded in 2012 for the long-out-of-print Canadian Blu-ray (which, from what I have read online, is decidedly lacking in visual quality). They have worked together on more than a dozen films going back to Family Viewing (1987), so they have a natural rapport and a lot to discuss in their collaboration on Exotica. Brand-new to Criterion’s disc is a fascinating 23-minute video conversation between Egoyan and actor Sarah Polley, who starred in both Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter and has gone on to become a substantial director in her own right (her 2007 feature debut Away From Her is utterly heartbreaking). They reminisce about making the film and discuss how Polley’s work has been influenced by her experiences working with Egoyan. And, finally, from the archives there are some short audio excerpts from the film’s 1994 Cannes press conference featuring Egoyan, actors Bruce Greenwood and Arsinee Khanjian, and producer Camelia Frieberg.

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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