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ReFramed #22: Atom Egoyan's 'Exotica' (1994)

Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

In this installment, ReFramed remembers the breakout film from one of Canada's leading pre-millennial masters, a filmmaker who, sadly, seems to have slowly drifted from the critical consciousness.


Director: Atom Egoyan
Cast: Mia Kirshner, Elias Koteas, Sarah Polley, Victor Garber, Bruce Greenwood
Studio: Miramax
Year: 1994
US date: 1994-05-16 (General release)

Jordan Cronk: Armenian-bred, Canadian-raised indie film figurehead Atom Egoyan has carved one of the more interesting, unpredictable, and sometimes out-and-out baffling thirty-year careers in modern cinema. As his bio might suggest, Egoyan's spent time exploring the extremes of his lineage, occasionally even working in his native country, but the dramatic narratives he scripted and shot within the Canadian borders throughout the 1990s represent the heart of his work. These films—specifically 1991's The Adjuster, 1994's Exotica, and 1997's The Sweet Hereafter—were rightfully lauded and relatively popular for early North American indie filmmaking efforts, but as Egoyan's career has somewhat floundered in the wake of his breakthrough, these pictures have slowly drifted from the critical consciousness.

So what we have, paradoxically for ReFramed purposes, is a filmmaker rightly acknowledged in his time—there may not have been a better filmmaker consistently working in North American in the mid-'90s—but one who doesn't seem to garner the same wide consideration nowadays. Egoyan's brand of deeply felt, mood-oriented cinema, which lends itself rather easily to accusations of melodrama, could be part of the issue, as critics and audiences have tended to recoil from these gestures in the wake of, say, Sam Mendes. But what's remarkable about his work is how tangibly identifiable it can still feel despite narratives which traffic in the sort of dramatics which everyday humanity will likely never experience.

Arguably the best and most thought-provoking of these works is Exotica, a sensual, provocative character excavation which proved to be Egoyan's breakthrough. A non-linear narrative with shades of grand tragedy, the film remains a soulful, probing study of lasting bonds and human interconnectedness. What's brilliant about it, though, is how it's most complex elements never draw attention to themselves, and instead work toward an immersive atmosphere unlike any film I can name. From the opening credits the film casts a unique spell, and from my vantage I don't see how one easily forgets what transpires over the next 100 minutes, but apparently a combination of factors have brought the film back towards the sidelines. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be, Calum? Or is my perspective on Egoyan perhaps subjectively skewed toward these works?

Calum Marsh: I was thinking that my perspective would be the necessarily skewed one, Jordan, since I grew up and went to film school in Canada, where Egoyan, like David Cronenberg and Guy Maddin, is considered something of a national treasure, and so won’t ever truly disappear from the cultural consciousness. Whenever Egoyan releases a new film—even a widely panned one like 2009’s melodramatic Chloe—our mainstream media bends over backward to promote it, because everybody here wants to score a homegrown success and a new Egoyan film used to seem like a sure thing. It’s telling that of the twelve or so films I saw in my University’s only Canadian Cinema class, a whopping four were directed by Egoyan, and I even first saw The Sweet Hereafter at a special screening hosted my high school. So he’s not exactly forgotten in Canada.

That said, his special status here could be considered an insidious form of ghettoization, and more savvy Canadian film fans are leery of being spoon-fed domestic favorites just because they’re “ours”. There’s a sense that the value of Egoyan’s classics is almost too institutionalized here, which might prevent a Canadian cinephile from happening upon their greatness incidentally. Maybe all non-Hollywood national cinemas face this problem with their own country’s greats, and maybe if we were Swedish we’d be sick of hearing about Bergman for similar reasons. That means there’s work to be done to reclaim Egoyan as a true master even in a country where everybody knows his name. And there’s no better place to begin than with Exotica, the most cogent and exciting summation of his particular talents as a filmmaker and one of my favorite films of the '90s.

Extremely well-received when it was released in 1994, Exotica tells the story of a group of people whose lives were deeply affected by the death of a young girl several years earlier, but it tells this story slowly and obliquely. As you mentioned, atmosphere is the defining feature of Egoyan’s visual style, and the particular look and feel of the film is unforgettable. Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” plays a central role in the narrative, its repetition acting as an emotional cue, and like that song Exotica is dark, sensual, and immensely seductive.

It’s funny that you mentioned Sam Mendes—and maybe you already scared our readers away with that comparison—but for me a closer contemporary is Wong Kar-wai, whose mid-90s romantic dramas milked mood to similar effect. I think because Exotica (and The Sweet Hereafter) tell such memorable stories, people tend to forget how pronounced and perhaps even radical Egoyan’s films are formally—and we haven’t mentioned Calendar, from 1993, which in terms of form and structure is practically an experimental feature.

Cronk: We've talked about so many Los Angeles-set films in this series that I'm glad we've finally gotten around to your neck of the woods with these last couple discussions. And you can correct me if I'm wrong since I've never been to Canada, but Egoyan's films feel very Canadian. Cronenberg's do too, to an extent, but there's a palpable sense of place and landscape in Egoyan’s work and in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter in particular that’s very tactile. This is obviously an intended effect, spurred on by Egoyan's consistently loyal use of Canadian character actors, but the frigid feel of these mid-'90s films plays as almost one-of-a-kind (at least to an outsider), even in relation to other films set in Canada or made by Canadian filmmakers.

