If you asked me what my favorite Atom Egoyan film was while I was attending film school I would have said Family Viewing (1987). At the time I was very taken with how Egoyan employed video within the narratives of Family Viewing and Speaking Parts (1989) not just as a reflexive device but also as a kind of communal memory and sensory tissue that connected the social units within those films (a hotel staff in one and a family in the other). It took me a few years and several revisits to Egoyan’s films to realize what exactly he achieved with Exotica (1994), my current favorite film by Atom Egoyan.
In place of video and its various modes of spectatorship Egoyan has opted to use physical space, a location, to unify all of the themes and the characters in Exotica. At the club, from which the title of the film is taken, space is a mysterious, dreamlike geography of fantasies. The architecture, the decor, and the palm trees all come together to create a place of distorted realities; a kind of product of collective dreaming. The name of the club and the tropical plants rhyme with the exotic pet shop while the eroticized schoolgirl outfit of one of the dancers reveals a Freudian subtext of loss and desire.
Exotica is a film of intersections between various plot lines, themes, aesthetics and even past and present. It is from this point that Egoyan’s film can branch off and explore various avenues. This structure defies the norms of traditional narrative filmmaking while simultaneously embracing that same structure’s emotional beats. In spite of the non-linear mode of storytelling Egoyan is able to escalate the tension affectively and, as in The Sweet Hereafter (1997), break the audience’s heart.
At the center of the narrative is the past traumas of Francis Brown (Bruce Greenwood). Francis’ favorite dancer at Exotica, Christina (Mia Kirshner), has links to that past and is the object of desire in the present. Caught in this cycle are Francis’ niece (Sarah Polley), Christina’s boss Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), the club’s DJ Eric (Elias Koteas), and a pet shop owner whom Francis is auditing named Thomas (Don McKellar). Though these connections seem convoluted, Egoyan is able to map and navigate them with a fluidity equal to that of Robert Altman or Terrence Malick.
The reason that Egoyan’s non-linear approach to narrative in Exotica is so effective is that it is motivated not by movement or any physical allusion towards continuity but by emotional and visual rhymes. Exotica, like Eric’s monologues, is a film borne out of intuition. Its construction as story and as visual art, while methodical, is meant to give the sensory illusion of the free-associations of an individual’s internal emotional life. The look of the club reiterates this in how it brings together disparate parts of characters’ psyches in the form of physical signifying objects within an abstract temporal space.
In the context of Egoyan’s career Exotica represented a major move away from the smaller pictures of the eighties and early nineties and into the big budget, high concept films of the second half of Egoyan’s career. Even a bad film by Egoyan tends to be fascinating because he is a film artist willing to take risks and push the envelope so that none of his films repeat themselves. Exotica is undeniably Egoyan’s first true masterpiece and hopefully the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray is able to garner some new appreciation for the film.