That said, Exotica is set mostly indoors, and the visual style deployed throughout these alternately cramped (the exotic pet store run by the ambiguously defined smuggler Thomas Pinto) and expansive sets (the Exotica strip club) could be used as a film school lesson in mise-en-scène: objects become symbols, characters become ciphers, while Egoyan's camera nimbly glides between and within story strands. A commenter on a film website recently described the approach as "unfolding like a striptease," which is appropriate for a number of reasons, but it speaks most generously to Egoyan's patient deployment of information.

Like you mention, this is a very complex screenplay, but what I admire about it in relation to some of the more overtly showy interlocked narratives displayed in the concurrent work of guys like Quentin Tarantino is how it never draws attention to itself. And this goes back to the atmospheric approach I think. One of the few outdoors sequences—a carefully deployed series of scenes outlining the introduction of two of the films main characters as they trek across a rolling hillside with a search party—deploys imagery worthy of no one less than Terrence Malick. It plays like a dream.

But it's also important to note how un-sexual the film is, despite its obviously sensual nature. In fact, there's no sex in the film at all. Egoyan's symbolism is laid bare in no uncertain terms, but his command of the narrative and the confidence in his stylistic approach ends up inverting odd character touches and coincidental screenplay strokes into a tense, methodical unveiling of the human condition—which elevates this stuff above some of the prior comparisons we've made. It's like the world of Exotica is its own self-contained universe, and with each viewing I find myself discovering new character nuances or subtle physical movements on the part of the actors that really do make this one of the richest cinematic experiences I know.

Marsh: Oh, absolutely, but what's interesting is that its subtlety is so easy to overlook, because the narrative resolution (and emotional catharsis) it builds toward eclipses just about everything else. As you mentioned, there are other filmmakers working with interlocking, multi-character screenplays during the same period, but in Exotica the structural conceit never plays out like a trick or a gimmick—you can sense that it's developed organically, and when the pieces finally snap into place the revelation that comes into focus feels totally earned. I suppose the closest analog I can think of is P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, which also had its characters gravitate around one another through fate and coincidence, but even then, Exotica arguably does more in 103 minutes than Magnolia manages to squeeze into double the running time.

To go back for a moment to what you were saying about the film's lack of sex, we should probably point out that a denial or rejection of the sex act is at least partly what Exotica is all about. It's not unlike Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut in that regard, another film we've discussed at length in this column: though it's remembered for being sexually charged, an inability for the characters to fulfill the promise of sex offered by the narrative—and for the audience by the film itself, in a sense—is central to the psychological and emotional effect of both of those films. So no, insofar as we never actually see a character having intercourse, sex is never explicated, but it's both proposed and explicitly denied by characters often enough that it's very much the focus.

The protagonist, Francis Brown (played by Bruce Greenwood, who after his revelatory turn in Meek's Cutoff last year is finally getting his due), has an initially ambiguous relationship with a young stripper, whose daily dances he forces himself to endure as a ritual act of temptation and denial. Eric, a DJ played by Elias Koteas, is forced to watch his ex-girlfriend perform for customers at the same strip club, denying what he once had.

And Don McKellar's Thomas Pinto, as you mentioned, is never clearly defined, but he engages in an elaborate ritual of his own involving spare opera tickets and liaisons with the men who take them, refusing to act openly—his secret and the ritual which supports becomes an act of self-denial and repression. It’s interesting that a film without sex would be so heavily oriented around the nature of denying the act itself, and it’s even more interesting that the film would garner a reputation for being so deeply sensual and sexual.

Cronk: Indeed it is, and perhaps marketing and the film's title played a part in its reputation, which is unfortunate. I'd like to talk about the "narrative resolution (and emotional catharsis)" the film builds toward, which you mention. There's a more obvious climax concerning a potential murder in the film's penultimate scene, but Egoyan had a unique skill with ending his films at this point in his career, something that has kept a few of his more recent works from satisfying in a similar manner. Perhaps not as transcendent as the finale of The Sweet Hereafter (few things are) but the quiet final moments of Exotica are equally thought-provoking. In fact, the final scene nearly re-aligns the actions of every main character in the film.

But without getting into detail, the information imparted is not surprising so much as illuminating, the final piece of a narrative puzzle that the audience wouldn't even think they'd need to make the plot feel satisfying, the emotional denouement having already essentially been reached. It's one of my favorite endings in modern film; first, because it so enriches the prior 90 minutes, but also for its quiet grace and calmly heartrending sense of final disclosure. The final shot lingers on a suburban home for a number of seconds, and that time is needed not only to piece together the implications of this situation/flashback, but also to breathe once again before the air is sucked out one last time as the final credits roll. It really is a masterful, emotional touch.

Marsh: Yes, it really is stellar. I think Egoyan had been building toward that kind of mastery for awhile, which his prior film, the aforementioned Calendar, helping him perfect his formal and structural prowess. Calendar is a film that's all about the cleverness of its own construction, and I think with Exotica Egoyan finally figured out how to apply that kind of ingenuity to a narrative that had the emotional weight to support it. The result is both mildly experimental—there still aren't many films that unfold quite like this—and traditionally satisfying, pulling us into an almost classically tragic story and delivering characters who feel as real as any ever written. That, I think, is what makes Exotica more than a gimmicky exercise, and it's what makes it so worth rediscovering now.

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